05/14/1997 07:00:00

Caltech Astronomers Crack the Puzzle of Cosmic Gamma-Ray Bursts

Additional Images can be obtained on the Caltech astronomy web site at http://astro.caltech.edu

PASADENA—A team of Caltech astronomers has pinpointed a gamma-ray burst several billion light-years away from the Milky Way. The team was following up on a discovery made by the Italian/Dutch satellite BeppoSAX.

The results demonstrate for the first time that at least some of the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts that have puzzled astronomers for decades are extragalactic in origin.

The team has announced the results in the International Astronomical Union Circular, which is the primary means by which astronomers alert their colleagues of transient phenomena. The results will be published in scientific journals at a later date.

Mark Metzger, a Caltech astronomy professor, said he was thrilled by the result. "When I finished analyzing the spectrum and saw features, I knew we had finally caught it. It was a stunning moment of revelation. Such events happen only a few times in the life of a scientist."

According to Dr. Shri Kulkarni, an astronomy professor at Caltech and another team member, gamma-ray bursts occur a couple of times a day. These brilliant flashes seem to appear from random directions in space and typically last a few seconds.

"After hunting clues to these bursts for so many years, we now know that the bursts are in fact incredibly energetic events," said Kulkarni.

For team member and astronomy professor George Djorgovski, "Gamma-ray bursts are one of the great mysteries of science. It is wonderful to contribute to its unraveling."

The bursts of high-energy radiation were first discovered by military satellites almost 30 years ago, but so far their origin has remained a mystery. New information came in recent years from NASA's Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory satellite, which has so far detected several thousand bursts. Nonetheless, the fundamental question of where the bursts came from remained unanswered.

Competing theories on gamma-ray bursts generally fall into two types: one, which supposes the bursts to originate from some as-yet unknown population of objects within our own Milky Way galaxy, and another, which proposes that the bursts originate in distant galaxies, several billion light-years away. If the latter (as was indirectly supported by the Compton Observatory's observations), then the bursts are among the most violent and brilliant events in the universe.

Progress in understanding the nature of ters had to make an extra effort to identify this counterpart quickly so that the Keck observations could be carried out when the object was bright. The discovery is a major step to help scientists understand the nature of the burst's origin. We now know that for a few seconds the burst was over a million times brighter than an entire galaxy. No other phenomena are known that produce this much energy in such a short time. Thus, while the observations have settled the question of whether the bursts come from cosmological distances, their physical mechanism remains shrouded in mystery.

The Caltech team, in addition to Metzger, Kulkarni, and Djorgovski, consists of professor Charles Steidel, postdoctoral scholars Steven Odewahn and Debra Shepherd, and graduate students Kurt Adelberger, Roy Gal, and Michael Pahre. The team also includes Dr. Dale Frail of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico.

Written by Robert Tindol