11/07/2001 08:00:00

First gamma burst detected by new NASA satellite is pinpointed at Palomar Observatory

Astrophysicists have combined the Palomar Mountain 200-inch Hale Telescope with the abilities of a new NASA satellite to detect and characterize a gamma-ray burst lying at a distance of only 5 billion light-years from Earth. This is the closest gamma-ray burst ever studied by optical telescopes.

The origin of cosmic gamma-ray bursts, spectacular flashes of high-energy radiation followed by slowly decaying optical and radio emission that can be seen from great distances, is still a puzzle to astronomers. Many scientists believe that the bursts result from explosions that signal the birth of black holes; however, all agree that more data are needed before we can really know black holes' origins and nature.

NASA's new High-Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) detected a gamma-ray burst on September 21. Data indicated that the event was located in the Lacerta constellation, and refined information from the Interplanetary Network (IPN), a series of satellites with gamma-ray detectors scattered about the solar system, reduced the region astronomers needed to search to find the fading embers of the explosion. Scientists at the California Institute of Technology's Palomar Observatory, using the historic Hale 200-inch reflector, were able to locate the visual afterglow the following day. This was the first burst from the HETE satellite to be pinpointed with an accuracy sufficient to study the remains.

On October 17 the Caltech team used the Hale Telescope to obtain a redshift for the burst. This allowed a distance to be inferred, implying that the burst happened some 5 billion years ago. This makes the burst one of the closest ever found, and thus easier to study in detail. Also on October 17 the team members, led by Dale Frail from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, detected a twinkling radio counterpart of the burst using the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

According to Shri Kulkarni, who is the MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Caltech, the team was able to find the rare optical afterglow because of the quick detection and localization abilities of the HETE satellite and the rapid follow-up with the Palomar Mountain Hale Telescope.

HETE, the first satellite dedicated to the study of gamma-ray bursts, is on an extended mission until 2004. Launched on October 9, 2000, HETE was built by MIT as a mission of opportunity under the NASA Explorer Program. The HETE program is a collaboration between MIT; NASA; Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, Centre d'Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements, and Ecole Nationale Superieure del'Aeronautique et de l'Espace; and Japan's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research. The science team includes members from the University of California (Berkeley and Santa Cruz) and the University of Chicago, as well as from Brazil, India, and Italy.

"I'm very excited. I could not sleep for two nights after making the discovery," said Paul Price, the Caltech graduate student who first identified the optical afterglow from Palomar.

"With this first confirmed observation of a gamma-ray burst and its afterglow, we've really turned the corner," said George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, principal investigator for HETE. "As HETE locates more of these bursts and reports them quickly, we will begin to understand what causes them.

"The unique power of HETE is that it not only detects a large sample of these bursts, but it also relays the accurate location of each burst in real time to ground-based optical and radio observatories," Ricker said.

Because the enigmatic bursts disappear so quickly, scientists can best study the events by way of their afterglow. HETE detects these bursts as gamma rays or high-energy X rays, and then instantly relays the coordinates to a network of ground-based and orbiting telescopes for follow-up searches for such afterglows.

Additional observations of this event, made with the Italian BeppoSAX satellite and the Ulysses space probe, were coordinated by HETE team member Kevin Hurley at the University of California. The combination of the localization by the Interplanetary Network with the original HETE localization provided the refined information needed by ground-based observers to point their optical telescopes.

The opportunity to see the afterglow in optical light provides crucial information about what is triggering these mysterious bursts, which scientists speculate to be the explosion of massive stars, the merging of neutron stars and black holes, or possibly both. Follow-up observations of GRB 010921 using the Hubble Space Telescope and the telescopes on the ground should move us a few steps closer to the answer of this cosmic puzzle.

The team that identified the counterpart to GRB010921 includes—in addition to Caltech Professors Shri Kulkarni, Fiona Harrison, and S. George Djorgovski—postdoctoral fellows and scholars Re'em Sari, Titus Galama, Daniel Reichart, Derek Fox, and Ashish Mahabal, graduate students Joshua Bloom, Paul Price, Edo Berger, and Sara Yost, Dale Frail from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and many other collaborators.

More information on HETE can be found at: http://space.mit.edu/HETE Palomar Observatory: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/ Caltech Media Relations: http://pr.caltech.edu/media/.

Written by Robert Tindol