11/12/2003 08:00:00

Gamma-Ray Bursts, X-Ray Flashes, and Supernovae Not As Different As They Appear

PASADENA, Calif.—For the past several decades, astrophysicists have been puzzling over the origin of powerful but seemingly different explosions that light up the cosmos several times a day. A new study this week demonstrates that all three flavors of these cosmic explosions--gamma-ray bursts, X-ray flashes, and certain supernovae of type Ic--are in fact connected by their common explosive energy, suggesting that a single type of phenomenon, the explosion of a massive star, is the culprit. The main difference between them is the "escape route" used by the energy as it flees from the dying star and its newly born black hole.

In the November 13 issue of the journal Nature, Caltech graduate student Edo Berger and an international group of colleagues report that cosmic explosions have pretty much the same total energy, but this energy is divided up differently between fast and slow jets in each explosion. This insight was made possible by radio observations, carried out at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array (VLA), and Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory, of a gamma-ray burst that was localized by NASA's High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) satellite on March 29 of this year.

The burst, which at 2.6 billion light-years is the closest classical gamma-ray burst ever detected, allowed Berger and the other team members to obtain unprecedented detail about the jets shooting out from the dying star. The burst was in the constellation Leo.

"By monitoring all the escape routes, we realized that the gamma rays were just a small part of the story for this burst," Berger says, referring to the nested jet of the burst of March 29, which had a thin core of weak gamma rays surrounded by a slow and massive envelope that produced copious radio waves.

"This stumped me," Berger adds, "because gamma-ray bursts are supposed to produce mainly gamma rays, not radio waves!"

Gamma-ray bursts, first detected accidentally decades ago by military satellites watching for nuclear tests on Earth and in space, occur about once a day. Until now it was generally assumed that the explosions are so titanic that the accelerated particles rushing out in antipodal jets always give off prodigious amounts of gamma radiation, sometimes for hundreds of seconds. On the other hand, the more numerous supernovae of type Ic in our local part of the universe seem to be weaker explosions that produce only slow particles. X-ray flashes were thought to occupy the middle ground.

"The insight gained from the burst of March 29 prompted us to examine previously studied cosmic explosions," says Berger. "In all cases we found that the total energy of the explosion is the same. This means that cosmic explosions are beasts with different faces but the same body."

According to Shri Kulkarni, MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Caltech and Berger's thesis supervisor, these findings are significant because they suggest that many more explosions may go undetected. "By relying on gamma rays or X rays to tell us when an explosion is taking place, we may be exposing only the tip of the cosmic explosion iceberg."

The mystery we need to confront at this point, Kulkarni adds, is why the energy in some explosions chooses a different escape route than in others.

At any rate, adds Dale Frail, an astronomer at the VLA and coauthor of the Nature manuscript, astrophysicists will almost certainly make progress in the near future. In a few months NASA will launch a gamma-ray detecting satellite known as Swift, which is expected to localize about 100 gamma-ray bursts each year. Even more importantly, the new satellite will relay very accurate positions of the bursts within one or two minutes of initial detection.

The article appearing in Nature is titled "A Common Origin for Cosmic Explosions Inferred from Calorimetry of GRB 030329." In addition to Berger, the lead author, and Kulkarni and Frail, the other authors are Guy Pooley, of Cambridge University's Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory; Vince McIntyre and Robin Wark, both of the Australia Telescope National Facility; Re'em Sari, associate professor of astrophysics and planetary science at Caltech; Derek Fox, a postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at Caltech; Alicia Soderberg, a graduate student in astrophysics at Caltech; Sarah Yost, a postdoctoral scholar in physics at Caltech; and Paul Price, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.

Written by Robert Tindol