Earth has been hit by an unusually powerful blast of energy from a nearby galaxy

Scientists say Earth has experienced an unusually powerful burst of light that could change our understanding of the universe.

Late last year, scientists spotted a 50-second burst of energy coming to Earth, known as a gamma-ray burst, or GRB, the most powerful explosions in the universe. Immediately, researchers began looking for afterglows left behind by such explosions, with this visible light being useful for finding the source of the explosion.

But these researchers found something else entirely: The explosion appears to have come from a kilonova. These rare events only happen when a neutron star merges with another compact object – either another neutron star or a black hole.

The study challenges our understanding of where such long-standing supports come from. But it could also provide an exciting way to answer other questions about the universe, such as where its heaviest elements come from, which remains a mystery.

The galaxy the GRB came from is also weird. It’s young and still forming stars – unlike the other nearby galaxy known to have hosted such an event.

“This event appears to be unlike anything else we’ve seen before from a long gamma-ray burst,” said Jillian Rastingad of Northwestern University, who led the study. Its gamma rays are similar to those produced by bursts from the collapse of massive stars.

Given that all other confirmed neutron star mergers that we have observed have been associated with bursts lasting less than 2 seconds, we had every reason to expect that this 50-second GRB was caused by the collapse of a massive star. This event marks an exciting paradigm shift for gamma-ray burst astronomy.”

A paper describing the results, “A kilonova after a long-duration gamma-ray burst at 350 million per minute,” has been published in the journal nature today.

The explosion was first detected in December 2021 by NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope. Since then, researchers have been looking to categorize the explosion, and to understand its possible source.

Among other results, they showed that a single event produced elements as heavy as nearly 1,000 times the mass of planet Earth. This indicates that kilonova is the main place where gold is produced in the universe.

Because the galaxy the GRB came from is relatively close by, scientists were able to get an unusually close look at it. Moreover, it could help explain other gamma-ray bursts that don’t seem to fit with our understanding of their source.

“It was a great GRB game,” said Benjamin Gompertz. We don’t expect mergers to last more than 2 seconds. Somehow this plane powered a plane for about a full minute. It is possible that the behavior could be explained by the presence of a long-period neutron star, but we cannot rule out that what we saw was a neutron star being torn apart by a black hole.

“Studying more of these events will help us determine the correct answer and the detailed information we obtained from GRB 211211A will be invaluable to this interpretation.”

Scientists hope that the operation of the James Webb Space Telescope will lead to a better view of the kilonova. This telescope is able to take pictures of distant astronomical objects, and “sniff” their atmospheres, allowing it to see exactly which elements are present through a process known as spectroscopy.

“Unfortunately, even the best ground-based telescopes are not sensitive enough to perform spectroscopy,” Rastingad said. “With JWST, we were able to obtain a spectrum of a kilonova. These spectral lines provide direct evidence of your detection of the heaviest elements.”

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