From Niels Bohr Institute: “Catching a glimpse of the gamma-ray burst engine”

University of Copenhagen

Niels Bohr Institute bloc

From Niels Bohr Institute

16 January 2019

A gamma-ray burst registered in December of 2017 turns out to be “one of the closets GRBs ever observed”. The discovery is featured in Nature [co-authors are: Jonathan Selsing, Johan Fynbo, Jens Hjorth and Daniele Malesani from the Niels Bohr Institute, Giorgos Leloudas from the Technical University of Denmark and Kasper Heintz from University of Iceland] – and it has yielded valuable information about the formation of the most luminous phenomenon in the universe. Scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen helped carrying out the analysis.

Jonatan Selsing frequently receives text messages from a certain sender regarding events in space. It happens all around the clock, and when his cell phone goes ‘beep’ he knows that yet another gamma-ray burst (GRB) notification has arrived. Which, routinely, raises the question: Does this information – originating from the death of a massive star way back, millions if not billions of years ago – merit further investigation?

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The development in a dying star until the gamma ray burst forms. Attribution: National Science Foundation

Gamma ray bursts – bright signals from space

“GRBs represent the brightest phenomenon known to science – the luminous intensity of a single GRB may in fact exceed that of all stars combined! And at the same time GRBs – which typically last just a couple of seconds – represent one of the best sources available, when it comes to gleaning information about the initial stages of our universe”, explains Jonatan Selsing.

He is astronomer and postdoc at Cosmic Dawn Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. And he is one of roughly 100 astronomers in a global network set up to ensure that all observational resources needed can be instantaneously mobilized when the GRB-alarm goes off.

Quick action must be taken when a gamma ray burst is registered

The alarm sits on board the international Swift-telescope which was launched in 2004 – and has orbited Earth ever since with the mission of registering GRBs.

NASA Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory

Swift is capable of constantly observing one third of the night sky, and when the telescope registers a GRB – which on average happens a couple of times per week – it will immediately text the 100 astronomers. The message will tell where in space the GRB has been observed – whereupon the astronomer on duty must make a here-and-now decision:

Is there reason to assume that this specific GRB is of such importance that we should ask the VLT-telescope in Chile to immediately take a closer look at it?

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo,

Or should we consider the information from Swift sheer routine, and leave it at that?

On December 5th 2017 – just around 09 o’clock in the morning Copenhagen time – the GRB-alarm went off. Luca Izzo, Italian astronomer, was on duty – and Izzo did not harbor the slightest doubt: He right away alerted VLT – the Very Large Telescope in Chile – which is run by 11 European countries, including Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Sweden and Denmark.

At that time it was early in the morning in Chile – 05 o’clock – and dawn was rapidly approaching, tells Jonatan Selsing: “For VLT to take a closer look at the GRB, action had to be taken immediately – since the telescope is only capable of working against a background of the night sky. And fortunately this was exactly what happened, when Izzo contacted VLT”.

This is also why Luca Izzo is listed as first author of the scientific article describing this GRB – an article which has just been published in Nature, one of the world’s most influential scientific journals. The article is based on analyses of the VLT-recordings, and the recordings reveal that this GRB in more than one respect can be described as unusual, says Jonatan Selsing:

“Not least because this is one of the closest GRBs ever observed. GRB171205A – which has since become the official name of this gamma-ray burst – originated a mere 500 million years ago, and has ever since traveled through space at the speed of light, i.e. at 300.000 kilometer per second”. Working closely with a number of his colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute, Jonatan Selsing contributed to the Nature-article with an analysis which – put simply – represents “a glimpse” of the very engine behind a gamma-ray burst.

Gamma ray bursts are the results of violent events in space

When a massive star – rotating at very high speed – dies, its core may collapse, thus creating a so-called black hole.

This computer-simulated image of a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy. Credit NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson

A massive star may weigh up to 300 times more than the Sun, and due to combustion the star is transforming light elements to heavier elements. This process, which takes place in the core, is the source of energy not only in massive stars, but in all stars.

Ashes – the by-product of combustion – may over time become such a heavy load that a massive star can no longer carry its own weight, which is why it finally collapses. When that happens, the outer layers will gradually fall towards the core – towards the black hole – at which point a disc is formed.

Due to the star’s rotation, the disc will function as a dynamo creating a gigantic magnetic field – which will emit two jets, both going away from the black hole at a velocity close to the speed of light. During this process, the dying star is also releasing – spewing – matter, which lightens up with extreme intensity.
This light is the very gamma-ray burst – the GRB itself. And the matter which is released from the center of the star is set free in the form of a so-called jet cocoon.

The gamma ray burst confirms our assumptions about the elements stars produce

“One of the unique features of GRB171205A is that it proved possible to determine which elements this gamma-ray burst released via the jet cocoon 500 million years ago. That was measured here at the Niels Bohr Institute, and that is our contribution to the Nature-article. These measurements were carried out via X-shooter – an extremely sensitive piece of equipment mounted on the VLT-telescope”, says Jonatan Selsing.

X-shooter analyzed the VLT-footage of the gamma-ray burst – and this analysis led to the conclusion that the jet cocoon from GRB171205A contained iron, cobalt and nickel which had formed in the center of the star, explains Jonatan Selsing:

“This corresponds with our theoretical expectations – and therefore also corroborates our model for a star-collapse of this magnitude. Being able to establish that it actually did happen in this way is, however, really special. That’s when you get a glimpse of the very engine behind a gamma-ray burst”.

ESO X-shooter on VLT on UT2 at Cerro Paranal, Chile


ESO X-shooter on VLT on UT2 at Cerro Paranal, Chile

See the full article here .


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Niels Bohr Institute Campus

The Niels Bohr Institute (Danish: Niels Bohr Institutet) is a research institute of the University of Copenhagen. The research of the institute spans astronomy, geophysics, nanotechnology, particle physics, quantum mechanics and biophysics.

The Institute was founded in 1921, as the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen, by the Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, who had been on the staff of the University of Copenhagen since 1914, and who had been lobbying for its creation since his appointment as professor in 1916. On the 80th anniversary of Niels Bohr’s birth – October 7, 1965 – the Institute officially became The Niels Bohr Institute.[1] Much of its original funding came from the charitable foundation of the Carlsberg brewery, and later from the Rockefeller Foundation.[2]

During the 1920s, and 1930s, the Institute was the center of the developing disciplines of atomic physics and quantum physics. Physicists from across Europe (and sometimes further abroad) often visited the Institute to confer with Bohr on new theories and discoveries. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is named after work done at the Institute during this time.

On January 1, 1993 the institute was fused with the Astronomic Observatory, the Ørsted Laboratory and the Geophysical Institute. The new resulting institute retained the name Niels Bohr Institute.

The University of Copenhagen (UCPH) (Danish: Københavns Universitet) is the oldest university and research institution in Denmark. Founded in 1479 as a studium generale, it is the second oldest institution for higher education in Scandinavia after Uppsala University (1477). The university has 23,473 undergraduate students, 17,398 postgraduate students, 2,968 doctoral students and over 9,000 employees. The university has four campuses located in and around Copenhagen, with the headquarters located in central Copenhagen. Most courses are taught in Danish; however, many courses are also offered in English and a few in German. The university has several thousands of foreign students, about half of whom come from Nordic countries.

The university is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), along with University of Cambridge, Yale University, The Australian National University, and UC Berkeley, amongst others. The 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities ranks the University of Copenhagen as the best university in Scandinavia and 30th in the world, the 2016-2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings as 120th in the world, and the 2016-2017 QS World University Rankings as 68th in the world. The university has had 9 alumni become Nobel laureates and has produced one Turing Award recipient