Long ago and far across the universe, an enormous burst of gamma rays unleashed more energy in a half-second than the Sun will produce over its entire 10-billion-year lifetime. In May of 2020, light from the flash finally reached Earth and was first detected by NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. Scientists quickly enlisted other telescopes — including NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Array radio observatory, the W. M. Keck Observatory, and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network — to study the explosion’s aftermath and the host galaxy. It was Hubble that provided the surprise.
Based on X-ray and radio observations from the other observatories, astronomers were baffled by what they saw with Hubble: the near-infrared emission was 10 times brighter than predicted. These results challenge conventional theories of what happens in the aftermath of a short gamma-ray burst. One possibility is that the observations might point to the birth of a massive, highly magnetized neutron star called a magnetar.
Without Hubble, the gamma-ray burst would have appeared like many others, and astronomers would not have known about the bizarre infrared behavior.
The intense flashes of gamma rays from these bursts appear to come from jets of material that are moving extremely close to the speed of light. The jets do not contain a lot of mass — maybe a millionth of the mass of the Sun — but because they’re moving so fast, they release a tremendous amount of energy across all wavelengths of light. This particular gamma-ray burst was one of the rare instances in which scientists were able to detect light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
“As the data were coming in, we were forming a picture of the mechanism that was producing the light we were seeing,” said the study’s co-investigator, Tanmoy Laskar of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. “As we got the Hubble observations, we had to completely change our thought process, because the information that Hubble added made us realize that we had to discard our conventional thinking, and that there was a new phenomenon going on. Then we had to figure out what that meant for the physics behind these extremely energetic explosions.”
Gamma-ray bursts — the most energetic, explosive events known — live fast and die hard. They are split into two classes based on the duration of their gamma rays.
Neutron star mergers are very rare but are extremely important because scientists think that they are one of the main sources of heavy elements in the universe, such as gold and uranium.
Accompanying a short gamma-ray burst, scientists expect to see a “kilonova” whose peak brightness typically reaches 1,000 times that of a classical nova. Kilonovae are an optical and infrared glow from the radioactive decay of heavy elements and are unique to the merger of two neutron stars, or the merger of a neutron star with a small black hole.