The Origin of Gamma-ray Bursts

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  • 0:01 What Are Gamma Rays?
  • 1:02 Gamma-Ray Bursts &…
  • 2:02 Hypernovae & Magnetars
  • 4:54 What It All Means to Us
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Gamma-ray bursts are so powerful, they may one day destroy us. But where do they come from? Find out as we define gamma-ray bursts, hypernovae, and magnetars in this lesson.

What Are Gamma Rays?

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a lot of spy vs. spy activity. It didn't matter whether it was on the ground with people, under the ocean with submarines, or up in the air with spy planes - data collection was critical in every which way. But both nations went beyond spy activities within Earth itself. Both countries used space, via satellites, to spy on each other's activities back on the ground.

The U.S. used satellites that detected gamma rays, electromagnetic radiation with a short wavelength and high energy. Detection of gamma rays was important because it would signal nuclear testing by the Soviet Union even if they denied it in the news. As so often is the case, technology developed for military use is then used for purely scientific ventures and these satellites detected something know as gamma-ray bursts coming from space. We'll be discussing what they are and their origins.

Gamma-ray Bursts & Their Origins

Simply put, gamma-ray bursts are very powerful and sudden blasts of gamma rays. Initially, astronomers noticed about one such burst coming from space every day. Could this be the Soviets detonating nuclear weapons that often out in space? No. Could it be evidence of nuclear warfare in distant civilizations? That's a very interesting thought, but is also not true.

Their origin was more likely to be neutron stars or black holes. These bursts were initially hard to detect because they fade away very quickly. Short bursts are no longer than two seconds in length. But new equipment has allowed astronomers on the ground to catch them with greater efficiency. Hence, modern telescopes that set their sights on where the burst came from find glows that look like supernovae. This obviously suggests to astronomers that such bursts occur thanks to a particular kind of supernova explosion.

Hypernovae and Magnetars

Supernova explosions occur when massive stars die. Very massive stars can collapse straight into a black hole. As this collapse occurs, something peculiar happens. If you have a piece of play dough, you can demonstrate it for yourself. Take a piece of play dough and roll it up into a small ball. Now put this ball between your fingers and squeeze from both sides. Notice how the ball now has two poles that have collapsed inwards and an equator that is jutting out.

This is what happens when the most massive collapsing stars spin very rapidly. Their poles fall inwards and their equator doesn't collapse nearly as quickly. Resulting in the same kind of shape as our little demonstration. This shape, where the poles fall inwards, then focuses extremely powerful beams of gas and radiation out into space along the axis of rotation. If such a beam just happens to burst out into the direction of Earth, we would be able to detect the gamma rays generated by it.

Therefore, the origin of long gamma-ray bursts, stemming from the collapse of a very massive star into a black hole is termed a hypernova. To help remember this, know that the prefix 'hyper-' implies an abnormally large amount of something, hence the hypernova is a really powerful supernova. Again, the longer-lasting gamma-ray bursts, of many seconds in length, are thought to be made by hypernovae.

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