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Brightest starburst yet sheds light on black hole formation

What happened within seconds of the formation of the optically brightest gamma-ray burst on record — and then in the afterglow that followed over the next few weeks — is described in this week’s Nature. This gamma-ray burst, known as GRB 080319B, was potentially visible to the naked eye — even at a distance of more than 9 billion light years.

A gamma-ray burst is an exceptional explosion that occurs mostly in very distant galaxies, which signals the violent death of a massive star and is thought to be associated with the collapse into a newly formed black hole. “These bursts typically last between 3 and 100 seconds, and are followed by a fading afterglow emission at longer wavelengths (X-ray, optical, infrared and sometimes radio),” notes Jonathon Grindlay at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA, in a related ‘News & Views’ article.

A large multinational research team of some 93 scientists, led by Judith Racusin of Pennsylvania State University, USA, collected huge amounts of data from the flash and afterglow using several wide-field telescopes and robotic ground-based telescopes.

The team’s findings offer a glimpse into the material being expelled from the central engine at speeds very close to the speed of light, producing an afterglow as it crashes into the surrounding environment.

According to the authors, GRB 080319B is a test bed for broad theoretical modeling of GRBs and their environments.

Nature Volume 455 Issue 7210

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