Monday, April 11, 2011

A mysterious source of gamma rays

Andrew Fruchter of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, breaks the options down rather logically: "It’s either a phenomenon we’ve never seen before or a familiar event that we’ve never viewed in this way before."  While sudden gamma-ray bursts are not unusual, this one differs in that it seems to pulsate; fading and then brightening like a light on a dimmer switch.  
The lead horse in the theory derby is that a star was ripped apart by a black hole.  These emissions are approximately 3.8 billion light-years from Earth and that would place them near where a supermassive black hole is thought to lurk.  Stars falling into black holes are well known to emit X-ray and gamma-ray radiation in their death throes, but none thus far have had this sort of pulsation effect to them.  Astronomer Stan Woosley at the University of California, Santa Cruz, postulates that the reason for this strange stellar behavior may be that the star falling into the black hole is a particularly gigantic one.  This would mean that it would take days for the black hole to strip away the star's outer layers in assiduous consumption, prolonging the bursts of gamma-rays.  Sort of sadistic when you think about it.

I sure do like stories such as these.  They should serve as an ample dose of humility to anyone who is assured of our place in and our understanding of the universe. 

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