Gamma Ray Bursts


Just before 2000 UTC on 14 January, the Fermi and Swift satellites detected a spike of gamma rays from the constellation Fornax. The missions alerted the astronomical community to the location of the burst, dubbed GRB 190114C. Ground-based facilities detected radiation with up to a trillion times the energy of visible light from the gamma-ray burst.

The illustration above shows the set-up for the most common type of GRB. The core of a massive star (left) has collapsed and formed a black hole. This “engine” drives a jet of particles that moves through the collapsing star and out into space at nearly the speed of light. The so-called prompt emission, which typically lasts a minute or less, may arise from the jet’s interaction with gas near the newborn black hole and from collisions between shells of fast-moving internal shockwaves within the jet itself. The afterglow emission occurs as the leading edge of the jet sweeps through the surroundings creating an external shock wave, and emitting radiation across a broad spectrum. That may continue for months to years in the case of radio and visible light and for hours at the highest gamma-ray energies yet observed.

Image Credit: NASA

Note: My principal contribution to the Swift satellite was the design and testing of the power regulation system for the X-ray detectors in Burst Alert Telescope.

A “Young” Supernova Remnant


g306_wideAstronomers estimate that a supernova explosion occurs perhaps a couple of times a century in the Milky Way. The expanding blast wave and hot stellar debris slowly dissipate over hundreds of thousands of years, eventually mixing with and becoming indistinguishable from interstellar gas. The Swift satellite uncovered the previously unknown remains of a shattered star during an X-ray survey of the galaxy’s central regions. The new object, named G306.3-0.9 after it’s coordinates in the sky,is among the youngest of the 300+ known supernova remnants in the Milky Way. Analysis indicates that G306.3–0.9 is probably less than 2,500 years old. That would make it one of the 20 youngest supernova remnants identified.

This composite image of G306.3–0.9 (the blob in the lower left) was stitched together using data from Chandra X-ray observations (blue), infrared data acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope (red and cyan) and radio observations (purple) from the Australia Telescope Compact Array.

G306_Swift_XRTjpgThe image on the left was taken in February, 2011, using Swift’s X-ray Telescope as part of the Galactic Plane Survey. The dots in the image indicate where X-rays struck the detector. Despite this short 8.5-minute exposure, the extended circular patch of G306.3–0.9 stands out quite nicely.

Image Credits: NASA

NGC 3623


Here are two views of the nearby galaxy NGC 3623. The one on the left was taken using the UV telescope aboard the Swift satellite. The one on the right was taken with visible light. The galaxies spiral arms where new stars are being born stand out in the ultraviolet wavelengths emitted by hot baby stars.

Image Credits: NASA/Swift/L.McCauley, Penn State, CC BY-ND

A “Young” Supernova Remnant


g306_wideAstronomers estimate that a supernova explosion occurs perhaps a couple of times a century in the Milky Way. The expanding blast wave and hot stellar debris slowly dissipate over hundreds of thousands of years, eventually mixing with and becoming indistinguishable from interstellar gas. The Swift satellite uncovered the previously unknown remains of a shattered star during an X-ray survey of the galaxy’s central regions. The new object, named G306.3-0.9 after it’s coordinates in the sky,is among the youngest of the 300+ known supernova remnants in the Milky Way. Analysis indicates that G306.3–0.9 is probably less than 2,500 years old. That would make it one of the 20 youngest supernova remnants identified.

This composite image of G306.3–0.9 (the blob in the lower left) was stitched together using data from Chandra X-ray observations (blue), infrared data acquired by the Spitzer Space Telescope (red and cyan) and radio observations (purple) from the Australia Telescope Compact Array.

G306_Swift_XRTjpgThe image on the left was taken in February, 2011, using Swift’s X-ray Telescope as part of the Galactic Plane Survey. The dots in the image indicate where X-rays struck the detector. Despite this short 8.5-minute exposure, the extended circular patch of G306.3–0.9 stands out quite nicely.

Image Credits: NASA

Too Close for Comfort


Video Credit: NASA

UPDATE—A personal note: I contributed to the design of components of the Burst Alert Telescope instrument on Swift. My contributions include the ultra-quiet power regulators for the detectors in the instrument, the variable high-voltage supply for the detectors, and the pulse-width-modulation regulator for the thermal control system of the BAT. The same PWM regulator was also used in other locations on the satellite.

Gamma Ray Burst


When a massive star collapses to form a black hole, a burst of gamma rays results as particles are blasted outward at nearly the speed of light. This animation shows the most common type of gamma-ray burst. An end-on view of a jet greatly boosts its apparent brightness. One especially bright burst (GRB 130427A) was detected in 2013 by the Fermi and Swift satellites. A Fermi image of that burst ends the animation sequence.

Video Credit: NASA