A ground-based telescope on automatic pilot has recorded the visible-light afterglow of a gamma-ray burst less than 2 minutes after the eruption. One of the most energetic flashes of radiation known in the universe, gamma-ray bursts seem to be generated when a massive star collapses on itself and becomes a black hole or when a black hole merges with a superdense neutron star.
The telescope started taking pictures just 108 seconds after the burst was detected by the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE)-2 spacecraft. The ground-based device, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope in Santa Cruz, Calif., traced the afterglow for more than 2.5 hours, until dawn halted observations.
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“For the first time, we have really good data showing the early time afterglow from a gamma-ray burst and the transition to late-time decline,” says Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. His team reported the findings Jan. 9 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.
HETE-2 detected the 2.5-second gamma-ray burst on Dec. 11, 2002. Just 34 seconds later, the craft put out an e-mail alert. Although another ground-based telescope, dubbed RAPTOR (Rapid Telescopes for Optical Response), recorded the afterglow 43 seconds earlier than the Katzman telescope did, RAPTOR acquired only a single, short exposure.
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Because this afterglow was so transient, it may shed light on so-called dark gamma-ray bursts, which don’t seem to have visible-light components, Filippenko says.
Perhaps visible emanations fade away before most telescopes have a chance to record them, he suggests.
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