The ‘Brightest of All Time’ Gamma-Ray Burst Sparks a Supernova Hunt

On the morning of October 9, astronomers received an alert from NASAs Swift Observatory that a fresh burst of energy had been detected, believed to be originating from within our galaxy. However, six hours later, another email arrived indicating that the source was likely a gamma-ray burst, suggesting a highly energetic outburst requiring immediate follow-up. Dubbed GRB 221009A, the burst occurred approximately 2 billion light years away in the Sagitta constellation, making it one of the closest and most energetic gamma-ray bursts ever observed. Astrophysicists believe that these bursts are caused by the supernovae of giant stars, which lead to the formation of black holes. The intense nature of this particular burst led some experts to refer to it as the “BOAT” or Brightest of All Time. Researchers are currently attempting to gather data that will confirm that the rays originated from a supernova and provide insight into the specific properties of the star responsible for the powerful explosion.

While detecting supernovae is becoming increasingly common, capturing one alongside a gamma-ray burst is less frequent due to their typical distance and the fact that not all supernovae produce these explosions. However, given the intensity of GRB 221009A, researchers expect to observe the accompanying supernova with remarkable clarity. Scientists from around the world are collaborating to collect data on the aftermath of the blast, hoping to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms driving these explosions, the types of stars responsible for producing them, and the resulting environments they create. These findings could provide valuable insights into the impact that gamma-ray bursts have on subsequent generations of stars and the role they play in determining whether certain stellar deaths contribute to the possibility of life on planets like Earth through the production of heavy elements that regulate a planet’s temperature and maintain its magnetic field.

The emission produced by the blast covers almost every range of electromagnetic radiation, allowing numerous instruments to observe it and turning the investigation into a global scientific event. For instance, NASA’s NuSTAR satellite is examining the burst’s high-energy X-rays, while the Australia Telescope Compact Array is measuring its radio emissions. Ground-based observatories, such as the Lowell Discovery Telescope in Arizona, South Koreas Bohyunsun Optical Astronomy Observatory, and Indias Devasthal Fast Optical Telescope, are contributing data on the burst’s visible light. Additionally, the James Webb Space Telescope recently captured the afterglow of the event in infrared.

Although the afterglow of the burst will persist for months or even years, astronomers anticipate a surge in optical and infrared light from the apparent supernova itself, confirming the gamma-ray burst’s connection to a catastrophic stellar death. Typically, this signal emerges 14 to 20 days after the burst. By linking the presence of heavy elements, like silver and gold, to the surrounding environment of the blast, researchers might establish a connection between these components and the creation of heavier elements such as thorium, which decays radioactively in Earth’s core to generate heat.

Despite the excitement generated by the extraordinary nature of this event, some scientists caution that analyzing the data may present challenges. As Judith Racusin, a deputy project scientist for the Fermi Space Telescope, explains, “Our instruments are very sensitive, and they’re designed to detect faint sources.” With millions of photons collected during the burst, however, “they all end up getting jumbled together,” which could complicate efforts to extract useful information about the number of observed photons and their energies. Nevertheless, researchers recognize their good fortune in having witnessed such an exceptional phenomenon.