Astronomers at Hat Creek Observatory track ‘brightest object ever seen’

Astronomers at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in northeastern Shasta County are partnering with NASA and other space agencies to track what scientists say is the brightest gamma-ray burst ever recorded.

SETI’s Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek “was the second radio telescope to detect the afterglow,” project scientist Wael Farah said, short for Brightest Object of All Time.

The boat is likely a once-in-10,000-year phenomenon, according to NASA.

Gamma rays are high-energy radiation that passes through the Earth all the time. But the boat was the largest of the gamma bursts.

This explosion was directed directly at Earth, giving astronomers a remarkable view. He “fired detectors on many spacecraft, and observatories around the world followed,” NASA reported. “The explosion was so bright that it effectively blinded most gamma-ray instruments in space, meaning they could not directly record the true intensity of the emission.”

Earthlings need not worry about an overdose of gamma rays from the explosion.

“The boat came from two billion light years away,” Farah said. A light year is the distance light travels in one year, Farah said, which puts the boat’s point of origin “a little over 10 sextillion miles away.”

Scientists believe the boat was caused by “the violent death of a massive star, in a phenomenon called a supernova collapse,” said Farah, who was first detected by the Fermi Space Telescope on Oct. 9, 2022.

When giant stars much larger than our solar system’s sun burn up, their nuclear energy — the reaction that produces their light — breaks down and explodes, “shattering the material that was once part of the star” in the region between solar systems, Farah said. “What is left is either a very dense object called a neutron star or a black hole,” Farah said.

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Sometimes a black hole causes a massive gamma jet outburst from two opposite ends, According to NASA.

Astronomers know that time is of the essence when anything is happening far away. They have instruments that detect phenomena like a boat that alerts observatories to point their telescopes in one direction. Farah said: “Within an hour, X-ray, ultraviolet and optical telescopes drifted to the source location of the ‘boat’ and began recording data, detecting and classifying the supernova as it collapsed.

When the first alert went off, the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek — about 15 miles north of the old station and 75 miles east of Redding — was on the wrong side of the planet. He said Farah and his team had to wait 8.5 hours while the Earth rotated, clearing the way for them to point the radio telescope at the boat.

What astronomers really saw last October 9 was a single point that suddenly became incredibly bright, then faded.

“It sounds boring, but there’s more to it than just a point,” said Farah.

“The boat stands out because it’s the brightest out of the thousands of ‘phenomena’ we’ve seen with our telescopes so far. This initial detection was crucial to advancing our understanding of how a supernova’s envelope expands,” he said, and how it interacts with material in the space around it.

gamma ray burst NASA explains gamma ray bursts

More than eight months after it was first detected, astronomers are still watching the impressive point of light, like watching a slowly burning candle.

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While it’s so far away, instruments on Earth will likely be able to detect the supernova’s afterglow for decades, according to NASA.

Farah said astronomers, including those at the Allen Array Telescope in Hat Creek, are still watching the boat, watching what remains of the supernova interact with and settle into its environment. In the end “everything tends to quiet down until it becomes undetectable with our instruments,” he said.

Jessica Skrobanek is a special correspondent for Record Searchlight / USA Today Network. They cover science, arts, social issues and news. Follow her on Twitter @employee and on Facebook. Join Jessica at Get out! nor cal Entertainment Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, Please sign up today. Thank you.

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