The brightest cosmic explosion ever seen has been solved but new mysteries have emerged

  • Written by Pallab Ghosh
  • Science Reporter

Image source, Aaron M. Geller

Comment on the photo, Artwork of the brightest cosmic explosion ever

Researchers have discovered the cause of the brightest light explosion ever recorded.

But in doing so, they faced two bigger mysteries, including one that casts doubt on where heavy elements — like gold — came from.

Researchers say it is now known that the burst of light, observed in 2022, had an exploded star at its core.

But this explosion, in itself, was not enough to shine the light so brightly.

Our current theory is that such exploding stars, known as supernovas, also produce all the heavy elements in the universe such as gold and platinum.

But the team found none of these elements, raising new questions about how the precious metals are produced.

Professor Catherine Heymans from the University of Edinburgh and Astronomer Royal of Scotland, independent of the research team, said such results help move science forward.

“The universe is an amazing, wonderful, surprising place, and I love the way it throws these mysteries at us!

“The fact that it doesn't give us the answers we want is great, because we can go back to the drawing board and think again and come up with better theories,” she said.

Image source, NASA/ESA/CSA/M.Matsuura et al

Comment on the photo, Supernovas occur when large stars die, resulting in powerful explosions

The gamma-ray burst lasted for seven minutes and was so powerful that it went out of range, confusing the instruments that detected it. Subsequent readings showed that the stream was 100 times brighter than anything previously recorded, earning it the title of “brightest ever” among astronomers, or “the boat.”

Gamma-ray bursts are associated with supernova explosions, but this was too bright to be easily explained. If it had been a supernova, it would have had to have been quite massive, according to current theory.

The explosion was so bright that it initially dazzled the instruments of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The telescope only recently became operational, which was an incredible stroke of luck for astronomers wanting to study this phenomenon because such powerful explosions only occur once every 10,000 years.

When the light dimmed, one of the James Webb Space Telescope's instruments was able to see that a supernova had actually occurred. But it was not as strong as they expected. So why was the gamma ray burst out of range?

Image source, Anthony Bradshaw

Comment on the photo, All the gold on Earth was produced by cataclysmic explosions in outer space

Dr. Peter Blanchard, who co-led the research team, doesn't know. But he wants to know. He plans to reserve more time at the James Webb Space Telescope to investigate other supernova remnants.

Dr Tanmoy Laskar, from the University of Utah and co-leader of the study, said the boat's strength could be explained by the way it sprays jets of material, as typically happens during supernovas. But if these streams are narrow, they produce a more focused and brighter light beam.

“It's like focusing the beam of a flashlight on a narrow column, rather than a wide beam that extends across an entire wall,” he said. “In fact, this was one of the narrowest gamma-ray bursts seen to date, giving us a hint as to why bright aurora appear so bright.”

Reconsidering the theory

But what about the missing gold?

The current theory taught to all astronomers at university is that one of the ways heavy elements – such as gold, platinum, lead and uranium – are produced is through the extreme conditions created during supernovas. These elements are spread across the galaxy and are used to form planets, which is how, the theory goes, minerals on Earth originated.

But researchers found no evidence of heavy elements around the exploded star. So, is the theory wrong and are heavy elements produced some other way, or are they only produced in supernovas under certain conditions?

“Theorists need to step back and consider why an event like the catamaran does not produce heavy elements, when theories and simulations predict it will,” says Dr. Blanchard.

The research was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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