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December 27, 2004: The Day Earth Survived the Greatest Stellar Attack -Ever

20080911505300 It came suddenly from the distant reaches of the Constellation Sagittarius, some 50,000 light years away. For a brief instant, a couple of tenths of a second, on December 27, 2004 an invisible burst of energy the equivalent of half a million years of sunlight shone on Earth. Many orbiting satellites electronics were zapped and the Earth's upper atmosphere was amazingly ionized from a massive hit of gamma ray energy.

The source of the invisible attack was a rare magnetar SGR 1806-20 on the other side of the Milky Way. These soft gamma ray repeaters, SGRs, occur when twisted magnetic fields attempt to re-align themselves and crack the magetar's crust releasing the awesome burst or pulse of energy with a death-zone of a few light years. Magnetars have magnetic fields 1000 times those of ordinary pulsars -so powerful as to be lethal at a distance of 1000 kilometers.

Atronomers have catalogued well over 1000 pulsars, and estimate the number of quiet netron stars to be vastly more at some 100 million given the 10-billion-year life of the Milky Way's disk. The odds are that one is nearby, gliding sliently past Earth, of no danger. The tonest fraction of neutron stars have morphed into magnetars, be;ived to be the offspring of the most maasive stars, hypergiants that don't have enough mass to evolve into black holes. 

Fortunately for Earth, the nearest GRB candidate seems to be thousands of light-years away. Maybe...

Data from satellites and observatories around the globe showed a jet from a powerful stellar explosion witnessed on March 19, 2008 aimed almost directly at Earth. NASA's Swift satellite detected the explosion - formally named GRB 080319B - at 2:13 a.m. EDT that morning and pinpointed its position in the constellation Bootes. The gamma-ray burst became bright enough for human eyes to see. Observations of the event are giving astronomers the most detailed portrait of a burst ever recorded.

"Swift was designed to find unusual bursts," said Swift principal investigator Neil Gehrels at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We really hit the jackpot with this one."

In a paper that appeared in Nature, Judith Racusin of Penn State University and a team of 92 coauthors reported on observations across the spectrum that began 30 minutes before the explosion and followed its afterglow for months. The team concludes the burst's extraordinary brightness arose from a jet that shot material directly toward Earth at 99.99995 percent the speed of light.

At the same moment Swift saw the burst, the Russian KONUS instrument on NASA's Wind satellite also sensed the gamma rays and provided a wide view of their spectral structure. A robotic wide-field optical camera called "Pi of the Sky" in Chile simultaneously captured the burst's first visible light. 

Within the next 15 seconds, the burst brightened enough to be visible in a dark sky to human eyes. It briefly crested at a magnitude of 5.3 on the astronomical brightness scale. Incredibly, the dying star was 7.5 billion light-years away.

Telescopes around the world already were studying the afterglow of another burst when GRB 080319B exploded just 10 degrees away. TORTORA, a robotic wide-field optical camera operated in Chile with Russian-Italian collaboration, also caught the early light. TORTORA's rapid imaging provided the most detailed look yet at visible light associated with a burst's initial gamma-ray blast.

Immediately after the blast, Swift's UltraViolet and Optical Telescope and X-Ray Telescope indicated they were effectively blinded. Racusin initially thought something was wrong. Within minutes, however, as reports from other observers arrived, it was clear this was a special event.

Gamma-ray bursts are the universe's most luminous explosions. Most occur when massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As a star's core collapses, it creates a black hole or neutron star that, through processes not fully understood, drive powerful gas jets outward. These jets punch through the collapsing star. As the jets shoot into space, they strike gas previously shed by the star and heat it. That generates bright afterglows.

The team believes the jet directed toward Earth contained an ultra-fast component just 0.4 of a degree across. This core resided within a slightly less energetic jet about 20 times wider.

"It's this wide jet that Swift usually sees from other bursts," Racusin explained. "Maybe every gamma-ray burst contains a narrow jet, too, but astronomers miss them because we don't see them head-on."

Such an alignment occurs by chance only about once a decade, so a GRB 080319B was a rare catch.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Casey Kazan


Erm, no offence, but did ya' try spell checking? :)

"*Atronomers* have catalogued well over 1000 pulsars, and estimate the number of quiet *netron* stars to be vastly more at some 100 million given the 10-billion-year life of the Milky Way's disk. The odds are that one is nearby, gliding *sliently* past Earth, [is] of no danger. The *tonest* fraction of neutron stars have morphed into magnetars, *be;ived* to be the offspring of the most *maasive* stars, hypergiants that don't have enough mass to evolve into black holes."

This is only the second article I've read on Daily Galaxy and it is the second one with glaringly obvious errors. Even though astronomy and astrophysics are avid interests of mine, this track record does not inspire me to return to the site. If you're going to spend time writing an article, the least you could do is run it through even a perfunctory error-check.

Incidentally, both articles were by Casey Kazan.

Incidentally, both articles were by Casey Kazan.

Interesting post, but I have to agree with previous two posters. My advice would be to use Firefox: it has spell-checking built-in for textarea's, like the one I'm typing in now. Easy.

But keep 'm coming, those astronomy articles!

Casey is definitely prone to spelling errors, but to me the facts and objectivity are more important. He can write in code for all I care so long as he's not sarcastically preaching his own gospel like McKinney does. I hate reading his articles except I want to know about the science involved.

Lethal at 1000 kilometers? That's not so bad, earth is 150,000,000 kilometers from our star, I think you meant light years

I love reading about this stuff! However, it seems that if they can't take the time check spelling, they may be as careless with the content...

If they are this careless with the spelling, could they be as careless with the content?

"...but to me the facts and objectivity are more important. He can write in code for all I care..."


that's a reference to the magentic field, not the gamma ray burst itself. a magnetic field being lethal at 1000Km is pretty extreme.

Dude that is just profoundly awesome/.

"Lethal at 1000 kilometers? That's not so bad, earth is 150,000,000 kilometers from our star, I think you meant light years"

It's the magnetic field itself that is lethal at 1000km, imagine a magnet so powerful that standing within 1000 km of it would kill you..

Most importantly, which one of these events transformed mild-mannered Bruce Banner?

that's officially how i wanna go ..

death by magnet, 1000 clicks away ..

Regarding the questions on whether his information is factual - it looks reasonable to me, but his descriptions of SGRs is pretty poor. The exact origins of SGRs is poorly known - a good bet is that they originate from situations where a pulsar captures a large companion, and then swollows it. The result is that the angular momentum of a sun sized object rotating at something like an AU, compressed to an object only 10 km in size - this is called a "spin-up". This can result is rotation rates of thousands of times per second - this is the most likely cause for the massive magnetic field. This isn't the only theory of formation - just the one I subscribe to. The bursts themselves are basically what he said though - crust holds lines of magnetic flux, and the core holds lines of magnetic flux. But the core and the crust can become differentially spinning - the adjustment of the crust and magnetic field to compensate for this is what is thought responsible for the bursts.

The content is poor too. There is strong evidence that the second largest mass extinction (the Ordovician extinction) had a stellar source: a Gamma Ray Burst.

So the claim this was the "Greatest Stellar Attack - EVER" is a bunch of stupid hyperbole.

Ok, so it says it came from 50,000 light years away near Sagittarius at the beginning, but then it says the dying star was 7.5 billion light years away. It even says it came from the other side of the Milky Way... wtf?

Re "Improve Your Brain"; Simple, use it or lose it...

turn on spell check?

Very disappointing that spelling is bad, and also some facts are unclear. That said, this is a description of a unique event, and may encourage further research into similar phenomena by the general public. Can somebody get the author to repost polished up version?

max, the burst that came from 50,000 light years away in the sagitarius constellation was a 2004 it can definitely be believed if it has come for the other part of the milky way.but the burst which came from 7.5 billion light years away was a 2008 , both are different events.anyway , as far as the events are true , it is ok for the readers.printing accuracy of data is important in astronomy. But it cannot be expected on the internet.the internet is not a real publishing paper !!

Casey, or Crazy Cazey, as I've come to think of him, should really learn to spell properly if he plans to write in public view for a living, and he should also check his facts more carefully: he totally screwed up his other posting about the latest Hubble deep field picture as well.

turn on spell check??

I cdnuolt blveiee
taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The
phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at
Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the
ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the
first and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a
taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This
is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by
istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?

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