Astronomers led by an MIT team have solved the mystery of why nearly two-thirds of all gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions in the universe, seem to leave no trace or afterglow: in some cases, they just weren't looking fast enough.
New analysis from the speedy High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE), which locates bursts and directs other satellites and telescopes to the explosion within minutes (and sometimes seconds), reveals that most gamma-ray bursts likely have some afterglow after all.
Scientists announced the results on Sept. 11 at the 2003 Gamma-Ray Burst Conference in Santa Fe, N.M.
"For years, we thought of dark gamma-ray bursts as being more unsociable than the Cheshire Cat, not having the courtesy to leave a visible smile behind when they faded away," said HETE principal investigator George Ricker, a senior research scientist at MIT's Center for Space Research.
"Now we're finally seeing that smile. Bit by bit, burst by burst, the gamma-ray mystery is unfolding. This new HETE result implies that we now have a way to study most gamma-ray bursts, not just a meager one-third."
A gamma-ray burst, which probably announces the birth of a black hole, lasts only for a few milliseconds to upwards of a minute and then fades forever. Scientists say many bursts seem to emanate from the implosion of massive stars, more than 30 times the mass of our sun. They are random and can occur in any part of the sky at a rate of about one per day. The afterglow, which lingers in lower-energy X-ray and optical light for hours or days, offers the primary means to study the explosion.
The lack of an afterglow in a whopping two-thirds of all bursts had prompted scientists to speculate that the particular gamma-ray burst might be too far away (so the optical light is "red-shifted" to wavelengths not detectable with optical telescopes), or that the burst occurred in dusty star-forming regions (where the dust hides the afterglow).
More reasonably, Ricker said, most of the dark bursts are actually forming afterglows, but the afterglows may initially fade very quickly. An afterglow is produced when debris from the initial explosion rams into existing gas in the interstellar regions, creating shock waves and heating the gas until it shines. If the afterglow initially fades too quickly because the shock waves are too weak or the gas is too tenuous, the optical signal may drop precipitously below the level at which astronomers can pick it up and track it. Later, the afterglow may slow down its rate of decline--but too late for optical astronomers to recover the signal.
HETE, an international mission assembled at and operated by MIT for NASA, determines a quick and accurate location for about two bursts per month. Over the past year, HETE's tiny but powerful Soft X-ray Camera (SXC), one of three main instruments, accurately determined positions for 15 gamma-ray bursts. Surprisingly, only one out of the 15 has proven to be dark, whereas 10 would have been expected based on results from previous satellites.
An MIT-led team has concluded that the reasons afterglows are finally being found are twofold: The accurate, prompt SXC burst locations are being searched quickly and more thoroughly by optical astronomers, and the SXC bursts are somewhat brighter in X-rays than the more run-of-the-mill gamma-ray bursts studied by most previous satellites, and thus the associated optical light is also brighter.
Thus, HETE seems to have accounted for all but about 15 percent of gamma-ray bursts, greatly reducing the severity of the "missing afterglow" problem. Studies planned by teams of optical astronomers over the next year should further reduce and possibly even eliminate the remaining discrepancy.
Because of the nature of gamma rays and X-rays, which cannot be focused like optical light, HETE locates bursts within only a few arc-minutes by measuring the shadows cast by incident X-rays passing through an accurately calibrated mask within the SXC. (An arc-minute is about the size of an eye of a needle held at arm's length.) Most gamma-ray bursts are exceedingly far away, so myriad stars and galaxies fill that tiny circle. Without prompt localization of a bright and fading afterglow, scientists have great difficulty locating the gamma-ray burst counterpart days or weeks later. HETE must continue to localize gamma-ray bursts to settle the discrepancy of the remaining dark bursts.
For more information, see http://space.mit.edu/HETE.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 17, 2003.