Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

July 2, 1997
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Gamma-Ray Burst: A Milestone Explosion
Credit: R. Klebesadel, I. Strong & R. Olson (LANL), Vela Satellite Team

Explanation: Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) were discovered by accident. In fact, GRBs always seem to be where scientists least expect them. Thirty years ago today, satellites first recorded a GRB. The burst data plotted in this histogram show that the count rate of the gamma-ray instrument abruptly jumped indicating a sudden flash of gamma-rays. The Vela satellites that detected this and other GRBs were developed to test technology to monitor nuclear test ban treaties. With on board sensors they watched for brief X-ray and gamma-ray flashes, the telltale signs of nuclear explosions from the vicinity of the Earth. As intended, the Velas found flashes of gamma-rays - but not from nuclear detonations near Earth. Instead, the flashes came from deep space! Dubbed "cosmic gamma-ray bursts" their origin was then unknown and is still controversial. However, the gamma-ray surprises were not over. Exploring the high-energy sky nearly 25 years later, the orbiting Compton Observatory's Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE), intentionally designed to detect cosmic gamma-ray bursts, was searching for clues to the GRB mystery. But the second burst BATSE recorded did not come from deep space. It came from near the Earth! Don't worry, these terrestrial GRBs are not nuclear bombs exploding. They are a new phenomenon now thought to be related to a recently discovered type of high altitude lightning. Exploring new horizons continues to yield unexpected results.

Tomorrow's picture: Mars: A Journey's End

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/ GSFC
&: Michigan Tech. U.