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Astronomers Uncover Briefest Supernova-Powered Gamma-Ray Burst

July 26, 2021

Gemini North identifies collapsing star as the surprising cause of a “fizzled” gamma-ray burst

Astronomers Uncover Briefest Supernova-Powered Gamma-Ray Burst

Astronomers have discovered the shortest-ever gamma-ray burst (GRB) caused by the implosion of a massive star. Using the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, astronomers identified the cause of this 0.6-second flurry of gamma rays as a supernova explosion in a distant galaxy. GRBs caused by supernovae are usually more than twice as long, which suggests that some short GRBs might actually be imposters — supernova-produced GRBs in disguise.

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are among the brightest and most energetic events in the Universe, but scientists are still figuring out exactly what causes these fleeting events [1]. Astronomers divide GRBs into two broad categories based on their duration. Short GRBs blaze into life in less than two seconds and are thought to be caused by the merging of binary neutron stars [2]. Those that last longer are classified as long GRBs, and have been associated with supernova explosions caused by the implosions of massive stars [3]. However, the recent discovery of the shortest-ever GRB produced during a supernova shows that GRBs don’t fit neatly into the boxes astronomers have created for them.

This discovery represents the shortest gamma-ray emission caused by a supernova during the collapse of a massive star,” commented Tomás Ahumada, who led this research and is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland and astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It lasted for only 0.6 second, and it sits on the brink between a successful and a failed gamma-ray burst.

The team believes that this and some other supernova-related GRBs are appearing short because the jets of gamma rays that emerge from the collapsing star’s poles aren’t strong enough to completely escape the star — almost failing to produce a GRB — and that other collapsing stars have such weak jets that they don’t produce GRBs at all.

This discovery could also help explain an astronomical mystery. Long GRBs are associated with a specific type of supernova (called Type Ic-BL). However, astronomers observe many more of these supernovae than long GRBs. This discovery of the shortest GRB associated with a supernova suggests that some of these supernova-caused GRBs are masquerading as short GRBs thought to be created by neutron-star mergers, and are therefore not getting counted as the supernova kind.

Our discovery suggests that, since we observe many more of these supernovae than long gamma-ray bursts, most collapsing stars fail to produce a GRB jet that breaks through the outer envelope of the collapsing star,” explained Ahumada. “We think this event was effectively a fizzle, one that was close to not happening at all.” 

The team was able to determine that this GRB — identified as GRB 200826A — originated from a supernova explosion thanks to the imaging capabilities of the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on Gemini North in Hawai‘i. The researchers used Gemini North to obtain images of the GRB’s host galaxy 28, 45, and 80 days after the GRB was first detected on 26 August 2020 by a network of observatories that included NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Gemini’s observations allowed the team to spot the tell-tale rise in energy that signifies a supernova, despite the blast’s location in a galaxy 6.6 billion light-years away.

This was a complicated endeavor as we needed to separate the light of an already faint galaxy from the light of a supernova,” said Ahumada. “Gemini is the only ground-based telescope that can do follow-up observations like this with a flexible-enough schedule to let us squeeze in our observations.” 

This result shows that classifying GRBs based solely on their duration may not be the best approach, and that additional observations are needed to determine a GRB’s cause.

"We were originally hunting for merging neutron stars, which are thought to produce short gamma-ray bursts," added Ahumada. "Once we discovered GRB 200826A, however, we realized that this burst was more likely to be caused by a collapsing star’s supernova, which was a surprise!"

“The Gemini observatories continue to shed new light on the nature of these incredible explosions occurring across the distant Universe,” said Martin Still, Gemini Program Officer at NSF. “Dedicated instrumentation arriving for use over the next decade will maintain Gemini’s leadership in the follow-up of these awe-inspiring cosmic events.”

More Information

This research was presented in the paper Discovery and Confirmation of the Shortest Gamma Ray Burst from a Collapsar in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The team is composed of Tomás Ahumada (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; and Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science and Technology, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Leo P. Singer (Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Joint Space-Science Institute, University of Maryland), Shreya Anand (Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Michael W. Coughlin (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Minnesota), Mansi M. Kasliwal (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Geoffrey Ryan (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Igor Andreoni (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), S. Bradley Cenko (Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Joint Space-Science Institute, University of Maryland), Christoffer Fremling (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Harsh Kumar (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay; LSSTC Data Science Fellow), Peter T. H. Pang (Nikhef, Department of Physics, Utrecht University), Eric Burns (Louisiana State University), Virginia Cunningham (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Simone Dichiara (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Tim Dietrich (Institut für Physik und Astronomie, Universität Potsdam; Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Albert Einstein Institute), Dmitry S. Svinkin (Ioffe Institute, Polytekhnicheskaya), Mouza Almualla (American University of Sharjah), Alberto J. Castro-Tirado (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía; Departamento de Ingeniería de Sistemas y Automática, Escuela de Ingenieros Industriales), Kishalay De (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Rachel Dunwoody (School of Physics, University College Dublin), Pradip Gatkine (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Erica Hammerstein (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland), Shabnam Iyyani (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics), Joseph Mangan (School of Physics, University College Dublin), Dan Perley (Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University), Sonalika Purkayastha (National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), Eric Bellm (DIRAC Institute, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Washington), Varun Bhalerao (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay), Bryce Bolin (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Mattia Bulla (Nordita, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University), Christopher Cannella (Duke University, Electrical and Computer Engineering), Poonam Chandra (National Centre for Radio Astrophysics and Swarna Jayanti Fellow, Department of Science & Technology), Dmitry A. Duev (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Dmitry Frederiks (Ioffe Institute, Polytekhnicheskaya), Avishay Gal-Yam (Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, Hebrew University), Matthew Graham (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Anna Y. Q. Ho (Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science, University of California; Department of Astronomy, University of California – Berkeley), Kevin Hurley (Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California – Berkeley), Viraj Karambelkar (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Erik C. Kool (The Oskar Klein Centre, Department of Astronomy), S. R. Kulkarni (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Ashish Mahabal (Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology), Frank Masci (IPAC, California Institute of Technology), Sheila McBreen (School of Physics, University College Dublin), Shashi B. Pandey (Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences), Simeon Reusch (Deutsches Elektronen Synchrotron DESY; Institut für Physik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Anna Ridnaia (Ioffe Institute, Polytekhnicheskaya), Philippe Rosnet (Université Clermont Auvergne, CNRS; IN2P3, Laboratoire de Physique de Clermont), Benjamin Rusholme (IPAC, California Institute of Technology), Ana Sagués Carracedo (The Oskar Klein Centre, Department of Physics), Roger Smith (Caltech Optical Observatories, California Institute of Technology), Maayane Soumagnac (Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, Weizmann Institute of Science, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), Robert Stein (Deutsches Elektronen Synchrotron DESY; and Institut für Physik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Eleonora Troja (Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Anastasia Tsvetkova (Ioffe Institute, Polytekhnicheskaya), Richard Walters (Caltech Optical Observatories, California Institute of Technology), and Azamat F. Valeev (Special Astrophysical Observatory, Russian Academy of Sciences).

NSF’s NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory), the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the international Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSF, NRC–Canada, ANID–Chile, MCTIC–Brazil, MINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and Vera C. Rubin Observatory (operated in cooperation with the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory). It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawai‘i, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O'odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.

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Contacts

Tomás Ahumada

tahumada@astro.umd.edu

University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Amanda Kocz

amanda.kocz@noirlab.edu

+1 626 524 5884

Press and Internal Communications Officer

NSF’s NOIRLab