Science Art: Swift Naked Eye Gamma Burst

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Image Credit: NASA/Swift/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith and John Jones.

On Mar 16, Earth’s most sophisticated telescopes were briefly blinded by a flash of gamma rays. NASA scientists soon discovered that this… thing… was the brightest thing ever seen. There has been no brighter thing in recorded history. They named the gamma-ray burst GRB 080319B.

As told by’s Matthew Brown:

The optical afterglow was 2.5 million times more luminous than the most luminous supernova ever recorded, making it the most intrinsically bright object ever observed by humans in the universe. It was so bright that immediately after the blast, Swift’s UltraViolet and Optical Telescope and X-Ray Telescope indicated they were effectively blinded, originally leading researchers to think something had gone wrong.

"For a few precious seconds, the luminosity was a million times that of the whole galaxy," explains Dieter Hartmann, a Professor at Clemson University.

This blaze of gamma radiation and visible light is the last echo of an unimaginably vast explosion that took place 7.5 billion years ago, before there even was an Earth to see it take place. It was so intense because all the radiation was in one narrow jet pointed more or less directly at us… or where we would be, 7.5 billion years in the future.

Why, six months later, NASA decided to announce their findings about this on the same day the Large Hadron Collider fired up remains a mystery.