Orbiting telescopes watch mystery blast in deep space

NASA space telescopes have joined forces to watch one of the most puzzling explosions every seen in the depths of the universe. High-energy radiation continues to brighten and fade from the spot, more than a week after it was first observed.

Image of the blast taken by the Swift telescope (NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)

Astronomers say they have never seen such a bright, variable, high-energy, long-lasting burst before. Usually, gamma-ray bursts mark the destruction of a massive star and flaring emission from these events never lasts more than a few hours. Gamma-ray blasts have previously been detected from as far away as 13 billion light-years.

Experts believe the latest blast probably began when a star came too close to the spinning, supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy and began to be torn to shreds.

The blast, catalogued as GRB 110328A was first detected in the constellation of Draco, the Dragon, by an orbiting X-ray telescope called Swift.

Now Swift, the Hubble space telescope and Chandra X-ray observatory have been switched from planned duties to monitor the mystery object, along with dozens of telescopes on Earth.

Hubble pinpointed the blast as occurring 3.8 billion light-years away from us at the heart of a galaxy. Scientists think the X-rays may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms along the rotation axis of the spinning black hole as the star’s gas falls into a disk around the black hole.

“The best explanation at the moment is we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet,” said UK expert Andrew Levan of the University of Warwick, who led the Chandra observations. “When we look straight down these jets, a brightness boost lets us view details we might otherwise miss.”

NASA’s Andrew Fruchter, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said: “We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing. This is truly extraordinary.”

Please click here to get FREE email alerts of our latest space stories!

★ Keep up with space news and observing tips. Click here to sign up for alerts to our latest reports. No spam ever - we promise!