A study published in the British journal Nature on May 7 announces that astronomers have found evidence of the most powerful explosion ever seen in space -- a blast so large it is being compared to the "Big Bang" that is thought to have occurred at the beginning of the known universe.
The explosion, a gamma ray burst 12 billion light years away, is said to have released in one second almost as much energy as all the stars in the universe, astronomers said.
"The energy released by this burst in its first few seconds staggers the imagination," said Shrinivas Kulkarni, a professor of astronomy at California Institute of Technology. Kulkarni co-authored the paper in Nature and headed a team that helped to calculate the size of the explosion.
The discovery began by chance on the night of December 14, when an Italian team detected a gamma ray burst with the BeppoSAX orbiting observatory and quickly alerted David J. Helfand, a Columbia University astronomer. Helfand relayed the information to astronomers operating telescopes at Kitt Peak near Tucson, Arizona, who were able to photograph the source site of the burst. Later, the Hubble Space Telescope captured views of the explosion's afterglow, which was in visible light.
Studies revealed the source as a very faint and distant galaxy. Kulkarni and others analyzed the energy and light released from the object, concluding it was about 12 billion light years away and immensely powerful.
"I was astounded when I heard these results," said Stan Woosley, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Woosley said the total energy release was equal to about 5 billion supernovae. A single supernova, or giant exploding star, has previously been thought of as the largest sudden energy release in the known universe, apart from the Big Bang.
Trying to put the new findings in perspective, Woosley said that if all the energy radiated by our own sun during its estimated 10 billion year lifetime were combined in a single instantaneous explosion, it would be only about 1 percent as big as the newly discovered gamma ray burst.
According to a BBC report, astronomers have suggested that this fantastic release of energy occurred when two spinning black holes collided with each other, explosively turning matter into radiation.
"In a region about a hundred miles across, the burst created conditions like those in the early universe," said Professor George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.
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