NASA’s Swift satellite has detected a gamma ray burst that breaks the record for most distant object that could be seen by the naked eye.

“This burst was a whopper,” said Neil Gehrels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It blows away every gamma ray burst we’ve seen so far.” GRB 080319B

Most gamma ray bursts happen when massive stars exhaust their supply of nuclear fuel. This reduction in outward pressure lets gravity take over and the stars core collapses, eventually becoming black holes or neutron stars. As the collapse occurs, intense bursts of high energy gamma rays are blown out across space at nearly the speed of light. As this radiation collides with surrounding interstellar clouds, it heats the gas in the clouds causing very bright, intense afterglows; intense enough to be seen by the naked eye at a great distance.

The Swift satellite detected the burst at 2:12 am EDT on March 19. The coordinates lie in the constellation Bootes. The burst is named GRB (gamma ray burst) 080319B. The trailing B indicates it was the second gamma ray burst detected on 2008-Mar-19.

The burst is estimated to be at a distance of 7.5 billion light years away based on measurements of red shift. Since the universe’s age approximates 13.7 billion light years, the burst is more than half-way across the universe.

The optical afterglow was 2.5 million times more luminous than any other luminous supernova ever recorded. Previously, the nearby 2.9 million light year distance galaxy of M33 was the most distant object observable by the naked eye. This burst was one of four recorded by Swift in one day, a record day for the Swift satellite mission. As further analysis of the gamma ray bursts are done, scientists hope to discover the reason for the magnitude of the bursts.

The Swift mission is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners in the mission are: the University of Leicester and Mullard Space Sciences Lab in the United Kingdom, Bera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy, plus partners in Germany and Japan.

Photo: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler, et al.

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