The mystery of the humongous Christmas space explosion
On Christmas Day 2010, NASA's Swift satellite detected a massive, sustained gamma-ray burst whose cause still leaves astronomers baffled.
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Specifically, the astrophysicists suggest that the gravity of a neutron star ripped apart a 500 trillion-metric-ton chunk of matter that had been passing within 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) of it. The debris fell onto the star and exploded as energy.Skip to next paragraph
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"If tidal disruption of minor bodies around neutron stars is really happening, I would expect GRB 101225A not [to] be unique," Campana said. "I would like to start searching for this kind of event either in existing data sets or with new observations."
On the other hand, Thöne and her colleagues say an oddball supernova might be to blame. They propose that the Christmas explosion occurred when a neutron star combined with a helium star, a type of super-giant star rich in helium. When the neutron star and the helium star's core merged, the result would have been a black hole or a highly magnetic neutron star known as a magnetar, either of which might power long bursts of radiation. The helium star would have shed its outer layers first, surrounding the duo in an envelope of gas — which could explain unusual details seen in the burst's light.
To test which explanation might be correct, scientists must figure out if the explosion took place in our galaxy or not. Thöne and her colleagues observed signs that it took place in a distant galaxy, but the evidence is ambiguous, they noted. Further observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories could help solve the mystery.
"We hope to settle the question on the right model sometime in the future," Thöne said. "Hopefully sometime next year we will know more."
The scientists detailed their findings in two papers published in the Dec. 1 issue of the journal Nature.
- What Caused the Christmas 2010 Space Explosion? Dueling Theories Animated
- Photos: Black Holes of the Universe
- Top 10 Greatest Explosions Ever