Origin of Gamma-ray Bursts in Short-Lived Stars

Gamma-ray Burst 980329

Radio telescope studies of the fiery afterglow of a Gamma Ray Burst have provided astronomers with the best clues yet about the origins of these tremendous cosmic cataclysms since their discovery more than 30 years ago. Observations with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope confirm that a blast seen to occur on March 29 had its origin in a star-forming region in a distant galaxy.

“There are two leading theories for the causes of Gamma Ray Bursts,” said Dale Frail of the NSF National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM. “According to one theory, the blasts occur in the death throes of pairs of old stars. The other requires them to arise from exploding, massive, short-lived stars that still reside within the star-forming gas and dust from which they formed. The VLA studies of the burst show that at least this one almost certainly occurred within a star-forming region. This result also explains why half of the Gamma Ray Burst afterglows are not detected by optical telescopes.”

Frail heads a VLA observing team including Greg Taylor, also of NRAO, and Shri Kulkarni of Caltech, that reported its findings to the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego, CA.

The March 29 burst was seen clearly by radio telescopes (the accompanying image is GRB 980329 as seen by the VLA) but only very faintly with optical instruments. “That is extremely important,” said Taylor. “This burst was very faint at visible wavelengths, brighter at infrared wavelengths and brighter still at radio wavelengths. This is a clear indication that the exploding object was surrounded by dust. Dust is most commonly found in star-forming regions.”

This strongly favors one of the two leading theories about Gamma Ray Bursts over the other. One explanation for these tremendously energetic fireballs is that a pair of superdense neutron stars collides. The other is that a single, very massive star explodes in a “hypernova,” more powerful than a supernova, at the end of its normal life. The hypernova explosion, scientists believe, would come only a few million years after the giant star was formed, while it is still within the cloud of gas and dust from which it formed. Neutron stars, on the other hand, are formed by supernova explosions that give a “kick” to the resulting neutron star, propelling it at high speeds. An orbiting pair of neutron stars, astronomers think, would collide only after hundreds of millions of years of orbital decay, by which time they would be far away from the gas and dust of their birthplace.

“The observations already have provided crucial insight; we intend to continue observing the relic of the March 29 burst with the VLA, and in the coming months, we will gain new information that will help further refine our ideas about these fireballs,” Frail said. “We’re going to learn about the size and expansion rate of the fireball and test predictions made by the models.”

“These observations indicate the extraordinary importance of radio astronomy for providing information that can be gained in no other way about one of the major frontier areas of astrophysics,” said Hugh Van Horn, Director of the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The March 29 burst (GRB 980329) was the second such blast to have its afterglow detected at radio wavelengths. Last year, the VLA made the first radio detection of a GRB afterglow, finding radio emission coming from the location of a Gamma Ray Burst on May 8, 1997 (GRB 970508).

“Of the world’s radio telescopes, only the VLA has the sensitivity and resolving power to quickly detect these radio afterglows of Gamma Ray Bursts and study them in detail over extended periods of time,” Taylor said. “Even so, we only see the brightest one-third of them. With upgraded capabilities at the VLA, as planned by NRAO, we will see them all.”

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Dave Finley, Public Information Officer
(505) 835-7302

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