Right Place, Right Time for Gamma-rays

University of Alabama in Huntsville researchers recently took part in a gravitational-wave discovery that produced light detected by observatories in space and on Earth.

The event began in the galaxy called NGC 4993, 130 million light-years away, where a pair of neutron stars attracted each other, then broke apart and caused an eruption called a gamma-ray burst.

As gravitational waves from the event moved past Earth, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope captured high-energy light from the related explosion. To a lesser extent, the glow was spotted by NASA’s Swift, Hubble and Chandra missions.

Along with being the first evidence of gravitational waves coming from merging neutron stars, it’s also the first co-detection of gravitational waves with gamma rays, according to NASA researchers.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the space-time fabric produced by massive, accelerating bodies, such as orbiting black holes or neutron stars, and were predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915.

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Fortunately for the two UAH researchers, postdoctoral fellow Péter Veres and space science master’s student Rachel Hamburg, they were working the right shift. Both take “burst advocate” responsibilities several days each month, tasked with looking at data generated by gamma-ray bursts, solar flares and other such events. If it warrants, the advocates alert the electromagnetic community as to where to point their telescopes and what to look for.

Text by Dave Helms

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