December 19, 1997
Gamma ray bursts remain one of astronomy's great mysteries, said New Mexico State University astronomer Tom Harrison. No one knows what causes the brief, intense bursts of radiation, and until very recently astronomers have been unable to capture optical images of them.
Charles Corson, observing specialist at Apache Point, which is operated by NMSU for a consortium of universities, said images of a burst were obtained Sunday night using the observatory's powerful 3.5-meter telescope. Images taken the following night showed the source had faded dramatically.
APO astronomers have been observing the source nightly, Corson said. "The data we've been able to obtain are probably one of the best data sets to date on a gamma ray burst," he said. "It's going to be very useful to the astronomy community."
Harrison said some astronomers theorize that gamma ray bursts are caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging violently. "My own feeling is the case is still open on what they are," he said.
Astronomers have known for decades of the existence of gamma ray bursts, Harrison said. But until very recently, they could be detected only in x-ray or other non-visible frequencies.
With the advent of new x-ray and gamma-ray satellite technology, gamma ray bursts can now be detected quickly enough, and their location pinpointed accurately enough, for ground-based astronomers to train powerful telescopes on the right location to observe them optically before they fade, Harrison said.
This week's event was located with the help of data from a new satellite observatory called BeppoSAX, operated by a consortium of Italian and Dutch scientists.
First to discover the optical transient of the event was a team of astronomers using the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona, Harrison said.
Images of the gamma ray burst obtained by the Apache Point telescope are available on the University of Washington's World Wide Web Site.
The University of Washington is a member of the Astrophysical Research Consortium, along with NMSU and several other institutions. The ARC owns Apache Point Observatory.