Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are flashes of gamma rays associated with extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. They are the brightest electromagnetic events known to occur in the universe. Bursts can last from ten milliseconds to several minutes. The initial burst is usually followed by a longer-lived “afterglow” emitted at longer wavelengths (X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, microwave and radio).
Most observed GRBs are believed to consist of a narrow beam of intense radiation released during a supernova or hypernova as a rapidly rotating, high-mass star collapses to form a neutron star, quark star, or black hole. A subclass of GRBs (the “short” bursts) appear to originate from a different process - this may be due to the merger of binaryneutron stars. The cause of the precursor burst observed in some of these short events may be due to the development of a resonance between the crust and core of such stars as a result of the massive tidal forces experienced in the seconds leading up to their collision, causing the entire crust of the star to shatter.
Gamma-ray bursts are thought to be highly focused explosions, with most of the explosion energy collimated into a narrow jet traveling at speeds exceeding 99.995% of the speed of light. The approximate angular width of the jet (that is, the degree of spread of the beam) can be estimated directly by observing the achromatic “jet breaks” in afterglow light curves: a time after which the slowly decaying afterglow begins to fade rapidly as the jet slows and can no longer beam its radiation as effectively
Image credit: NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde