Press Release

The Most Remote Gamma-Ray Burst: ESO Telescopes Observe “Lightning” in the Young Universe

By SpaceRef Editor
October 18, 2000
Filed under

Gamma Ray Burst

Observations with telescopes at the ESO La Silla and Paranal
observatories (Chile) have enabled an international team of
[1] to measure the distance of a "gamma-ray burst", an
extremely violent, cosmic explosion of still unknown physical
It turns out to be the most remote gamma-ray burst ever
. The exceedingly powerful flash of light from this event
was emitted when the Universe was very young, less than about 1,500
million years old, or only 10% of its present age. Travelling with
the speed of light (300,000 km/sec) during 11,000 million years or
more, the signal finally reached the Earth on January 31, 2000.
The brightness of the exploding object was enormous, at least
1,000,000,000,000 times that of our Sun, or thousands of times that
of the explosion of a single, heavy star (a
The ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) was also involved in
trail-blazing observations of another gamma-ray burst in May 1999,
ESO PR 08/99.

PR Photo 28a/00: Sky field near GRB
PR Photo 28b/00: The fading optical counterpart of
GRB 000131.
PR Photo 28c/00: VLT spectrum of GRB

What are Gamma-Ray Bursts?

One of the currently most active fields of astrophysics is the
study of the mysterious events known as "gamma-ray
. They were first detected in the late 1960’s by
instruments on orbiting satellites. These short flashes of energetic
gamma-rays last from less than a second to several minutes.

Despite much effort, it is only within the last few years that
it has become possible to locate the sites of some of these events
(e.g. with the Beppo-Sax
). Since the beginning of 1997, astronomers have
identified about twenty optical sources in the sky that are
associated with gamma-ray bursts.

They have been found to be situated at extremely large (i.e.,
"cosmological") distances. This implies that the energy
release during a gamma-ray burst within a few seconds is larger than
that of the Sun during its entire life time (about 10,000 million
years). "Gamma-ray bursts" are in fact by far the most
powerful events since the Big Bang that are known in the Universe.

While there are indications that gamma-ray bursts originate in
star-forming regions within distant galaxies, the nature of such
explosions remains a puzzle. Recent observations with large
telescopes, e.g. the measurement of the degree of polarization of
light from a gamma-ray burst in May 1999 with the VLT (ESO PR 08/99), are now beginning to cast some light on this
long-standing mystery.

The afterglow of GRB 000131
ESO PR Photo 28a/00

ESO PR Photo 28b/00


Caption: PR Photo 28a/00 is a
colour composite image of the sky field around the position of the
gamma-ray burst GRB 000131 that was detected on January 31,
2000. It is based on images obtained with the ESO Very Large
Telescope at Paranal. The object is indicated with an arrow, near a
rather bright star (magnitude 9, i.e., over 1 million times brighter
than the faintest objects visible on this photo). This and other
bright objects in the field are responsible for various unavoidable
imaging effects, caused by optical reflections (ring-shaped
"ghost images", e.g. to the left of the brightest star) and
detector saturation effects (horizontal and vertical straight lines
and coloured "coronae" at the bright objects, and areas of
"bleeding", e.g. below the bright star). PR Photo
shows the rapid fading of the optical counterpart of
GRB 000131 (slightly left of the centre), by means of
exposures with the VLT on February 4 (upper left), 6 (upper right), 8
(lower left) and March 5 (lower right). It is no longer visible on
the last photo.
Technical information about
these photos is available below.

A gamma-ray burst was detected on January 31, 2000, by an
international network of satellites (Ulysses,
NEAR and Konus) via the InterPlanetary Network (IPN) [2].
It was designated GRB 000131 according to the date of the
event. From geometric triangulation by means of the measured, exact
arrival times of the signal at the individual satellites, it was
possible to determine the direction from which the burst came. It was
found to be from a point within a comparatively small sky area (about
50 arcmin2 or 1/10 of the apparent size of the Moon), just inside the
border of the southern constellation Carina (The Keel).

Follow-up observations were undertaken by a group of European
astronomers [1]
with the ESO Very Large
at the Paranal Observatory. A
comparison of several exposures with the FORS1 multi-mode instrument
at the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope during the nights of February 3-4 and
5-6 revealed a faint, point-like object that was fading rapidly –
this was identified as the optical counterpart of the gamma-ray burst
(the "afterglow"). On the second night, the R-magnitude
(brightness) was found to be only 24.4, or 30 million times fainter
than visible with the unaided eye in a dark sky.

It was also possible to observe it with a camera at the 1.54-m
Danish Telescope
at the La Silla
, albeit only in a near-infrared band and with a
1-hour exposure. Additional observations were made on February 8 with
the SOFI multi-mode instrument at the ESO 3.58-m
New Technology Telescope (NTT)
at La Silla. The observations
were performed partly by the astronomers from the group, partly in
"service mode" by ESO staff at La Silla and Paranal.

The observations showed that the light from the afterglow was
very red, without blue and green light. This indicated a
comparatively large distance and, assuming that the light from the
explosion would originally have had the same colour (spectral
distribution) as that of optical counterparts of other observed
gamma-ray bursts, a photometric redshift of 4.35 to 4.70 was
deduced [3].

A spectrum of GRB 000131
ESO PR Photo 28c/00

An accurate measurement of the redshift – hence the distance –
requires spectroscopic observations. A spectrum of GRB 000131
was therefore obtained on February 8, 2000, cf. PR Photo
. At this time, the brightness had decreased further and
the object had become so faint (R-magnitude 25.3) that a total of 3
hours of exposure time was necessary with VLT ANTU + FORS1 [4].
Still, this spectrum is quite "noisy".

The deduced photometric redshift of GRB 000131 predicts
that a "break" will be seen in the red region of the
spectrum, at a wavelength somewhere between 650 and 700 nm. This
break is caused by the strong absorption of light in intergalactic
hydrogen clouds along the line of sight. The effect is known as the
"Lyman-alpha forest" and is observed in all remote
objects [5].

As PR Photo 28c/00 shows, such a break was indeed found
at wavelength 670.1 nm. Virtually all light at shorter wavelengths
from the optical counterpart of GRB 000131 is absorbed by
intervening hydrogen clouds. From the rest wavelength of the
Lyman-alpha break (121.6 nm), the redshift of GRB 000131 is then
determined as 4.50, corresponding to a travel time of more than 90%
of the age of the Universe

The most distant gamma-ray burst so far
The measured redshift of 4.50 makes GRB 000131 the most
distant gamma-ray burst known (the previous, spectroscopically
confirmed record was 3.42). Assuming an age of the Universe of the
order of 12 – 14,000 million years, the look-back time indicates that
the explosion took place around the time our own galaxy, the Milky
Way, was formed and at least 6,000 million years before the solar
system was born.

GRB 000131 and other gamma-ray bursts are believed to
have taken place in remote galaxies. However, due to the huge
distance, it has not yet been possible to see the galaxy in which the
GRB 000131 event took place (the "host" galaxy).
From the observed fading of the afterglow it is possible to estimate
that the maximum brightness of this explosion was at least 10,000
times brighter than the host galaxy.

Future studies of gamma-ray bursts
The present team of astronomers has now embarked upon a detailed
study of the surroundings of GRB 000131 with the VLT. A main
goal is to observe the properties of the host galaxy.

From the observations of about twenty optical counterparts of
gamma-ray bursts identified until now, it is becoming increasingly
clear that these very rare events are somehow related to the death
of massive, short-lived stars
. But despite the accumulating
amount of excellent data, the details of the mechanism that leads to
such dramatic explosions still remain a puzzle to astrophysicists.

The detection and present follow-up observations of GRB
highlight the new possibilities for studies of the
extremely distant (and very early) Universe, now possible by means of
gamma-ray bursts.

When observed with the powerful instruments at a large
ground-based telescope like the VLT, this incredibly bright class of
cosmological objects may throw light on the fundamental processes of
star formation in the infant universe. Of no less interest is the
opportunity to analyse the chemical composition of the gas clouds at
the epoch galaxies formed, by means of the imprints of the
corresponding absorption lines on the afterglow spectrum.

Waiting for the opportunity
In this context, it would be extremely desirable to obtain very
detailed (high-dispersion) spectra of the afterglow of a future
gamma-ray burst, soon after the detection and while it is still
sufficiently bright.

It would for instance be possible to observe a gamma-ray burst
like GRB 000131 with the UVES spectrograph at VLT KUEYEN at
the moment of maximum brightness (that may have been about magnitude
16). An example of chemical studies of clouds at intermediate
distance by means of a more nearby quasar is shown in HETE-2
(High Energy Transient Explorer 2)
gamma-ray burst satellite
on October 9, 2000, is a major step in this direction. Under optimal
conditions, a relative accurate sky position of a gamma-ray burst may
henceforth reach the astronomy community within only 10-20 seconds of
the first detection by this satellite.

More information
The research described in this press release is the subject of a
scientific article by the team, entitled "VLT
Identification of the optical afterglow of the gamma-ray burst GRB
000131 at z = 4.50"
; it will appear in a special
VLT-issue (Letters to the Editor) of the European journal
Astronomy & Astrophysics (December 1, 2000). The results
are being presented today (October 18) at the joint CNR/ESO meeting on
"Gamma-Ray Burst in the Afterglow Era"
in Rome,
Italy. Note also the related article in the ESO
(No. 100, p. 32, June 2000).

[1]: The team consists of Michael Andersen (University of
Oulu, Finland), Holger Pedersen, Jens Hjorth, Brian Lindgren
Jensen, Lisbeth Fogh Olsen, Lise Christensen
(University of
Copenhagen, Denmark), Leslie Hunt (Centro per l’Astronomia
Infrarossa e lo Studio del Mezzo, Florence, Italy), Javier
(Danish Space Research Institute, Denmark), Johan
Fynbo, Palle Møller
(European Southern Observatory), Richard
Marc Kippen
(University of Alabama in Huntsville and
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, USA), Bjarne Thomsen
(University of Århus, Denmark), Marianne Vestergaard (Ohio
State University, USA), Nicola Masetti, Eliana Palazzi
(Instituto Tecnologie e Studio Radiazoni Extraterresti, Bologna,
Italy) Kevin Hurley (University of California, Berkeley, USA),
Thomas Cline (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
USA), Lex Kaper (Sterrenkundig Instituut “Anton
Pannekoek", the Netherlands) and Andreas O. Jaunsen
(formerly University of Oslo, Norway; now ESO-Paranal).

[2]: Detailed reports about the early observations of this
gamma-ray burst are available at the dedicated
within the GRB Coordinates Network

[3]: The photometric redshift method makes it possible to
judge the distance to a remote celestial object (a galaxy, a quasar,
a gamma-ray burst afterglow) from its measured colours. It is based
on the proportionality between the distance and the velocity along
the line of sight (Hubble’s law) that reflects the expansion of the
Universe. The larger the distance of an object is, the larger is its
velocity and, due to the Doppler effect, the spectral shift of its
emission towards longer (redder) wavelengths. Thus, the measured
colour provides a rough indication of the distance. Examples of this
method are shown in ESO PR 20/98 (Photos 48a/00 and 48e/00).

[4]: In fact, the object was so faint that the positioning of
the spectrograph slit had to be done in "blind" offset,
i.e. without actually seeing the object on the slit during the
observation. This very difficult observational feat was possible
because of excellent preparations by the team of astronomers and the
very good precision of the telescope and instrument.

[5]: The "Lyman-alpha forest" refers to the
crowding of absorption lines from intervening hydrogen clouds,
shortward of the strong Lyman-alpha spectral line at rest
wavelength 121.6 nm. Good examples in the VLT ANTU + FORS1 spectra of
distant quasars are shown in ESO PR Photos 14a-c/99 and, at much higher dispersion, in
a spectrum obtained with VLT KUEYEN + UVES, cf. PR Photo 28a/00: The photo is based on
three 8-min exposures obtained with VLT ANTU and the multi-mode FORS1
instrument. The optical filters were B (seeing 0.9 arcsec; here
rendered as blue), V (0.8 arcsec; green) and R (0.7 arcsec; red). The
field measures 6.8 x 6.8 arcmin2. North is up and East is left.
PR Photo 28b/00: The four R-exposures
were obtained with VLT ANTU + FORS1 on February 4 (magnitude R =
23.3), 6 (24.4), 8 (25.1) and March 5 (no longer visible). The field
measures 48 x 48 arcsec2. North is up and East is left.
PR Photo 28c/00: The spectrum was
obtained during a 3-hr exposure with the FORS1 multi-mode instrument
at VLT ANTU on February 8, 2000, when the object’s magnitude was only
R = 25.3. The mean levels of the spectral continua on either side of
the redshifted "Lyman-alpha break" at wavelength 670.1 nm
are indicated.
Holger Pedersen
Astronomical Observatory
Copenhagen University
DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø

Tel.: +45 3532 5980

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