If you weren't looking at the constellation Leo very early on Saturday morning, you probably missed the brightest explosion NASA scientists have ever observed. It was three times as bright as the next-brightest explosion, and a ridiculous, basically unimaginable 35 billion times brighter than visible light.
The explosion was a gamma-ray burst, or GRB, a type of event that's the brightest we know about in the universe. During a supernova, in which a massive star collapses into a black hole, neutron star, or quark star, sometimes a GRB is emitted. Nobody's exactly sure how GRBs happen, but they're observed during a supernova and consist of a tightly focused, narrow beam of radiation, moving at speeds about as close as you can get to the speed of light without exceeding it. Imagine compressing a weird space-apple from all sides until a jet of space-apple juice explodes out of a tiny point before the apple turns into a black apple hole. (This is not a perfect analogy.)
They're also often the source of the perennial superlative of "farthest thing we've ever seen," since they're so bright and move so fast.
This one, about 3.6 billion light-years away, was observed by Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor, and was subsequently seen by just about any ground-based observation unit that was pointed anywhere near the constellation Leo. Astronomers often use GRBs to find the supernova from which they emitted; the GRB is so bright that it's a useful way to pinpoint where a supernova may have happened. NASA says they expect to find that supernova within a couple of weeks.
"35 billion times brighter than visible light." Wat?
"beam of radiation, moving at speeds about as close as you can get to the speed of light"
um, considering that its a gamma ray burst, and gamma rays ARE light, the beam HAS TO BE moving at EXACTLY the speed of light.
"Imagine compressing a weird space-apple from all sides until a jet of space-apple juice explodes out of a tiny point before the apple turns into a black apple hole"
I disagree. this IS a perfect analogy.
@Moose- "brightness" is a technical astronomical term used to define the the power output of an object, so the term itself makes sense in this context. In the case of a GRB, this would measure the total energy contained in the photons received from the event per second, which will be astronomical (pun intended). Admittedly, comparing the brightness of a GRB to "visible light" is kinda odd, but it might just be an interpretation of the relative energy of gamma light photons vs visible light photons (ie, the GRB is 35 billion times brighter than an event releasing an identical quantity of photons in the visible spectrum). Saying it is 35 billion times brighter than a lightbulb (tagline) is nonsense though. Even just the sun is ~10^25 times brighter than a lightbulb. Basically, the article isn't wrong to talk about brightness, it just doesn't do a particularly good job of explaining what that is.
Totally agree with your other objection though. Gamma rays (hence, gamma ray burst) are light. Light travels at the speed of light. Period. Events generating GRBs will also tend to be accompanied by hyper-relativistic plasma jets, which do travel close to, but not quite at, the speed of light. Maybe that's what the author was thinking about, but this article isn't talking about plasma jets.
Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.
@ Moose, Billisarius; No, experiments have proven that the speed of light is not a constant for particles. Also, that gravity from high mass objects between here and there effects particles flowing from there to here, pulling them all over the place and therefore increasing their elapsed time between there and here.