The collapse and explosion of a massive star: B.O.A.T.

April 19, 2024

Above: Artist’s visualization of GRB 221009A showing the narrow relativistic jets (emerging from a central black hole) that gave rise to the gamma-ray burst and the expanding remains of the original star ejected via the supernova explosion. CREDIT: AARON M. GELLER / NORTHWESTERN / CIERA / IT RESEARCH COMPUTING AND DATA SERVICES

In October 2022, an international team of researchers, including University of Utah astrophysicist Tanmoy Laskar, observed the brightest gamma-ray burst (GRB) ever recorded, GRB 221009A. Now, physicists have confirmed that the phenomenon responsible for the historic burst — dubbed the B.O.A.T. (“brightest of all time”) — is the collapse and subsequent explosion of a massive star.

Tanmoy Laskar, assistant professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Utah

The team discovered the explosion, or supernova, using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

While this discovery solves one mystery, another mystery deepens. The researchers speculated that evidence of heavy elements, such as platinum and gold, might reside within the newly uncovered supernova. The extensive search, however, did not find the signature that accompanies such elements. The origin of heavy elements in the universe continues to remain as one of astronomy’s biggest open questions.

Tanmoy Laskar, coauthor on the study that published in Nature Astronomy on April 12, spoke with AtTheU about why GRB 221009A was the B.O.A.T.

We have seen gamma-ray bursts before, but this one was so bright that its light blinded our gamma-ray telescopes in space and even shook the Earth’s upper atmosphere! Several dedicated people worked very hard to reconstruct the original gamma-ray signal and found that this gamma-ray burst was by far the brightest of all time (B.O.A.T) we have ever recorded. It has been exciting to study the B.O.A.T. over the last couple of years to try to figure two big mysteries: What kind of star is responsible for this powerful light display, and what produces the heavy elements in the universe?

How can finding a supernova help in solving these mysteries?

There are two theories to what makes these powerful, gamma-ray bursts—one is the collapse of massive stars at the ends of their lives (which also results in an explosion of the star as a supernova), and the other is a merger of two neutron stars, which are dense remnants of dead stars. We looked for the signature of a supernova, which would definitively tell us which theory was responsible for the B.O.A.T. explosion.

The other reason we wanted to search for the supernova was to solve the mystery of what produces heavy metals. Supernovae are factories that manufacture many elements in the universe—could a supernova powerful enough to create the gamma-ray burst also produce heavy elements in the explosion, like platinum and gold?

Read the entire interview conducted by Lisa Potter in AtTheU.


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