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NASA's Swift Observatory  (Source: NASA)
Gamma burst reported as most powerful on record.

NASA scientists have identified a violent cosmic eruption that temporarily blinded a NASA satellite in June.  An X-ray telescope that tracks gamma rays on board the NASA Swift satellite captured a record-breaking burst of rays that had left scientists mystified about its massive brightness and point of origin.  

At it's peak the gamma-ray explosion – documented as the most powerful emission on record -- produced between 143,000 and 145,000 X-ray protons per second, which is about 10 to 15 times brighter than previous bursts captured by the telescope.   

After weeks of analysis, researchers are now indicating that the astounding blast was produced by a massive star collapsing into a black hole.  

According to and, although the Swift satellite was designed specifically to study gamma-ray bursts, the instrument was not designed to handle an X-ray blast this bright.

"The intensity of these X-rays was unexpected and unprecedented," said Neil Gehrels from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He said the burst, named GRB 100621A, is the brightest X-ray source that Swift has detected since the observatory began X-ray observation in early 2005. "Just when we were beginning to think that we had seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can be.”

The event was so powerful, it disrupted the telescope's data-analysis capabilities.

"The burst was so bright when it first erupted that our data-analysis software shut down," said Phil Evans from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. "So many photons were bombarding the detector each second that it just couldn't count them quickly enough. It was like trying to use a rain gauge and a bucket to measure the flow rate of a tsunami."

The X-rays had been traveling for over 5 billion years before being detected by the Swift satellite.

The burst lasted for about one minute and was about 200 times brighter than the Crab Nebula, an X-ray radiation benchmark for astronomers. 

The X-ray blast is the brightest ever detected from outside of the Milky Way galaxy. 

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RE: Huh?
By DanNeely on 7/19/2010 9:21:12 AM , Rating: 5
You're designing a scale to weigh people. You know Michael Jordan weighs 216lbs which you decide to use as a benchmark; and that the heaviest known people weight about half a ton. How many tons do you design your scale to read.

Remember that the higher your maximum goes the less accurately you can measure differences between small values...

RE: Huh?
By docawolff on 7/19/2010 11:14:20 AM , Rating: 2
There is a difference between designing an instrument to measure a population that is well-understood, i.e.: a scale to measure the weight of humans, and designing an instrument to observe previously unknown or poorly understood events.

However, as you point out, the higher the maximum, the less accuracy and the larger the minimum event required for detection. As I said, I didn't really understand the trade-offs on designing this instrument.

RE: Huh?
By DanNeely on 7/19/2010 11:59:38 AM , Rating: 2
that's true. In this case the impact of guessing low for where to place the maximum sensitivity is relatively low. The firmware can be updated to change the level of signal it interprets as a hardware failure, and as was done with smaller events that partially saturated the detector the total signal strength can be estimated from the size of the area just outside the saturation zone because the falloff in strength of a point source follows a well known pattern. (Google Airy Disk for more details.)

"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch
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