University of Leicester scientist in rare observation of cosmic explosion

Posted by vm64 at Mar 08, 2011 12:00 PM |
University researcher leads international team to discovery of new cosmic explosion

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 08 March 2011

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A University of Leicester researcher has led an international team of scientists to announce the discovery of a new cosmic explosion: a gamma-ray burst and its associated supernova.

Dr. Rhaana Starling, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, presents her research findings in a paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the most powerful blasts in the Universe, and are thought to be created in the deaths of the most massive stars. These brief flashes of gamma radiation are picked up by dedicated satellites which then send out an alert to the astronomers who study them. This dual discovery of a gamma-ray burst and supernova is remarkable in its high energy properties: the X-ray radiation reveals the explosion breaking out of the star. This event provides a much needed confirmation of a phenomenon glimpsed only once previously, supporting the theory that GRBs are indeed linked with the destruction of massive stars. 

Rhaana said: “This nearby GRB and supernova, seen together in a relatively nearby galaxy, is a rare find and allows us to study the origins of these enormous explosions in great detail. This event is especially exciting because we think we are witnessing the very moment that the supernova emerged.”

The discovery was made on 16th March 2010 with NASA’s Swift satellite, using the X-ray camera provided by the University of Leicester.. Swift observed the GRB while the Gemini South Telescope was used to find an exploding star - or supernova - in a galaxy 820 million light years away. The team followed the fading embers of the explosion with world-leading ground-based facilities, namely the Very Large Telescope and Gemini South telescope in Chile, and with the Hubble Space Telescope and Swift satellite. 

By monitoring both the supernova and the afterglow of the GRB, scientists will gain a complete picture of this rare cosmic event.

Discovery of cosmic explosion

Picture above: Hubble Space Telescope image in which you can see the gamma-ray burst and supernova GRB 100316D/SN 2010bh as a bright point source, located in a disturbed galaxy 850 million light years distant. Credit: A. Levan/D. Bersier.

SCIENCE CONTACTS: Dr. Rhaana Starling, Leicester Swift team: 07795 967962,

The journal article has appeared in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2011, Volume 411, page 2792 

An Astronomy Now article reporting this discovery is at:

THE UK SWIFT SCIENCE DATA CENTRE, at the University of Leicester, provides an archive of all Swift data, with open access for the wider UK astronomical community Funding for UK Swift activities is provided via the UK Space Agency.


The Swift observatory was launched in November 2004 and was fully operational by January 2005. Swift carries three main instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope, the X-ray Telescope, and the Ultraviolet/ Optical Telescope. Its science and science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pennsylvania. Swift's gamma-ray detector, the Burst Alert Telescope, provides the rapid initial location and was built primarily by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and constructed at GSFC. Swift's X-Ray Telescope and UV/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State and drew heavily on each institution's experience with previous space missions. The X-ray Telescope resulted from Penn State's collaboration with the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy. The Ultraviolet/ Optical Telescope resulted from Penn State's collaboration with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College London. These three telescopes give Swift the ability to do almost immediate follow-up observations of most gamma-ray bursts because Swift can rotate so quickly to point toward the source of the gamma-ray signal. The spacecraft was built by General Dynamics.

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