'Brightest-ever' gamma ray burst has scientists around the world excited

The burst, known as GRB 221009A but nicknamed the "B.O.A.T." (Brightest Of All Time), disrupted Earth's ionosphere.

 Animated GIF of gamma-ray burst GRB 221009A constructed using data from the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope (photo credit: NASA, DOE, Fermi LAT Collaboration)
Animated GIF of gamma-ray burst GRB 221009A constructed using data from the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope
(photo credit: NASA, DOE, Fermi LAT Collaboration)

The brightest-ever recorded gamma-ray burst has scientists around the world scrambling to gather and analyze data from what is being called a "once in a lifetime" event.

The burst, known as GRB 221009A but nicknamed the "B.O.A.T." (Brightest Of All Time), was first detected on October 9, but astronomers are still buzzing nearly a month later.

The gamma-ray burst originated from the direction of the constellation Sagitta and may signal the birth of a new black hole formed as a massive star collapsed under its own weight, according to NASA.

One reason the burst was so much brighter than any other recorded is how (relatively) close it happened to earth, just two billion light years away, which is close for a gamma-ray burst.

The burst was so powerful that it even seems to have disrupted Earth's ionosphere, affecting long-wave radio transmissions.

The black hole drives powerful jets of particles that pierce through the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays as they stream into space. (Credit: NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde)

All eyes on Sagitta

After NASA's  Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and Wind spacecraft first detected the blast, telescopes around the world were turned in order to further study the extraordinary phenomenon.

China's Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) found that the most energetic light particles detected in the burst reached 18 tera-electron-volts (TeV), with the observatory's chief scientist, Cao Zhen, calling the finding "totally unexpected and extraordinary," according to the South China Morning Post.

The recorded energy is four times higher than the previous record energy level and higher than the highest energies achievable by the Large Hadron Collider.

The Baksan Neutrino Observatory of the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences also reported that it had detected a photon with an energy of 251 TeV from the burst.

A photon with either of those levels of energy should have been lost on the way to earth, but somehow it wasn't.

The B.O.A.T. could give insights into dark matter

A few theories exist as to how the energetic particle made it here, with one theory being that it was converted into an "axion-like particle."

Axions are lightweight particles that could make up dark matter, the substance theorized to make up the majority of the universe. The particles could also account for a problematic property of quarks.

An axion-like particle could have been made from a high-energy photo affected by the strong magnetic fields around the imploding star that caused the gamma-ray burst, according to Quanta magazine. The particle would have then been converted back into a photon as it interacted with magnetic fields in our galaxy.

Physicists are still skeptical, however, as there could be other explanations for the photon's detection, such as it coming from a separate incident that happened to coincide with the burst.

If the photon can be linked to the B.O.A.T., "it would very likely be evidence of new physics and potentially dark matter," said Milena Crnogorčević, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland, to Quanta.

Scientists are also waiting to gather data on the supernova that seems to have caused the gamma-ray burst, with the signals which would come from a supernova usually appearing 14 to 20 days after a burst, according to WIRED.

The strength of the gamma-ray burst was both a blessing and a curse, as it provided scientists with a lot of data but also overloaded their equipment.

“There were so many photons per second that they couldn’t keep up,” said Andrew Levan, an astrophysicist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, to Quanta.

“Our instruments are very sensitive, and they’re meant to detect faint sources,” Judith Racusin, a deputy project scientist of the Fermi Space Telescope, told WIRED, stressing that the large amount of photons recorded got "jumbled together." 

“So instead of detecting the energy of each individual gamma ray, we detect the sum of the energy of those gamma rays,” said Racusin.

University of Maryland and George Washington University astronomer Brendan O'Connor is excited about the possibilities presented by this gamma-ray burst, telling Inverse that “because this burst is so bright and so nearby, we think this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address some of the most fundamental questions regarding these explosions, from the formation of black holes to tests of dark matter models.”

Sorting through all the data collected in the past few weeks and in the future about the B.O.A.T. will take months if not years. "Even 10 years from now there’ll be new understanding from this data set,” said Eric Burns, an astrophysicist at Louisiana State University, to Quanta. “It still hasn’t quite hit me that this really happened.”