The Two-Way
11:18 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Rumors Of An Intergalactic Explosion Are Greatly Exaggerated

Originally published on Wed May 28, 2014 4:17 pm

Tuesday afternoon, astronomers thought they saw a powerful explosion in the nearby Andromeda galaxy.

The Internet went wild with speculation about what it could be: Had two superdense neutron stars collided? Did a supermassive star explode?

"When I got up this morning and turned on my phone, I had a lot of emails and my Twitter feed was burning," says Phil Evans, an astronomer at the University of Leicester in Britain.

Evans is on a small team of intergalactic storm chasers. Their job is to spot gamma ray bursts, blasts of light from far-off violent explosions. These bursts are by far the most powerful explosions in the universe.

"During its entire normal lifetime, our sun will give off less energy than a gamma ray burst will in a few handfuls of seconds," Evans says.

The bursts are brief. So to catch them, astronomers have built a special satellite that scans the sky. When it thinks it sees a burst, it swivels to take a closer look.

It also sends a text alert to the astronomers' phones. There's a team on call, 24-7. The astronomers have a telephone conference and issue a report to other astronomers, telling them where in the sky to look for follow-up observations.

Yesterday afternoon's alert was particularly exciting because the Andromeda galaxy is relatively nearby. Normally gamma ray bursts are a lot farther away, so this would be a rare opportunity to study one up close.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a gamma ray burst that had been detected Tuesday. A software glitch had prevented some of the data from reaching the ground. It turned out to be a false alarm.

"In a sense we're to blame for putting something out there that wasn't true, but that's actually part of what the job involves at times," Evans says.

In the rapid-response world of gamma ray chasers, there's bound to be a few false alarms.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. These days, news spreads faster than ever because of social media, and sometimes that reporting gets ahead of itself. That's what happened last night, when rumors began circulating of a massive explosion in outer space. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Yesterday, astronomers around the world got an urgent text message on their cell phones - something was happening in the next galaxy over. The astronomers talked. They issued a report. Then social media picked up on it.

PHIL EVANS: When I got up this morning and turned on my phone, I had a lot of emails, and my Twitter feed was burning.

BRUMFIEL: Phil Evans is an astronomer at the University of Leicester in the U.K. Twitter was abuzz with rumors that it was a gamma-ray burst, and gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe.

EVANS: The total amount of energy given off by a gamma-ray burst in a few seconds is the equivalent of what you would get - are you ready? - hang on - one, two, three, four - from eating one-hundred-billion-billion-billion-billion packets of crisps.

BRUMFIEL: (Eating potato chips) That's more packets of potato chips than there are stars in the universe. But seriously, these things are huge.

EVANS: During its entire normal lifetime, our sun will give off less energy than a gamma-ray burst gives off in a few handfuls of seconds.

BRUMFIEL: These bursts come when giant stars explode and die. And they are very brief. To catch them, astronomers have had to turn into intergalactic storm chasers. They've built a special satellite that scans the sky. When it thinks it sees a burst...

EVANS: The whole spacecraft will automatically and very rapidly rotate round to point at the gamma-ray burst.

BRUMFIEL: It also sent that automated text alert to the astronomers that run it. The alert yesterday was exciting because the Andromeda Galaxy is right next door. So this would be a rare opportunity to study one up close. Unfortunately, it was a false alarm. A software glitch delayed the arrival of critical data.

EVANS: So in a sense we're to blame for putting something out there that wasn't true. But when you have things like gamma-ray bursts, where you have to react very, very quickly, you can't wait to get all of the full data.

BRUMFIEL: They'll keep looking. And by the way, if you're worried one of these massive explosions might fry the earth, don't.

EVANS: Compared to all the innovative ways humans have of killing themselves, you know, gamma-ray bursts are not something we need to worry about.

BRUMFIEL: Phew. Geoff Brumfiel. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.