This week, Columbia Astronomy's 4th year graduate student, Maria Charisi, gave a talk on gamma-ray bursts, or GRB for short. Gamma-rays are a kind of electromagnetic wave, like optical light, but with very short wavelengths, even shorter that of X-rays.
Maria started by telling us the history of how GRBs were discovered. The first GRBs were found by detectors which were built to detect nuclear explosion on the Earth during the Cold War. However, scientists found no correlation between these events and any nuclear explosions on the Earth. So this problem was passed assigned to astronomers to find out if they were related to any astronomical events. At first theorists proposed many mechanisms for GRBs, from neutron star collisions to alien space wars. Astronomers also argued about the location of these events. Some believed they were galactic; others believed they were cosmological. The varieties of theories and beliefs were due to the fact that the location distribution and distance of the GRB events were still unknown. With the launch of the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory in the mid 90's and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission in the early 21st century, and with the red-shifts measured from spectra, astronomers finally concluded that GRBs are extremely luminous events that happen all over the Universe.
Maria then described findings from more recent studies on GRBs. GRBs only last for a short time in the gamma-ray band, but astronomers believed there should be afterglows in other wavelengths, just like charcoals will glow as a fire burns out. They did follow-up observations of GRBs in the optical and infrared bands and found evidence of these afterglows. From the duration distribution of the bursts, astronomers split the GRBs into two different categories: short bursts which lasts less than 100 seconds, and long bursts which last a few hundreds seconds.
The physical image of GRBs is still not clear today. One of the most widely believed theories is that when two compact objects collide, for example a neutron star and a black hole, tremendous energy is produced and ejected from two jets. If we happened to be in the line of sight of these jets, we would detect a GRB.
After the lecture, graduate student Jingjing Chen showed the first half of a PBS movie called 'Alien Planets Revealed' which discussed transit method of detecting exoplanets used by the Kepler mission. Unfortunately, the weather was not good for stargazing, so graduate students Jeff Andrews and Aleksey Generozov gave tours of the Rutherfurd Observatory instead while undergraduate Erin Flowers and post-doc Robyn Sanderson presented a variety of astronomical phenomena with the 3D wall.
-- Jingjing Chen (graduate student)