Japanese team sees gamma-ray pulse before lightning flash

First the gamma rays, then the flash

First the gamma rays, then the flash

Physicists in Japan have made the best study yet of the gamma rays that are produced in the minutes leading up to a lightning flash. In addition, the team also observed for the first time emissions that ended abruptly less than a second before the exact moment the flash occurs. The finding provides important information about the relationship between the mysterious atmospheric accelerators that produce the gamma rays and the lightning that we see in the sky.
Physicists have known for some time that gamma rays are sometimes produced when lightning strikes. Indeed, gamma-ray pulses from thunderclouds that vary in length from sub-millisecond to several minutes have been detected for the last 30 years. Most researchers agree that there are two types of bursts: very short, higher-energy bursts that coincide with lightning; and longer, lower-energy pulses that are sometimes not associated with a specific lightning event. While all of these bursts are thought to be created when charged particles are accelerated by the huge electric fields that build up in a thundercloud, the exact mechanism – or mechanisms – that produce them remains a mystery.
In this latest study, Harufumi Tsuchiya of the RIKEN High-energy Astrophysics Laboratory and colleagues at several other Japanese institutes looked at data collected in 2010 by the Gamma-Ray Observation of Winter THunderclouds (GROWTH) experiment at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant. The experiment includes several different gamma-ray detectors that are used in tandem with plastic detectors – the latter ensuring that charged particles such as muons are not mistaken for gamma rays. The system detected gamma rays at energies between 40 keV and 30 MeV…..
…. Read more at http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2013/jul/10/

The status of gamma-ray astronomy

Left: Kifune plot (named after T. Kifune, who first showed a similar plot at the 1995 ICRC in Rome), showing
the number of sources detected over time for various wavebands. Right: Comparison between the number of TeV sources
and the number of GeV sources.

Stefan Funk
Gamma-ray studies are an essential tool in our search for the origin of cosmic rays. Instruments like the Fermi-LAT, H.E.S.S., MAGIC and VERITAS have revolutionized our understanding of the high energy Universe. This paper describes the status of the very rich field of gamma-ray astrophysics that contains a wealth of data on Galactic and extragalactic particle accelerators. It is the write-up of a rapporteur talk given at the 32nd ICRC in Beijing, China in which new results were presented with an emphasis on the cosmic-ray related studies of the Universe…
Read more: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1204.4529v1.pdf

New detector design improves gamma-ray measurements

A schematic diagram of the ionization chamber.

In the pursuit of precision measurements, nothing is simple, even when the apparatus employed appears to be utterly uncomplicated. An instructive case in point is the new ionization chamber used to determine the U.S. primary standard for radiation dose in air — or, strictly speaking, air kerma, the amount of kinetic energy released per unit mass of air by ionizing radiation….
Read more: phys.org/news

VLT Observations of Gamma-ray Burst …

…Reveal Surprising Ingredients of Early Galaxies

Artist’s impression of a gamma-ray burst shining through two young galaxies in the early Universe

An international team of astronomers has used the brief but brilliant light of a distant gamma-ray burst as a probe to study the make-up of very distant galaxies. Surprisingly the new observations, made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, have revealed two galaxies in the young Universe that are richer in the heavier chemical elements than the Sun. The two galaxies may be in the process of merging. Such events in the early Universe will drive the formation of many new stars and may be the trigger for gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest explosions in the Universe [1]. They are first spotted by orbiting observatories that detect the initial short burst of gamma rays. After their positions have been pinned down, they are then immediately studied using large ground-based telescopes that can detect the visible-light and infrared afterglows that the bursts emit over the succeeding hours and days. One such burst, called GRB 090323 [2], was first spotted by the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Very soon afterwards it was picked up by the X-ray detector on NASA’s Swift satellite and with the GROND system at the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope in Chile (eso1049) and then studied in great detail using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) just one day after it exploded.

The VLT observations show that the brilliant light from the gamma-ray burst had passed through its own host galaxy and another galaxy nearby. These galaxies are being seen as they were about 12 billion years ago [3]. Such distant galaxies are very rarely caught in the glare of a gamma-ray burst.

“When we studied the light from this gamma-ray burst we didn’t know what we might find. It was a surprise that the cool gas in these two galaxies in the early Universe proved to have such an unexpected chemical make-up,” explains Sandra Savaglio (Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany), lead author of the paper describing the new results. “These galaxies have more heavy elements than have ever been seen in a galaxy so early in the evolution of the Universe. We didn’t expect the Universe to be so mature, so chemically evolved, so early on.”

As light from the gamma-ray burst passed through the galaxies, the gas there acted like a filter, and absorbed some of the light from the gamma-ray burst at certain wavelengths. Without the gamma-ray burst these faint galaxies would be invisible. By carefully analysing the tell-tale fingerprints from different chemical elements the team was able to work out the composition of the cool gas in these very distant galaxies, and in particular how rich they were in heavy elements.

It is expected that galaxies in the young Universe will be found to contain smaller amounts of heavier elements than galaxies at the present day, such as the Milky Way. The heavier elements are produced during the lives and deaths of generations of stars, gradually enriching the gas in the galaxies [4]. Astronomers can use the chemical enrichment in galaxies to indicate how far they are through their lives. But the new observations, surprisingly, revealed that some galaxies were already very rich in heavy elements less than two billion years after the Big Bang. Something unthinkable until recently.

The newly discovered pair of young galaxies must be forming new stars at a tremendous rate, to enrich the cool gas so strongly and quickly. As the two galaxies are close to each other they may be in the process of merging, which would also provoke star formation when the gas clouds collide. The new results also support the idea that gamma-ray bursts may be associated with vigorous massive star formation.

Energetic star formation in galaxies like these might have ceased early on in the history of the Universe. Twelve billion years later, at the present time, the remains of such galaxies would contain a large number of stellar remnants such as black holes and cool dwarf stars, forming a hard to detect population of “dead galaxies”, just faint shadows of how they were in their brilliant youths. Finding such corpses in the present day would be a challenge.

“We were very lucky to observe GRB 090323 when it was still sufficiently bright, so that it was possible to obtain spectacularly detailed observations with the VLT. Gamma-ray bursts only stay bright for a very short time and getting good quality data is very hard. We hope to observe these galaxies again in the future when we have much more sensitive instruments, they would make perfect targets for the E-ELT,” concludes Savaglio.

Notes
[1] Gamma-ray bursts lasting longer than two seconds are referred to as long bursts and those with a shorter duration are known as short bursts. Long bursts, including the one in this study, are associated with supernova explosions of massive young stars in star-forming galaxies. Short bursts are not well understood, but are thought to originate from the merger of two compact objects such as neutron stars.

[2] The name refers to the date on which the burst was discovered, in this case it was spotted on 23 March 2009.

[3] The galaxies were seen at a redshift of 3.57, meaning that they are seen as they were 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

[4] The material produced by the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, was almost entirely hydrogen and helium. Most heavier elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon, were produced later by thermonuclear reactions inside stars and fed back into the reserves of gas within galaxies as these stars die. So, it is expected that the amount of heavier elements in most galaxies gradually increases as the Universe ages.

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