NASA spacecraft join in cosmic observation

April 7, 2011 at 9:04 PM

GREENBELT, Md., April 7 (UPI) -- NASA says three of its orbiting spacecraft have teamed up to study a puzzling cosmic blast of energy, one that has lasted more than a week.

The Swift Gamma Burst Mission spacecraft, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory have been observing a phenomenon scientists say is brighter, longer-lasting and more variable than anything they've seen before, a NASA release said Thursday.

Astronomers say the unusual blast is likely the result of a star wandering too close to its galaxy's central black hole where intense gravitation tidal are tearing the star apart, and the in-falling gas is streaming toward the hole.

The model suggests the spinning black hole has formed an outflowing jet of X-rays and gamma rays along its rotational axis that is pointed in our direction.

"The best explanation at the moment is that we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet," said Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who led the Chandra observations.

The Swift spacecraft detected the source in the constellation Draco March 28. An image taken by Hubble April 4 pinpoints the source of the explosion at the center of a galaxy about 3.8 billion light-years from Earth.

That same day the Chandra X-ray Observatory made a 4-hourlong exposure of the puzzling source.

"We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now," Andrew Fruchter at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said. "This is truly extraordinary."

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