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NASA telescope designed to find exoplanets captures gamma-ray burst

By
Zarrin Ahmed
The exoplanet-hunting TESS telescope spotted a bright gamma-ray burst late last year, the first the satellite has detected. Photo by NASA
The exoplanet-hunting TESS telescope spotted a bright gamma-ray burst late last year, the first the satellite has detected. Photo by NASA

April 30 (UPI) -- For the first time, a NASA telescope designed to find exoplanets has captured a gamma-ray burst, researchers said Friday.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, was on an exoplanet-hunting mission -- searching for planets that might be able to support life outside of our solar system -- when it spotted the burst.

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The satellite, which turns its attention to a new strip of the sky every month, happened to be looking at the same part of the sky the burst occurred.

Krista Lynne Smith, an assistant professor of physics at Southern Methodist University, and her team confirmed that the blast, called GRB 191016A, happened on Oct. 16.

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Gamma-ray bursts are the brightest explosions in the universe and are typically associated with the collapse of a massive star and the birth of a black hole. They can produce as much radioactive energy as the sun will release during its 10-billion-year existence.

"Our findings prove this TESS telescope is useful not just for finding new planets, but also for high-energy astrophysics," Smith said in a press release.

Smith specializes in using satellites like TESS to study supermassive black holes and the gas that surrounds them.

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These studies shed light on the behavior of matter in deeply warped spacetime around black holes and the process by which black holes emit powerful jets into their host galaxies, she said.

Smith calculated that GRB 191016A had a peak magnitude of 15.1, meaning it was 10,000 faster than the faintest stars humans are able to see with the naked eyes.

It is estimated that the burst had been travelling 11.7 billion years before becoming visible in the telescope, reaching its peak brightness between 1,000 and 2,600 seconds.

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The burst was detected by the NASA satellite Swift-BAT, which is designed to detect such events. But because it happened too close to the moon, Swift-BAT couldn't do the necessary follow-up until hours later.

Though exoplanet researchers could tell right away that the gamma-ray burst happened, it would be months before they got any data from the satellite on it.

Since NASA's focus was on new planets, researchers asked if any other scientists at a TESS conference in Sydney, Australia, would be interested in doing more digging on the blast.

Smith volunteered. "The TESS satellite has a lot of potential for high-energy applications, and this was too good an example to pass up," she said.

She analyzed light curves that TESS collects every half hour to determine how bright the burst was.

The finding was described in a study published earlier this month in The Astrophysical Journal.

"Because the burst reached its peak brightness later and had a peak brightness that was higher than most bursts, it allowed the TESS telescope to make multiple observations before the burst faded below the telescope's detection limit," Smith said.

"We've provided the only space-based optical follow-up on this exceptional burst," Smith said.

The Hubble Space Telescope recorded its highest energy gamma-ray burst in November. The ray was first spotted in January of last year.

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