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NASA Telescopes Join Forces to Observe Unprecedented Explosion

For Release: April 7, 2011


GRB 110328A
Credit: NASA/CXC/Warwick/A.Levan et al.
Press Image and Caption

WASHINGTON -- NASA's Swift satellite, Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory have teamed up to study one of the most puzzling cosmic blasts ever observed. More than a week later, high-energy radiation continues to brighten and fade from its location.

Astronomers say they have never seen such a bright, variable, high-energy, long-lasting burst before. Usually, gamma-ray bursts mark the destruction of a massive star, and flaring emission from these events never lasts more than a few hours.

Although research is ongoing, astronomers feel the unusual blast likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy's central black hole. Intense tidal forces probably tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the hole. According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet along its rotational axis. A powerful blast of X- and gamma rays is seen when the jet is pointed in our direction.

On March 28, Swift's Burst Alert Telescope discovered the source in the constellation Draco when it erupted with the first in a series of powerful blasts.

"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. This is truly extraordinary," said Andrew Fruchter at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Swift determined a position for the explosion, which now is cataloged as gamma-ray burst (GRB) 110328A, and informed astronomers worldwide. As dozens of telescopes turned to study the spot, astronomers quickly noticed a small, distant galaxy very near the Swift position. A deep image taken by Hubble on Monday, April 4, pinpointed the source of the explosion at the center of this galaxy, which lies 3.8 billion light-years away from Earth. That same day, astronomers used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to make a four-hour-long exposure of the puzzling source. The image, which locates the X-ray object 10 times more precisely than Swift, shows it lies at the center of the galaxy Hubble imaged.

"We have been eagerly awaiting the Hubble observation," said Neil Gehrels, the lead scientist for Swift at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The fact that the explosion occurred in the center of a galaxy tells us it is most likely associated with a massive black hole. This solves a key question about the mysterious event."

Most galaxies, including our own, contain central black holes with millions of times the sun's mass; those in the largest galaxies can be a thousand times larger. The disrupted star probably succumbed to a black hole less massive than the Milky Way's, which has a mass four million times that of our sun.

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Astronomers previously have detected stars disrupted by supermassive black holes, but none have shown the X-ray brightness and variability seen in GRB 110328A. The source has undergone numerous flares. Since Sunday, April 3, for example, it has brightened by more than five times.

Scientists think the X-rays may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms along the rotation axis of the spinning black hole as the star's gas falls into a disk around the black hole.

"The best explanation at the moment is 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. "When we look straight down these jets, a brightness boost lets us view details we might otherwise miss."

This brightness increase, which is called relativistic beaming, occurs when matter moving close to the speed of light is viewed nearly head on. Astronomers plan additional Hubble observations to see if the galaxy's core changes brightness.

Goddard manages Swift and Hubble. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages Chandra. Hubble was built and is operated in partnership with the European Space Agency. Science operations for all three missions include contributions from many national and international partners.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at: and

Media contacts:
Trent J. Perrotto
Headquarters, Washington

Lynn Chandler
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Visitor Comments (10)

This sentence puzzles me "Remarkably, this tidal disruption event may have been caught in real time, rather than detected later from analyzing archival observations". How can the observation of an event taking place 3.8 billion light-years away from us be caught in real-time?
As far as I understand it, we're only seeing the light that gets to us 3.8 billion years after it happened as the light travels towards us at most at the speed of the light.
Thanks for any response.

Posted by Aziz Koulibaly on Saturday, 12.19.15 @ 19:24pm

Is it possible that very little matter accreted onto the smbh? Extant to the event horizon the gravitational energy and frame dragging of the relativistic spin of the smbh would creat a fission horizon a fusion gap and a qgp floor. Looks like the fusion gap might be the process.

Posted by Joe Harris on Saturday, 08.20.11 @ 19:28pm

Dear Vincenzo,
The coordinates of the gamma ray source are in the Fast Facts: RA 16h 44m 49.91s | Dec +57° 35' 00.60"

Posted by CXC on Wednesday, 06.8.11 @ 11:08am

Is it possible to have the coordinates of the gamma ray source saw at 28th March 2011? I would like to add it to my program of astronomical sky map
Thank you very much
good job

Posted by Vincenzo on Saturday, 06.4.11 @ 18:55pm

The space is fun.

Posted by Bob on Tuesday, 05.10.11 @ 09:11am

Dear Marvin L.S.,
Thanks for your question. The workhorse right now for discovering gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) is NASA's Swift satellite, which discovers about 100 GRBs per year. The actual number of GRBs in the Universe will be much higher than this, because only the brightest objects will be seen at great distances.
Another interesting aspect is that they include some of the most distant objects ever detected, recently surpassing quasars. See Fig 16 of this paper:
P. Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Monday, 05.2.11 @ 14:19pm

Dear r hoppin,
Thanks for your question. All of the electromagnetic radiation from this event has traveled at the same speed - light speed - from this event. It's only the use of the redshift determination that gives the distance in this case.
P. Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Monday, 05.2.11 @ 14:14pm

Is it possible to correlate these events across the various radiation frequencies in order to compute the distance based on the differences in propagation rates in order to compare to red shift.

Posted by r hoppin on Tuesday, 04.19.11 @ 10:13am

I have found Gamma-ray Burst fascinating. I have read a few books about them, but do not know if I really understand completely about them.

How many of this type of burst occur in our universe on the average?

Marvin L. S.

Posted by Marvin L. S. on Saturday, 04.16.11 @ 23:04pm

Nobody seems to accept that neutron star collisions is a very weak solution to GRB's, especially short ones. Almost everyone accepts this theory. I do not. Short GRB's may give us a window into 4th dimensional activity which should be investigated. If brane theory is correct, I suspect we are witnessing their interaction. Show me the merging black holes and then the resultant GRB and I will forbear. Otherwise daily black hole/neutron star mergers are too silly to be believed as the cause of short GRB's!

Posted by Mike M. on Monday, 04.11.11 @ 00:00am