NASA’s Fermi Spots a Weird Pulse of High-Energy Radiation Racing Toward Earth

Dying Star Produces a Short-Duration Gamma-Ray Burst

When the core of massive star collapses, it can form a black hole. Some of the surrounding matter escapes in the form of powerful jets that rush outward at almost the speed of light in opposite directions, as illustrated here. Normally jets from collapsing stars produce gamma rays for many seconds to minutes. Astronomers think the jets from GRB 200826A were shut down quickly, producing the shortest gamma-ray burst (magenta) from a collapsing star ever seen. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (KBRwyle)

On August 26, 2020, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a pulse of high-energy radiation that had been racing toward Earth for nearly half the present age of the universe. Lasting only about a second, it turned out to be one for the record books – the shortest gamma-ray burst (GRB) caused by the death of a massive star ever seen.

GRBs are the most powerful events in the universe, detectable across billions of light-years. Astronomers classify them as long or short based on whether the event lasts for more or less than two seconds. They observe long bursts in association with the demise of massive stars, while short bursts have been linked to a different scenario.

Astronomers combined data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, other space missions, and ground-based observatories to reveal the origin of GRB 200826A, a brief but powerful burst of radiation. It’s the shortest burst known to be powered by a collapsing star – and almost didn’t happen at all. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“We already knew some GRBs from massive stars could register as short GRBs, but we thought this was due to instrumental limitations,” said Bin-bin Zhang at Nanjing University in China and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “This burst is special because it is definitely a short-duration GRB, but its other properties point to its origin from a collapsing star. Now we know dying stars can produce short bursts, too.”

Named GRB 200826A, after the date it occurred, the burst is the subject of two papers published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, July 26. The first, led by Zhang, explores the gamma-ray data. The second, led by Tomás Ahumada, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, describes the GRB’s fading multiwavelength afterglow and the emerging light of the supernova explosion that followed.

“We think this event was effectively a fizzle, one that was close to not happening at all,” Ahumada said. “Even so, the burst emitted 14 million times the energy released by the entire Milky Way galaxy over the same amount of time, making it one of the most energetic short-duration GRBs ever seen.”

When a star much more massive than the Sun runs out of fuel, its core suddenly collapses and forms a black hole. As matter swirls toward the black hole, some of it escapes in the form of two powerful jets that rush outward at almost the speed of light in opposite directions. Astronomers only detect a GRB when one of these jets happens to point almost directly toward Earth.

Each jet drills through the star, producing a pulse of gamma rays – the highest-energy form of light – that can last up to minutes. Following the burst, the disrupted star then rapidly expands as a supernova.

Short GRBs, on the other hand, form when pairs of compact objects – such as neutron stars, which also form during stellar collapse – spiral inward over billions of years and collide. Fermi observations recently helped show that, in nearby galaxies, giant flares from isolated, supermagnetized neutron stars also masquerade as short GRBs.

GRB 200826A was a sharp blast of high-energy emission lasting just 0.65 seconds. After traveling for eons through the expanding universe, the signal had stretched out to about one second long when it was detected by Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor. The event also appeared in instruments aboard NASA’s Wind mission, which orbits a point between Earth and the Sun located about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away, and Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2001. ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) INTEGRAL satellite observed the blast as well.

All of these missions participate in a GRB-locating system called the InterPlanetary Network (IPN), for which the Fermi project provides all U.S. funding. Because the burst reaches each detector at slightly different times, any pair of them can be used to help narrow down where in the sky it occurred. About 17 hours after the GRB, the IPN narrowed its location to a relatively small patch of the sky in the constellation Andromeda.

Using the National Science Foundation-funded Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at Palomar Observatory, the team scanned the sky for changes in visible light that could be linked to the GRB’s fading afterglow.

Fading Afterglow of GRB 200826A

Discovery image of the fading afterglow (center) of GRB 200826A. Credit: ZTF and T. Ahumada et al., 2021

“Conducting this search is akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack, but the IPN helps shrink the haystack,” said Shreya Anand, a graduate student at Caltech and a co-author on the afterglow paper. “Out of more than 28,000 ZTF alerts the first night, only one met all of our search criteria and also appeared within the sky region defined by the IPN.”

Within a day of the burst, NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory discovered fading X-ray emission from this same location. A couple of days later, variable radio emission was detected by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Karl Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico. The team then began observing the afterglow with a variety of ground-based facilities.

Observing the faint galaxy associated with the burst using the Gran Telescopio Canarias, a 10.4-meter (34-foot) telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands, the team showed that its light takes 6.6 billion years to reach us. That’s 48% of the universe’s current age of 13.8 billion years.

But to prove this short burst came from a collapsing star, the researchers also needed to catch the emerging supernova.

“If the burst was caused by a collapsing star, then once the afterglow fades away it should brighten again because of the underlying supernova explosion,” said Leo Singer, a Goddard astrophysicist and Ahumada’s research advisor. “But at these distances, you need a very big and very sensitive telescope to pick out the pinpoint of light from the supernova from the background glare of its host galaxy.”

To conduct the search, Singer was granted time on the 8.1-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii and the use of a sensitive instrument called the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph. The astronomers imaged the host galaxy in red and infrared light starting 28 days after the burst, repeating the search 45 and 80 days after the event. They detected a near-infrared source – the supernova – in the first set of observations that could not be seen in later ones.

The researchers suspect that this burst was powered by jets that barely emerged from the star before they shut down, instead of the more typical case where long-lasting jets break out of the star and travel considerable distances from it. If the black hole had fired off weaker jets, or if the star was much larger when it began its collapse, there might not have been a GRB at all.

The discovery helps resolve a long-standing puzzle. While long GRBs must be coupled to supernovae, astronomers detect far greater numbers of supernovae than they do long GRBs. This discrepancy persists even after accounting for the fact that GRB jets must tip nearly into our line of sight for astronomers to detect them at all.

The researchers conclude that collapsing stars producing short GRBs must be marginal cases whose light-speed jets teeter on the brink of success or failure, a conclusion consistent with the notion that most massive stars die without producing jets and GRBs at all. More broadly, this result clearly demonstrates that a burst’s duration alone does not uniquely indicate its origin.


“A peculiarly short-duration gamma-ray burst from massive star core collapse” by B.-B. Zhang, Z.-K. Liu, Z.-K. Peng, Y. Li, H.-J. Lü, J. Yang, Y.-S. Yang, Y.-H. Yang, Y.-Z. Meng, J.-H. Zou, H.-Y. Ye, X.-G. Wang, J.-R. Mao, X.-H. Zhao, J.-M. Bai, A. J. Castro-Tirado, Y.-D. Hu, Z.-G. Dai, E.-W. Liang and B. Zhang, 26 July 2021, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01395-z

“Discovery and confirmation of the shortest gamma-ray burst from a collapsar” by Tomás Ahumada, Leo P. Singer, Shreya Anand, Michael W. Coughlin, Mansi M. Kasliwal, Geoffrey Ryan, Igor Andreoni, S. Bradley Cenko, Christoffer Fremling, Harsh Kumar, Peter T. H. Pang, Eric Burns, Virginia Cunningham, Simone Dichiara, Tim Dietrich, Dmitry S. Svinkin, Mouza Almualla, Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, Kishalay De, Rachel Dunwoody, Pradip Gatkine, Erica Hammerstein, Shabnam Iyyani, Joseph Mangan, Dan Perley, Sonalika Purkayastha, Eric Bellm, Varun Bhalerao, Bryce Bolin, Mattia Bulla, Christopher Cannella, Poonam Chandra, Dmitry A. Duev, Dmitry Frederiks, Avishay Gal-Yam, Matthew Graham, Anna Y. Q. Ho, Kevin Hurley, Viraj Karambelkar, Erik C. Kool, S. R. Kulkarni, Ashish Mahabal, Frank Masci, Sheila McBreen, Shashi B. Pandey, Simeon Reusch, Anna Ridnaia, Philippe Rosnet, Benjamin Rusholme, Ana Sagués Carracedo, Roger Smith, Maayane Soumagnac, Robert Stein, Eleonora Troja, Anastasia Tsvetkova, Richard Walters and Azamat F. Valeev, 26 July 2021, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-021-01428-7

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Fermi was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.

48 Comments on "NASA’s Fermi Spots a Weird Pulse of High-Energy Radiation Racing Toward Earth"

  1. RACING TOWARDS EARTH? Talk about a stupid click-bait end of the world headline. Great article underneath a junk journalism banner.

    • This is tame compared to the British toe rag junk that’s going to pop up over the next few days. Maybe it’s trying to beat its PBT.

  2. Would not expect this kind of cheap and misleading headline coming out of Goddard. If it is their commmunications director must be on vacation.

  3. Mr Gary E Reynolds | July 27, 2021 at 6:42 am | Reply

    Might want to amend your headline before you lose the audience such words infuriate.

  4. Governor Tarkin: Continue with the operation. You may fire when ready.

    Soldier (fires)

    Princess Leia (screams, then after waiting a while): My but this is taking a while, isn’t it?

  5. Poncho 56. 421 | July 27, 2021 at 8:51 am | Reply

    Just aliens or GOD warning us to get it together or else, maybe they figured out they might have made a mistake w/making us!

  6. Maybe it’s Captain Marvel…

  7. It’s coming straight for us!

  8. Just another asteroid, certainly not racing towards earth 🤣🤣🤣, such alarmists!!!!

  9. If the burst is pointed at Earth and was identified in 2008, what is the projected date that it’s effects will impact Earth?

    • If the pulse is traveling at the speed of light, it would take around 6-7 BILLION years to get here. Also you have now worries because the rays will not hit earth they were shot off near the direction of earth not at it.

  10. uh-oh…FOXNEWS-ish…please explain baiting with a misleading title to people who were supposed to be the bright ones. Sad.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson | July 27, 2021 at 2:26 pm | Reply

    There is nothing wrong with the title, it is descriptive. If one of the two jets hadn’t been aimed so parts of it hit the detectors we wouldn’t know about it, and the pulse was weird for reasons of heretofore unobserved physics.

    The rest is in you imagination. And of course there is a mutualism here which feed that as well as the title editor, but you share in such behavior.

    Which editor by the way wasn’t Goddard, or at least BASA’s original title on Francis Reddy’s article was “NASA’s Fermi Spots a Supernova’s ‘Fizzled’ Gamma-ray Burst” [ ].

    • Torbjörn Larsson | July 27, 2021 at 2:29 pm | Reply

      “you imagination” = your imagination.
      “BASA’s original title” = NASA’s original title.

  12. Sorry, my Boston Terrier ate broccoli again. That nuclear blast got back to us fast. I bet it is clocking a speed of 10 times the speed of light squared. She IS that powerful. The EPA’s fines are horrendous: I wonder what NASA will charge? Hopefully, it did not spark an interstellar war.

  13. “Named GRB 200826A, after the date it occurred”

    Surely it’s named after the date it was detected. I’m no expert, but I’m confident 20.08.26 is “not nearly half the present age of the universe”.

  14. Lucky it wasn’t a ” long based ” Gamma Ray Burst. We wouldn’t be reading this. We would all be toast if its ray struck Earth.

  15. The radiation beam ill destroy all life on earth in a matter of days even north korea

  16. The Haitian Sensation | July 28, 2021 at 4:06 am | Reply

    I can 🙈 see the BS within this article and I didn’t even use a telescope. The writer must be traveling at composting speed.

  17. Those dang Jewish space lasers…

  18. First time seeing this website pop up on my Google feed, and because of your click bait title it will also be the last.

  19. Christian Hale | July 28, 2021 at 6:17 am | Reply

    That is obviously the death star, and it is shooting a laser blast at earth.

  20. At earth?! Oh please the chance of that happening is almost zero. And if it were pointed directly at us, by the time it hit earth most of us will be dead, the people in the chat of course and a lot others, too. Also the atmosphere would take in so much of the gamma radiation and almost no affect would happen to the surface with not real amounts of radiation.

    • The chance of life occuring on Earth was also very, very small. Almost impossible… but yet, it did occur.

      Nearly Impossible things happen every day!

  21. Sorry for the typos it is the auto correct on the phone. Once again sorry

  22. Love those nasa doomsday editorials and the BS Biden banner ad.

  23. Disgusting click bait fear mongering headline. Blocking this site from my feed. May you do better in the future. Goodbye.

  24. Shields up!

  25. Total garbage article from a junk news source. If you can’t even make a webpage that can be viewed, you have to remove sci from your name. An 8 year old could code a better site than this. After you fix that, consider publishing actual science articles.

  26. Racing towards? If they detected it, it’s already here. We can’t detect gamma rays in advance. Why did I even click that? I’m disappointed in myself.

  27. We all need to go back to school! Mudfossil University stick with the facts aka REALITY!!!

  28. Ridiculous headline makes you look incompetent.

  29. Must be the same people that over hype a storm just for it to rain and be windy

  30. So… Going to tell us if and when it’s going to hit Earth?

  31. “Scary ‘Blast, spotted ‘racing towards’ Earth”

    I KNOW, “now- with the “Computer programming”, “they” CAN/HAVE & WILL, CONTINUE- to “FAKE”, “things”, “events”, etc etc….

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    Seriously, its NOT a “rhetorical question..”!

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    ..YOU, ARE- “FEEDing”, “ENABLing” & “CONDONing”-
    ..a [SO-CALLED] “system”, that NOT ONLY- “#PulledTheTransparencyCard2021”, (BUT- what MANY, MOST- ARE NOT, “REAL-eyes-ing”, is that- THAT👆 “gesture”, DIRECTLY- “implies” the following:
    “Well, we screwed up, Ladies & Gents. We really screwed up, BUT- we’re going to tell the ‘truth’, NOW.”

    ..AND, YOUR- “Complacency”, (by YOU- #Denial2021 & #Ignoring2021, THIS-)
    “Means”, (to the “Gov” & “Pharma”) ..that YOU, ARE “BEing Compliant”, with ‘their’ CIRCUS & #PharmaCarousel2021!

    You, ARE “#PayingThemToProgramYou2021”, “#PayingThemToProgramYourKids2021”, “#PayingThemToConditionYourKids2021” & “#PayingThemToConditionYou2021”.

    Look, NO ONE- “LIKES”, “BEing lied TO”. BUT, YOU- NOW, “have THE CHOICE”, to “change” YOHR “Life” experience- to “how EVER, YOU- so damn please!”

    That “time”/”door” & “opportunity”, IS- slowly, “closing”.

    The “portal”/”vortex”/”stargate”/etc- whatever you wish to term it is- IS, “SHUTTING”.
    THIS, “door”/”vortex” & “window of opportunity”, will NOT- “be opened”, for a VERY, very LOOONG time- once its “closed”.

    You ARE, #SmartEnough2021..
    You ARE, #ImportantEnough2021
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    You ARE, last but not least, #SmartEnoughToTakeYourPowerBack2021!

    You ARE, SOOOO MUCH more- than, you “have been ‘taught’/’told’..” to ‘believe’/’trust’ that YOU, ARE!

    IF ONLY, I- WOULD “intend”, for those who stumble across my comment-, “open YOUR eye”, “open YOUR heart Chakra” & to “CLEAR OUT”, ALL- EVERY “blockage” & EVERY “UNserving”, “behavioral habit” to “FALL away from YOU”!

    In love, light, peace & unity,

  32. Terry Edwards | July 28, 2021 at 1:22 pm | Reply

    Racing toward earth… Maybe the article should include what effect it might have on earth.

  33. I literally just saw something shoot across the sky tonight. It’s crazy cause the tail end of it lingered in the sky! Was thinking it could be ufo, but maybe it was this.

  34. Stephanus Hennig | July 29, 2021 at 5:58 am | Reply

    The HOLY BIBLE contains the mind of GOD, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers.

    Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable.

    Read it to be WISE, believe it to be SAFE, and practice it to be HOLY. it contains LIGHT to direct you, FOOD to support you, and COMFORT to cheer you.

    It is the traveler’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword, and the christian’s charter. Here paradise is restored, heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed.

    CHRIST is its grand subject, our good the design, and the glory of God its end. it should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet.

    Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and a river of pleasure.

    It is given you in LIFE, will be opened at the JUDGMENT, and be remembered FOREVER.
    It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labour, and will condemn all who trifle with its SACRED contents.

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  35. Michael Floyd | July 29, 2021 at 9:09 am | Reply

    High energy radiation from space or 5G cover up?

  36. How does one visualize or even see Something moving at the speed of light before it actually arrives?
    People laughed off the forum when I speculate dark energy might be accounted for by adding another universe to the equation.

  37. “NASA’s Fermi Spots a Weird Pulse of High-Energy Radiation Racing Toward Earth – SciTechDaily”

    How does “Fermi” see the radiation and get a signal back to Earth before the radiation? Radiation and signal both traveling at the speed of light.

  38. Melissa Rothstein | July 30, 2021 at 2:11 pm | Reply

    That headline is accurate. The details are all over the place and misleading and sloppy so people don’t freak out. There has also been a lot of activity at Yellowstone lately that no one’s talking about.

  39. The heading is relevant, not alarmist. The article is interesting, as is the topic, and it seems to be a well written summary in non scientific jargon of scientific papers (though I did not read the original papers so can’t say for certain). Several responses suggest that we, as readers, are looking for alarmist bits of information to scare us. Then the complaints…did any of those complaining about the heading being alarmist or misleading actually read the article? I’m not sure. But I learnt something new about the galaxy and had something confirmed about a certain biological species that inhabits the earth. Good article; stupid responses.

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