Swift Satellite Alerts Astronomers to Cosmic Accident in Constellation Draco
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
News Feature

Two studies appearing in the Aug. 25 issue of the journal Nature provide new insights into a cosmic accident that has been streaming X-rays toward Earth since late March. NASA’s Swift satellite first alerted astronomers to intense and unusual high-energy flares from the new source in the constellation Draco.

“Incredibly, this source is still producing X-rays and may remain bright enough for Swift to observe into next year,” said David Burrows, professor of astronomy at Penn State University and lead scientist for the mission’s X-Ray Telescope instrument. “It behaves unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

Astronomers soon realized the source, known as Swift J1644+57, was the result of a truly extraordinary event — the awakening of a distant galaxy’s dormant black hole as it shredded and consumed a star. The galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach earth.

Burrows’ study included NASA scientists. It highlights the X- and gamma-ray observations from Swift and other detectors, including the Japan-led Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) instrument aboard the International Space Station.

The second study was led by Ashley Zauderer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. It examines the unprecedented outburst through observations from numerous ground-based radio observatories, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) near Socorro, N.M.

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