Although many may want to shine bright like a diamond, this writer would like to shine bright like a gamma ray burst (GRB). These are the brightest and largest explosions in the universe, and Adria Updike studies them. She’s interested in stellar evolution, i.e. how a star changes over the course of its lifetime. Because stars can live millions, billions or even trillions of years, it is impossible to study one star throughout the course of its life.
So astrophysicists, among other scientists, look at stars at many stages of their life, as well as looking at computer models, to understand the lifecycle of a star. A GRB occurs at the end of some stars’ lifecycles, and Adria wants to know more about it. “Stars explode as GRBs only if they are extremely large (many times the mass of our own Sun),” she explains. “So these explosions are relatively rare, but can be seen all the way across the universe when they happen.”
Adria has spent much time in Arizona and in the mountains of Chile, peering into the night sky through huge telescopes. But these days, she mostly works from her computer researching observational and computational astrophysics. And she’s not the only one studying these bursts of light. NASA has a satellite in space that detects these explosions a few times every week. When an explosion is detected, the satellite sends Adria, and hundreds of fellow astronomers, the coordinates. What’s exciting is that these scientists are all looking at the explosion from different angles, thus bettering their understanding of them.
Some scientists also think that the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 450 million years ago was caused by a GRB that was relatively close to Earth “A GRB occurring in our own [Milky Way] Galaxy, aimed at Earth, could boil off half of our atmosphere in less than ten seconds,” Adria says. “While we don’t know how to protect Earth from this kind of catastrophe yet, it would be good to know if one is on its way, so we need to study how they work.”
It is the hope that by understanding these GRBs, Adria can begin to understand a bit about how stars evolve and the chemical composition of early galaxies – for what are galaxies, but clusters of millions or billions of stars. When stars explode, they leave behind certain remnants, depending on their size. However, one of her collaborations this summer resulted in a published paper that describes a remnant that was not expected to be seen after a GRB. Turns out there’s always something to learn in the vast cosmos, and perhaps we are a few explosions away from truly understanding the stars.