Shortly before 6:41 p.m. EDT on Oct. 27, Swift's Burst Alert Telescope detected the 1,000th GRB as a sudden pulse of gamma rays arising from a location toward the constellation Eridanus. Astronomers dubbed the event GRB 151027B, after the detection date and the fact that it was the second burst of the day. Swift automatically determined its location, broadcast the position to astronomers around the world, and turned to investigate the source with its own sensitive X-ray, ultraviolet and optical telescopes.
Astronomers classify GRBs by their duration. Like GRB 151027B, roughly 90 percent of bursts are of the "long" variety, where the gamma-ray pulse lasts more than two seconds. They are believed to occur in a massive star whose core has run out of fuel and collapsed into a black hole. As matter falls toward the newly formed black hole, it launches jets of subatomic particles that move out through the star's outer layers at nearly the speed of light. When the particle jets reach the stellar surface, they emit gamma rays, the most energetic form of light. In many cases, the star is later seen to explode as a supernova.
"Short" bursts last less than two seconds -- and sometimes just thousandths of a second. Swift observations provide strong evidence these events are caused by mergers of orbiting neutron stars or black holes.
Once a GRB is identified, the race is on to observe its fading light with as many instruments as possible. Based on alerts from Swift, robotic observatories and human-operated telescopes turn to the blast site to measure its rapidly fading afterglow, which emits X-rays, ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, and radio waves. While optical afterglows are generally faint, they can briefly become bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye.
"Over the years, astronomers have constantly refined their techniques to get their telescopes onto the burst site in the shortest possible time," said John Nousek, Swift’s director of mission operations and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. "In fact, the process to follow up Swift GRB alerts is as productive as ever."
GRB 151027B provides a perfect example. Five hours after the Swift alert, the burst location first became visible from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Paranal, Chile. There a team led by Dong Xu of the Chinese National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing captured the afterglow's visible light using the Very Large Telescope's X-shooter spectrograph. The ESO observations show that light from the burst had been traveling to us for more than 12 billion years, placing it in the most distant few percent of GRBs Swift has recorded.
Astronomers now have distance measurements for about 30 percent of Swift GRBs, which makes it possible to investigate how these powerful events are distributed across space and time. The distance record is held by GRB 090429B, which exploded at the dawn of star formation in the universe. Its light took more than 13 billion years to reach Earth.