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Of Particular Significance

A Bright Flash in the Neighborhood

28 May 2014, 03:47 UTC
A Bright Flash in the Neighborhood
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Comparable in size to the Milky Way, our host galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy is the most distant object easily visible (in dark skies) to the naked eye; it lies 2.5 million light-years away. About 2.5 million years ago, something in this distant star city went “boom”. And in doing so it flashed, brightly, in high-energy photons — particles of light (or, more precisely, particles of electromagnetic radiation, of which visible light is just an example) — photons that carry many thousands of times more energy than do the photons that our eyes are designed to see.

Some of these photons, after traveling for millions of years across space, arrived at Earth this afternoon. They showed up in the Swift satellite’s telescopes, which are designed precisely to notice these things. And Swift’s telescopes identified these photons as arriving from a location somewhere within Andromeda… within a globular cluster of stars, a tightly-knit neighborhood within the city that is Andromeda.
What caused this colossal explosion, perhaps the nearest of its type ever observed by modern astronomers? That is the burning question that astronomers, and their friends in gravitational physics and particle physics, are aching to know. It is likely that by tomorrow ...

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