Reporting in the May 12 issue of Nature, astronomers announced that they have penetrated the heart of the universe’s most powerful explosion – a gamma-ray burst (GRB). Using the PAIRITEL (Peters Automated Infrared Imaging Telescope) robotic telescope on Mount Hopkins, Ariz., they detected a flash of infrared light accompanying the burst of high-energy radiation that signaled the death of a star 15 times more massive than the sun.
“This is the first time anyone has seen infrared light simultaneously with a gamma-ray burst,” said Cullen Blake, graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author on the paper. “This burst filled in a piece of the puzzle we didn’t even know was missing.”

The ability of PAIRITEL to quickly and automatically aim at an object of interest proved key to obtaining this result. PAIRITEL pointed in the direction of the burst minutes after the Integral gamma-ray satellite detected it. As a result, astronomers spotted infrared light from the explosion while the gamma-ray burst was ongoing.

“Gamma-ray bursts have been studied for 35 years, and we thought that GRBs were just that – a burst of gamma-ray and X-ray light,” said Joshua Bloom (former Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows and now assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley), who developed the PAIRITEL telescope. “Our new data offer a more expansive view – that whatever is producing the gamma rays is also capable of producing optical and infrared light.”