The mysterious, bright flash in space may have actually been rocket debris

Gamma ray shooting.

In 2017, a team of astronomers looking at the oldest and most distant galaxy in the visible universe saw something strange in their data: a flash of strong light, which reported last year it could have been an explosion of gamma rays emanating from a star in an ancient galaxy. But other astronomers weren’t sure, this week either two papers in Nature Astronomy posit alternative explanation.

One of these papers focused on the probability of a flash coming from a gamma ray burst based on the total probabilities detection of gamma ray explosions; another paper identified the remains of a Breeze-M, the upper stage of the Russian Proton rocket, as the most likely source tricky data.

Gamma ray bursts can come from multiple sources that they may look slightly different from each other, but in general, bursts of radiation are transient. They can range from milliseconds to a full minute, but given the vastness of the night sky and how short the bursts are, they are easy to miss unless the telescope is looking in the right place the right time.

An earlier group of astronomers calculated the probability of spotting an alleged gamma-ray burst from early space, in galaxy GN-z11, about one at 10 billion. So, some pretty long chances –long enough for other astronomers to start thinking about alternative torch source options. Sometimes nature flashes – either from one of the fiercest explosive phenomena in known space or a mere reflection of sunlight from a passing satellite – it comes down to probability.

According to the astrophysicist Charles Steinhardt, leading author of the paper suggesting that the flash may have been reflected light, the slope of the team’s earlier data looked more like a star than a gammaray burst. And so you start thinking, ‘Whey, is there any way to get something that looks like a star? ‘”Steinhardt told Gizmodo in a video call. “We know that many things look like the sun; basically, anything that reflects sunlight. “Like, for example, a piece of metal floating around the Earth.

The other group soon gave a plausible answer to their question with their own paper too published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy. That paper he identified one piece of space debris – the upper stage of a Russian rocket – as the probable culprit for the rocket.

Breeze-M rocket.

Russian Proton Breeze-M rocket in November 2006
Photography: STR / AFP (Getty Images))

2017 team “They found the most interesting object in the sky, they discovered something really weird and exciting about it, they came up with their best explanation and they published it, because that’s what you do,” said Steinhardt, who is associated with Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “I wish they were right.”

To identify a Russian missile between 23000 pieces of space debris larger than the softball currently in orbit, a team led by Michał Michałowski, an astrophysicist at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, looked at the orbits of known space debris and satellites on the day the team’s original observations were made. top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Only one, the Russian Breeze-M missile stage, was close enough to interfere observations.

The original team, led by Linhua Jiang of the Kawli Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University in Beijing, China, wrote a response to two new papers, which was also published yesterday in the astronomy of nature. They note that in their original analysis, they excluded the Russian missile phase, using calculations from an online tool called Calsky, which is used to determine where things are in the sky. Calsky has shut down, but given the number of satellites and space debris out there, it might be a good idea to make the new tool publicly available (and some are being worked on). Jiang’s group noted that satellite “glow, as such reflections of sunlight are called, cannot be ruled out.

With problems like the recent flash, “if you only see a brief increase in brightness and you don’t have high spectral resolution, one flash looks like another,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. he told Gizmodo in a message.

And space – at least the space we humans currently use for our satellites and space telescopes –it doesn’t even get more spacious. According to McDowell, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite project will increase the number of large objects in low Earth orbit by 100 times.

Satellites stretch across the sky.

Image with a long exposure of Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay in February 2021.
Image: Mariana SUAREZ / AFP (Getty Images))

“This is definitely not a rare situation. Satellites are destroying astronomical data on a daily basis, ”Michałowski told Gizmodo in a message. “The situation will get worse when there are more satellites, because then it will not be possible to select areas of the sky without satellites, and larger parts of the images will be useless.”

In addition to astronomical observations, multiple satellites can interfere even nakedocular observations of the cosmos. This causes problems for groups like Indigenous communities in Australia, whose traditions rely on constellations, as Vice reported. The so-called “mega-constellation” of satellites increases the brightness of the sky, according to a recent document published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, reflecting light with Sa.

Still, the GN-z11 is a remarkable thing. Such an ancient galaxy – seen as it was 13.4 billion years ago – could still offer insight into the formation of the early universe. But in order to draw any useful conclusions from that, we will have to look at all the things we have put into orbit.

More: The strongest gamma-ray bursts ever recorded illuminate the most powerful explosions in space

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Naveen Kumar

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