News about gamma ray bursts – those massive electromagnetic explosions caused by supernovas – travels almost as fast as the real event. And when it appears to have come from the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighbor in the universe, the Twitter buzz could probably be picked up by life forms there – two-and-a-half million years from now. Unfortunately, the burst was soon exposed as a bust.
Initial reports on May 27, 2014, were that NASA’s Swift’s Burst Alert telescope (BAT) gave a gamma burst alert at 21:21 pm Universal time and, three minutes later, the X-ray telescope on-board Swift observed an X-ray glow. The location was sent to ground stations and telescopes around the world were trained on the source, the Andromeda galaxy.
As the Twitter-verse exploded with the digital equivalent of a gamma ray burst, speculation quickly centered on colliding neutron stars as the cause and dire warnings were given that, in the unlikely event that if gamma ray burst occurred in our galaxy was pointed directly at us, it would wipe out the ozone layer and cause a mass extinction.
Unfortunately, the news the following day was that the burst was a false alarm. The Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope actually detected a previously known object. This occurred at the same time as a power outage at Goddard Space Flight Center and Swift Data Center, which meant that the data couldn’t be immediately analyzed by the Swift astronomers.
Even more interesting, the Swift team never announced a gamma ray burst. A circular released by the Swift team said that it was a relatively common, persistent x-ray source — possibly a globular cluster — that had previously been cataloged and whose intensity was overestimated. In conclusion:
We therefore do not believe this source to be in outburst. Instead, it was a serendipitous constant source in the field of view of a BAT subthreshold trigger.
Whatever it was, it was fun night while it lasted and, in about nine months, there will probably be a lot of babies born named Gamma Ray.