The Brightest Explosions in the Universe; The Secret Lives of Stars; Special Editions; by Neil Gehrels, Luigi Piro and Peter J. T. Leonard; 8 Page(s)
Early in the morning of January 23, 1999, a robotic telescope in New Mexico picked up a faint flash of light in the constellation Corona Borealis. Though just barely visible through binoculars, it turned out to be the most brilliant explosion ever witnessed by humanity. We could see it nine billion light-years away, more than halfway across the observable universe. If the event had instead taken place a few thousand light-years away, it would have been as bright as the midday sun, and it would have dosed Earth with enough radiation to kill off nearly every living thing.
The flash was another of the famous gamma-ray bursts, which in recent decades have been one of astronomy's most intriguing mysteries. The first sighting of a gamma-ray burst (GRB) came on July 2, 1967, from military satellites watching for nuclear tests in space. These cosmic explosions proved to be rather different from the man-made explosions that the satellites were designed to detect. For most of the 37 years since then, each new burst had merely heightened the puzzlement. Whenever researchers thought they had the explanation, the evidence sent them back to square one.