Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions ever detected in the
Universe. They are also one of the greatest mysteries of modern astronomy,
since so far there has been no conclusive to prove what causes them. Until
now, there have been two ‘prime suspects’ for what makes gamma-ray bursts:
the collision of neutron stars – dead, ultra-dense stars – or the death of
very massive stars in supernova explosions. The new results from the
XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope rule out the first hypothesis and confirm
the second, at least for the gamma-ray burst that occurred on 11 December

By analysing the afterglow of the gamma-ray burst in the X-ray light,
scientists produced the first ever evidence of the presence of chemical
elements which were the unmistakable remnants of a supernova explosion
which had occurred just a few days before. “We can now confidently say
that the death of a massive star, a supernova, was the cause of a
gamma-ray burst. However we still don’t know exactly how and why these
bursts, the most energetic phenomena in the Universe, are triggered,” says
ESA astronomer Norbert Schartel, a co-author of the original paper,
published today in Nature.

Gamma-ray bursts were first discovered in 1967 by chance, when satellites
designed to look for violations of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty detected
strong gamma-ray emissions coming from sources not in the vicinity of
Earth, but from outer space. They have been a mystery ever since. They
occur as often as several times a day but last for no longer than a couple
of minutes, and there is no way to predict when or where the next burst
will occur. Consequently they are very difficult to study.

For three decades it was not even known whether the explosions were close,
in our own Milky Way galaxy, or far away in distant galaxies. But
astronomers set up an ‘alert system’. This allows them to see the
‘afterglow’ of the burst before it fades away, by quickly aiming their
telescopes at the precise location in the sky shortly after a detector
triggers the alert. It is now clear that the bursts occur in galaxies
millions of light-years away.

The longest burst

Technically called ‘GRB 011211’, it was first detected on 11 December 2001
at 19:09:21 (Universal Time), by the Italian-Dutch satellite BeppoSAX. The
burst lasted for 270 seconds – the longest one observed by the satellite.
A few hours afterwards, when a first analysis confirmed that a burst had
indeed been registered, the BeppoSAX team alerted the rest of the
astronomical community. ESA’s XMM-Newton arrived on the scene 11 hours
after the original event. If XMM-Newton astronomers had reacted five hours
later it would have been too late; but they were lucky and were able to
study the afterglow when it was still 7 million times brighter (in X-rays)
than a whole galaxy. This was the third time that XMM-Newton had tried to
pinpoint a gamma-ray burst afterglow – the results of the previous two
observations were inconclusive.

On this occasion the observations revealed two important facts: first, the
material in the source was moving quickly towards Earth, at a tenth % of
the speed of light; and second, chemical analysis of this material showed
that it had to be the remnant of a supernova explosion.

“We were seeing a spherical shell of material ejected from a very recent
supernova, heated by the gamma-ray burst. The fact that the material was
coming in our direction means that the sphere was expanding,” explains

Silicon, sulphur, argon and calcium

XMM-Newton detected large amounts of magnesium, silicon, sulphur, argon
and calcium, but very little iron. This is the kind of material a massive
star would produce during its latest stages of evolution, just before
exploding as a supernova. Nuclear reactions in the star’s core fuse light
chemical elements into heavier ones, a process that generates the energy
needed by the star to shine; different elements are synthesised at each
stage of the star’s evolution. The supernova explosion would have ejected
this material into the surrounding environment, producing the sphere
subsequently illuminated by the gamma-ray burst afterglow seen by

Astronomers were even able to measure the size of the sphere: 10 thousand
million kilometres in radius. With that in hand, and knowing the velocity
of the material, they also estimated that the supernova explosion had
occurred a few days earlier.

Such a timescale is consistent with the low amounts of iron detected,
because this element forms in the material ejected by the supernova only
about two months after the explosion itself.

The reason why the neutron star collision hypothesis can be ruled out also
stems from these data.

“Such an event wouldn’t have expelled sufficient quantities of matter
(magnesium etc.) into the surrounding medium to explain what we see,” says

Moreover, the relatively low amounts of iron could not be explained by the
neutron star collision theory. Stars become neutron stars only after
exploding as supernovae, but many years – not just a few days – are needed
for the object to evolve from one stage to the next.

According to Fred Jansen, ESA’s XMM-Newton project scientist, “this kind
of study is made possible by the unprecedented collecting area and high
sensitivity of XMM-Newton. The Earth’s atmosphere prevents X-rays from
being detected by ground-based instruments, and no other space
telescope in operation could have performed an analysis of equal quality
of this gamma-ray burst afterglow. We are now at least one step closer to
solving the mystery of these energetic phenomena.”

However, many questions remain open in the ‘case of the gamma-ray bursts’.
Why are all supernova explosions not followed by a burst? What is the
precise physical mechanism that triggers the burst?

In October this year ESA is launching a space mission to address precisely
these questions. Its International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory,
INTEGRAL, will be the most sensitive gamma-ray observatory ever launched,
able to detect radiation from the most distant violent events.

Note to editors

XMM-Newton, ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror satellite, is the most powerful X-ray
telescope ever placed in orbit. It was launched by an Ariane 5 rocket from
ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on 10 December 1999. With its
unprecedented sensitivity it observes the X-ray sky, helping to solve many
cosmic mysteries, ranging from extremely violent and exotic processes,
such as enigmatic black holes, to the formation of galaxies. XMM-Newton
also observes celestial objects within our Solar System, such as comets
and planets.

The XMM-Newton results are reported in: ‘Evidence for outflowing supernova
ejects in the afterglow of Gamma Ray Burst GRB 011211’ by J.N. Reeves, D.
Watson, J.P. Osborne, K.A. Pounds, P.T. O’Brien, A.D.T. Short, M.J.L.
Turner, M.G. Watson, K.O. Mason, M. Ehle and N. Schartel, Nature, 4 April

More information on the ESA Science Programme, including XMM-Newton and
INTEGRAL, can be found at:

Information on ESA can be found at

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Dr Fred Jansen - ESA
XMM-Newton project scientist
Tel: +31 71 565 4426