Science and Technology Facilities Council
Printable version E-mail this to a friend

Swift Satellite records early phase of gamma ray burst

UK astronomers, using a telescope aboard the NASA Swift Satellite, have captured information from the early stages of a gamma ray burst - the most violent and luminous explosions occurring in the Universe since the Big Bang. The work was published on Friday 27th February in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical society.

Swift is able to both locate and point at gamma ray bursts (GRBs) far quicker than any other telescope, so by using its Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) the astronomers were able to obtain an ultraviolet spectrum of a GRB just 251 seconds after its onset - the earliest ever captured. Further use of the instrument in this way will allow them to calculate the distance and brightness of GRBs within a few hundred seconds of their initial outburst, and gather new information about the causes of bursts and the galaxies they originate from.

It is currently thought that some GRBs are caused by immense explosions following the collapse of the core of a rapidly rotating, high-mass star into a black hole, but there are still many mysteries surrounding them.

"The UVOT’s wavelength range, coupled with the fact that Swift is a space observatory with a speedy response rate, unconstrained by time of day or weather, has allowed us to collect this early ultraviolet spectrum," said Martin Still from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) at UCL.

Paul Kuin, also from MSSL, who works on the calibration of the UVOT instrument explained: "By looking at these earlier moments of gamma ray bursts, we will not only be able to better calculate things such as the luminosity and distance of a burst, but to find out more about the galaxies that play host to them and the impact these explosions have on their environments. Once this new technique is applied to much brighter bursts, we’ll have a wealth of new data."

Massimiliano De Pasquale, a GRB scientist of the UVOT team from MSSL, added, "The UVOT instrument is particularly suited to study bursts with an average to high redshift (1) – a part of the ultraviolet spectrum that is difficult for even the very big ground-based telescopes to study. Using UVOT with Swift, we can now find redshifts for bursts that were difficult to capture in the past and find out more about their distant host galaxies, about ten billion light years away."

Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said, "This is an amazing first for the UVOT instrument and an exciting new development in the study of these most violent and energetic explosions. Thanks to the hard work of our UK scientists at MSSL, and their partners, we can now gather far more information about gamma ray bursts and the early Universe."

Since its launch in 2004, the Swift satellite has provided the most comprehensive study so far of GRBs and their afterglows. Using the UVOT to obtain ultraviolet spectrums, the Swift team will be able to build on this study and even determine more about the host galaxies’ chemistry.

Paul Kuin said, "The new spectrum has not only allowed us to determine the distance of the gamma ray burst’s host galaxy but has revealed the density of its hydrogen clouds. Learning more about these far-away galaxies helps us to understand how they formed during the early universe. The gamma ray burst observed on this occasion originated in a galaxy 8 billion light years from Earth."

Swift is a NASA mission in collaboration with the STFC in the UK and the Italian Space Agency (ASI)


A copy of the paper - GRB 081203A: Swift – UVOT captures the earliest ultraviolet spectrum of a gamma ray burst – is available on request from the STFC Press Office.


Illustration of a gamma ray burst


Royal Astronomical Society


Dr Paul Kuin

Mullard Space Science Laboratory

University College London

Tel: +44(0)1483 204256


Julia Short

STFC Press Office

Tel: +44 (0)1793 442 012



Launched in November 2004, Swift detects gamma-ray burst and X-ray flashes, and relays their coordinates to the scientific community within seconds. While Swift rapidly re-points to continue observations with its high resolution telescopes of the decaying X-ray, UV and optical afterglows that accompany these events, rapid follow-up observations may also be undertaken by other more powerful satellites such as Chandra, the Hubble Space Telescope or XMM satellites and by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and other major observatories. These powerful co-ordinated observation programmes, instigated by Swift, are slowly unravelling the mystery of star explosions.

Goddard Space Flight Centre in the US manages Swift, a NASA mission with participation of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in the United Kingdom. Swift, a medium-class Explorer mission was built in collaboration with national laboratories and universities including the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Penn State University, Sonoma State University, the University of Leicester and University College London Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

(1) Redshift is the systematic displacement of individual lines in the spectrum of a celestial object toward the red or longer wavelength, end of the visible spectrum. All distant galaxies show a redshift proportional to their distance from the earth as a result of the general expansion of space. Known as the cosmological red shift, this results when the wavelength of light is stretched as it moves through the expanding universe.

Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

• The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire

• The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also funds UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2008 and 2009 we will invest approximately £787 million.

The Council is a partner in the UK space programme, coordinated by the British National Space Centre.

IT Legacy Contract Disaggregation: The Clock is Ticking Fast...