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August 3, 2013 12:45 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2013-29

Hubble Finds 'Smoking Gun' After Gamma-Ray Blast

August 3, 2013: Ever since U.S. Air Force satellites serendipitously discovered gamma-ray bursts in the 1960s, astronomers have been searching for the triggering mechanism. Gamma-ray bursts are mysterious flashes of intense high-energy radiation that appear from random directions in space. These titanic explosions unleash as much energy in less than a second as the Sun does in 1 million years.

Now, astronomers are using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to gather key evidence on what powers short-duration gamma-ray bursts, which last up to two seconds. Probing the location of a recent short-duration burst in near-infrared light, Hubble found the fading fireball produced in the aftermath of the blast. The afterglow reveals for the first time a new kind of stellar blast called a kilonova, an explosion predicted to accompany a short-duration gamma-ray burst. The kilonova is the "smoking gun" evidence that short-duration bursts are sparked by the merger of two small, super-dense stellar objects, such as a pair of neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Tanvir (University of Leicester), A. Levan (University of Warwick), A. Fruchter (STScI), J. Hjorth (University of Copenhagen), R. Hounsell (STScI), K. Wiersema (University of Leicester), and R. Tunnicliffe (University of Warwick)