Gamma-ray bursts (GRB) have been happening for billions of years. When they flash, they are as bright as a billion, billion stars. Like many scientific discoveries, GRBs were discovered by accident. Military officers, intent on protecting America, launched a series of satellites to detect powerful blasts of nuclear energy. They found the blasts, but not where they expected. The blasts were occurring frequently, and in random places in the sky. The bursts never appeared in the same place twice. They lasted mere seconds, much shorter than bursts coming from nuclear weapons. In 1971, astronomers announced their discovery of gamma-ray bursts in our universe.
Gamma-ray bursts last only a few seconds, but in that few seconds, the amount of radiation energy the gamma ray produces is equal to the amount of energy our sun produces during its entire lifetime. And, since gamma ray bursts occur approximately once a day, there is evidence of a lot of explosive activity.
The frequency of the ray bursts allow scientists to collect data previously unavailable. The new data will allow Swift scientists to add to the library they already have about how the universe started. Thus, theories will continue to be developed, refuted, expanded and discarded. Perhaps more things will be discovered “by accident.”
Swift is a satellite designed by Penn State researchers and launched by NASA to study gamma-ray bursts. Launched in November of 2005, the satellite was named after the swift, a small, quickly moving bird. Catching a GRB is no easy task. The burst can appear from any direction without warning and can last for only a few milliseconds to just over a minute. So, the satellite has to move quickly and be in position to capture the data. According to NASA, no other satellite turns faster. In addition to GRBs, Swift searches and records other phenomena it observes in the sky.
The Swift satellite is comprised of three telescopes: the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT); the X-ray Telescope (XRT); and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT). The BAT detects and locates the GRBs. Once one is identified, Swift repositions itself so that the other two telescopes can collect data on the afterglow of the burst. All the data is transmitted to earth and is available publicly within 30 minutes of the GRB detection.