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Polarizing Gamma Ray Bursts

Polarizing Gamma Ray Bursts

Gamma rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, or waves of photons, that have a very short wavelength and corresponding high frequency. They are associated with the decay of high energy states in atomic nuclei and are considered to be a high energy form of radiation.

When stars that are burning out at the end of their life collapse, they often explode in a supernova process or transform themselves into dense neutron stars or black holes. At some points in these processes, massive amounts of energy are released. Astronomers believe that some of these events involve a very short and intense release of gamma rays, known as a gamma ray burst. Each year, several hundred of these bursts are detected from random directions, lasting from a few milliseconds to a few minutes and followed by an afterglow effect of radiation at longer wavelengths and longer duration. Most of the sources of these bursts are billions of light years away from us, and the energy level associated with them exceeds the entire amount of energy contained by our Sun, if it were all to be released instantaneously.

Recent astronomical data has shown that some gamma ray bursts have had a significant portion of their radiation polarized. This would most likely take a very large and intensely strong magnetic field, and it has been theorized that such fields would be created during the collapse of a star.

Since gamma ray bursts are the brightest, strongest, “flashlights in the sky”, they might be useful as information beacons if some method of encoding information into the energy could be used. Controlling the magnetic fields involved with the polarization process might allow information to be embedded in the radiation burst.

Imagine placing a large stencil like device in front of a predicted solar flare from our Sun. When the flare reached the stencil, it would destroy it, but where the stencil absorbed part of the flare, the intensity level would be slightly lower than the portions that did not absorb anything. Likewise, it might be possible to “imprint” an effect on the magnetic fields involved in the collapse of a star that would be transferred to the associated gamma ray burst and manifested in the pattern of polarization. A small pattern could be amplified in the same way that a transistor or vacuum tube transfers a pattern from a small carrier to a more powerful one.

A device capable of this would not only need to manipulate the very strong magnetic field of a collapsing star, it would also need to be designed to survive that incredible environment long enough to perform it’s function. Current plasma research mostly deals with using magnetic containment fields to hold plasma inside a virtual bottle. Perhaps future technology could be used in an inverse manner to create a protective bottle that would allow a device inside it to survive a very hostile environment outside.


The strong polarization measured by RHESSI provides a unique window on how these bursts are powered, according to Boggs. He interprets the measurements to mean that the burst originates from a region of highly structured magnetic fields, stronger than the fields at the surface of a neutron star – until now, the strongest magnetic fields observed in the universe. “The polarization is telling us that the magnetic fields themselves are acting as the dynamite, driving the explosive fireball we see as a gamma-ray burst,” he said.

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