Updated Sky watchers are rapidly turning their instruments in the direction of Andromeda, after NASA's Swift spacecraft spotted what looks like a deadly gamma-ray burst spotted at 9:21 PM UMT, May 27.
That's got astrophysicists excited, because Andromeda is our nearest galactic neighbour, which means the data collection from the event will be rich pickings that could stretch all the way to gravitational waves.
See below for an update on this developing story.
Since Andromeda – M31 to its familiars – is 2.5 million light-years distant, humans' long-gone predecessors were fooling around with the first stone tools when the event actually took place.
Nature notes that if the burst was caused by colliding neutron stars, gravitational wave observations could be the result.
Sadly the world's most sensitive gravitational wave instrument, America's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) is offline for a US$200 million upgrade and can't be deployed for this event.
The first job the world of astrophysics has will be to analyse the data collected by NASA'sSwift spacecraft, which was the first to spot the event (gamma ray bursts, GRBs, are Swift's mission, after all), and match it up with other observations. That will determine whether what's just wiped out any nearby lifeforms in its path is a GRB or an Ultra-luminous X-Ray Object.
The reason for doubt is that while it's close, the M31 event is pretty small as GRBs go. That makes some astronomers think the UXRO option is more likely. Even if that were so, its proximity would yield exciting science.
Preliminary estimates of put the source of the event at about 500 solar masses, making it the biggest “nearby” explosion we've been able to detect.
Whatever it was, our solar system was slightly off-axis for the event, which science-fiction author Charlie Stross tweeted was a good thing for us, here on Earth, because it means we're not in the way of the killer burst: