5 billion-year-old collapsing star blinds NASA satellite

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

A gamma-ray burst from a star that collapsed to form a black hole long before our sun and planets formed overwhelmed NASA's orbiting Swift observatory, temporarily blinding it. The explosion from the flare-up, known as GRB 100621A, reached Earth on June 21, and its light was 140 times brighter than the brightest steady source of X-rays, a neutron star 500,000 times closer to Earth.

"The intensity of these X-rays was unexpected and unprecedented," Neil Gehrels, Swift's principal investigator, told the London Telegraph. "Just when we were beginning to think that we had seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can be."

Dr. Phil Evans, of Leicester University's space department, added that, "The burst was so bright when it first erupted that our data-analysis software shut down. So many photons were bombarding the detector each second that it just couldn't count them quickly enough. It was like trying to use a rain gauge and a bucket to measure the flow rate of a tsunami. This burst is one for the record books."