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Secrets to Gamma Ray Burst Could Lead to Advances in Alien Life Research

23 January 2018

A scientist from Queen’s University Belfast has recreated the first ever mini version of a gamma-ray burst in a laboratory. This opens up a new way to investigate gamma-ray properties and also potentially unlocks some of the mysteries around aliens.

This shows the rate at which the LAT detects gamma rays with energies above 300 million electron volts. Source: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT CollaborationThis shows the rate at which the LAT detects gamma rays with energies above 300 million electron volts. Source: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Gamma-ray bursts are intense explosions of light and are among some of the brightest events observed in the universe. But because they occur in short bursts and originate in distant galaxies — sometimes billions of light years from Earth — scientists have not been able to figure out exactly what causes them.

Some theorists have suggested they may be messages from advanced alien civilizations but there are many experts that have predicted that the bursts are emitted when jets of particles are thrown out by massive astrophysical objects, like black holes. In order for this theory to work, the beams released by black holes would have to have strong, self-generated magnetic fields and the rotation of particles around the fields would give off powerful bursts of gamma-ray radiation.

Dr. Gianluca Sarri from the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University has led an international team of researchers to create the first small-scale replica of gamma-ray bursts. He is now able to prove for the first time that some of the key phenomena that play a major role in producing a gamma-ray burst.

The researchers used the Gemini laser, the most intense laser on Earth, to create the mini gamma-ray burst.

Dr. Sarri says, “We thought that the best way to work out how gamma-ray bursts are produced would be to mimic them in small-scale reproductions in the laboratory — reproducing a little source of these beams and look at how they evolve when left on their own."

"During the experiment, we were able to confirm that the current models used to understand gamma-ray bursts are on the right track, predicting the right mechanisms for the magnetic field generation and gamma-ray emission," Sarri continued. "The experiment is useful as the beams are entirely made up of electrons and positrons, which is a peculiar state of matter. In an electron-positron beam, both particles have exactly the same mass, leading to fascinating consequences. For example, the sound would not exist in an electron-positron world."

The research could unlock major clues in the search for alien life. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence investigation looks for messages in space that can’t be explained naturally and could potentially be originating from alien life.

"If you really want to search the universe for alien transmissions, you first need to make sure all the natural emissions are understood so that they can be ruled out," Sarri says. "Our study helps towards understanding black hole and pulsar emissions, so that, whenever we detect anything, we can determine straight away if it can be explained naturally or if it has come from an alien civilization."

The paper on this research was published in Physical Review Letters.

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