Spaceflight Now Home

Spaceflight Now +

Premium video content for our Spaceflight Now Plus subscribers.

STS-71: First Mir docking
Space shuttle Atlantis and a multinational crew flew to the Russian space station Mir in June 1995 for the first in a series of joint docking missions, launching a new era of cooperation in space between the United States and Russia that would pave the way for the International Space Station. This post-flight presentation of highlights from the historic STS-71 mission is narrated by the astronauts.

 Small | Medium | Large

Challenger anniversary
On the 20th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, a memorial service was held at the Kennedy Space Center's Space Mirror. Speakers at the tribute to honor the lost Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1 astronauts included the widow and son of Challenger commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, officials with the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, two local U.S. Representatives, commander of the first shuttle flight after Challenger and the Kennedy Space Center director.

 Play video

Future Mars rover
NASA's next mobile rover that will be sent to the Red Planet is Mars Science Laboratory. Roughly the size of a Mini Cooper car and designed to operate on the Martian surface for two Earth years, this large rover is scheduled for launch in 2009. Project manager Richard Cook unveils a model of the rover and talks about the mission in this video clip.

 Play video

Mars rover anniversary
The remarkable rovers Spirit and Opportunity remain alive and well on the surface of the Red Planet, far outlasting their planned 90-day missions. On Jan. 24, the second anniversary of Opportunity's landing, project officials and scientists held this celebration event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 Dialup | Broadband 1 2

Launch of New Horizons
The New Horizons spacecraft begins a voyage across the solar system to explore Pluto and beyond with its successful launch January 19 aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

 Full coverage

Stardust comes home
NASA's Stardust spacecraft returns samples of cometary dust to Earth with its safe landing in Utah on January 15.

 Full coverage

NASA administrator
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and his deputy Shana Dale hold a news conference at Kennedy Space Center in the final hours of the countdown to the New Horizons launch. Questions from reporters ranged from the Pluto-bound mission, the agency's budget and the space shuttle program.

 Dialup | Broadband | iPod

STS-32: LDEF retrieval
Space shuttle Columbia's mission in January 1990 sought to retrieve the Long Duration Exposure Facility -- a bus-size platform loaded with 57 experiments -- that had been put into orbit six years earlier. LDEF was supposed to be picked up within a year of its launch. But plans changed and then the Challenger accident occurred. Columbia's STS-32 crew got into space, deployed a Navy communications satellite, then fulfilled their LDEF recovery mission, carried out a host of medical tests and returned to Earth with a nighttime touchdown in the California desert. The crew presents this post-flight film of mission highlights.

 Small | Medium | Large

NASA through the decades
This film looks at the highlights in NASA's history from its creation in the 1950s, through the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, birth of the space shuttle and the loss of Challenger, launch of Hubble and much more.

 Small | Medium | Large

Become a subscriber
More video

Neutron star swaps lead to short gamma-ray bursts
Posted: January 31, 2006

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe, emitting huge amounts of high-energy radiation. For decades their origin was a mystery. Scientists now believe they understand the processes that produce gamma-ray bursts. However, a new study by Jonathan Grindlay of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and his colleagues, Simon Portegies Zwart (Astronomical Institute, The Netherlands) and Stephen McMillan (Drexel University), suggests a previously overlooked source for some gamma-ray bursts: stellar encounters within globular clusters.

The photograph at left shows the galactic globular cluster M15, which contains a double neutron star system that will eventually collide to create a gamma-ray burst, as shown in the inset images at right. The right-hand images are taken from a computer animation and shows several snapshots covering just a fraction of a second in total time, with time advancing from top to bottom. Recent research shows that such collisions may be the source of up to 30 percent of all short gamma-ray bursts observed from Earth. M15 Image Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF; Merger Image Credit: NASA / Dana Berry
"As many as one-third of all short gamma-ray bursts that we observe may come from merging neutron stars in globular clusters," said Grindlay.

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) come in two distinct "flavors." Some last up to a minute, or even longer. Astronomers believe those long GRBs are generated when a massive star explodes in a hypernova. Other bursts last for only a fraction of a second. Astronomers theorize that short GRBs originate from the collision of two neutron stars, or a neutron star and a black hole.

Most double neutron star systems result from the evolution of two massive stars already orbiting each other. The natural aging process will cause both to become neutron stars (if they start with a given mass), which then spiral together over millions or billions of years until they merge and release a gamma-ray burst.

Grindlay's research points to another potential source of short GRBs - globular clusters. Globular clusters contain some of the oldest stars in the universe crammed into a tight space only a few light-years across.

Such tight quarters provoke many close stellar encounters, some of which lead to star swaps. If a neutron star with a stellar companion (such as a white dwarf or main-sequence star) exchanges its partner with another neutron star, the resulting pair of neutron stars will eventually spiral together and collide explosively, creating a gamma-ray burst.

"We see these precursor systems, containing one neutron star in the form of a millisecond pulsar, all over the place in globular clusters," stated Grindlay. "Plus, globular clusters are so closely packed that you have a lot of interactions. It's a natural way to make double neutron-star systems."

The astronomers performed about 3 million computer simulations to calculate the frequency with which double neutron-star systems can form in globular clusters. Knowing how many have formed over the galaxy's history, and approximately how long it takes for a system to merge, they then determined the frequency of short gamma-ray bursts expected from globular cluster binaries. They estimate that between 10 and 30 percent of all short gamma-ray bursts that we observe may result from such systems.

This estimate takes into account a curious trend uncovered by recent GRB observations. Mergers and thus bursts from so-called "disk" neutron-star binaries - systems created from two massive stars that formed together and died together - are estimated to occur 100 times more frequently than bursts from globular cluster binaries. Yet the handful of short GRBs that have been precisely located tend to come from galactic halos and very old stars, as expected for globular clusters.

"There's a big bookkeeping problem here," said Grindlay.

To explain the discrepancy, Grindlay suggests that bursts from disk binaries are likely to be harder to spot because they tend to emit radiation in narrower blasts visible from fewer directions. Narrower "beaming" might result from colliding stars whose spins are aligned with their orbit, as expected for binaries that have been together from the moment of their birth. Newly joined stars, with their random orientations, might emit wider bursts when they merge.

"More short GRBs probably come from disk systems - we just don't see them all," explained Grindlay.

Only about a half dozen short GRBs have been precisely located by gamma-ray satellites recently, making thorough studies difficult. As more examples are gathered, the sources of short GRBs should become much better understood.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.