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In a distant corner of the universe, something is traveling faster than light.
No, the laws of physics aren't being violated: It's still true that nothing can travel faster than light in the vacuum of empty space. But when light travels through matter, like interstellar gas or a soup of charged particles, it slow downs, meaning other matter might overtake it. And that may explain the weird symmetry in pulses of some of the most energetic light in the universe, called gamma-ray bursts.
Bursts - Flashes - Light - Faraway - Galaxies
These cryptic bursts — bright flashes of gamma-ray light that come from faraway galaxies — form when massive stars collapse or when ultradense neutron stars collide. These cataclysms send speeding jets of hot, charged plasma zooming through space.
But these signals have an odd symmetry, and the reason they do is still a mystery.
Burst - Peak - Flickering - Pattern - Jon
A gamma-ray burst doesn't brighten and dim in one steady peak, but instead in a flickering pattern, said Jon Hakkila, an astrophysicist at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
Hakkila has worked on this puzzle for years. Now, he and a collaborator have a solution: plasma traveling both slower and faster than the speed of light could explain this flickering pattern, as they report in a paper published Sept. 23 in The Astrophysical Journal. If they're right, it may help us understand what's actually producing these gamma-rays.
Step - Scale - Phenomena - Plasma - Observations
"I find it a great step forward," that connects the small scale phenomena in the plasma to our large-scale observations, said Dieter Hartmann, an astrophysicist at Clemson University who was not involved in the study.
In the last few years, Hakkila has found that gamma-ray bursts have small fluctuations in brightness on top of their overall brightening and dimming. If you subtract the overarching brightening and dimming, you're left with a series of smaller peaks — one primary...
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