|Every once in a while, statistically detected once a day or so, a GIANT star explodes as a hypernova (an over grown supernova) and channels its energy straight at us. This energy is mostly contained in an insanely powerful beam of gamma rays. That said, they also give off X-Ray and Optical light, and by observing the optical light we can get precise positions and understand the host objects that contain the poor star that just blew itself to bits. (see here for more info on these systems)|
When satellites detect these objects they beam their detection to a network of astronomers (academic and citizen scientists) scattered all around the planet. It is vital that optical telescopes get on these objects as quickly as possible to determine how the gamma-ray burst are changing in brightness. The very first GRB to be imaged in the optical was GRB 970228 in 1987 by the William Herschel Telescope. Initially, all the systems being seen were to faint – due strictly to distance – to be seen with telescopes not measured in many meters. In 1999 everything changed with GRB 990123. Taking 2 frames per minutes for entirely different reasons, ROTSE happened to walk straight in on a GRB in outburst and it documented this objects rise and fall in brightness.
This opened the door to the amateur community to chase GRB optical afterglows.
The first group to dive in was a club in Finland with a 16″ Meade LX200 telescope. Setup to function remotely, this telescope and the club that operated it prepared to keep an eye on the sky until a GRB appeared overhead. On September 28, 2000, Arto Oksanen and his club became the first amateurs to view a GRB in visible light (GRB 000926). They weren’t the first to see it, but… That would come later. Over the years, dozens have been observed by amateurs, but GRB030725 was the first GRB discovered by an amateur, AAVSO member Berto Monard. After this, the Finland club got a 20″ telescope and an SBIG Paramount ME (Mmmm, Paramount…). With this new equipment, on October 10, 2007, GRB 071010B went off and Arto, the speaker, was the first person to catch the (visible light) wave. This is one of those neat times when in a race of pros and amateurs, the amateurs are starting to win periodically.
Interested in joining the race? AAVSO has a high-energy network email list where you can listen in on the conversation and find out how you can join in yourself. Check it out here.