Gamma rays have the most energy of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum (which includes more familiar radiation such as x-rays, radio, and visible light). The wavelength of gamma rays (10 picometers and smaller–which is a subatomic scale) is less than that of any other sort of EM radiation. Such radiation is created in the event horizons of massive black holes and during the destruction of gigantically massive stars. Comic book enthusiasts know gamma rays as the mysterious super force which created and empowers the incredible hulk, although actual cell biologists recognize gamma rays as ionizing radiation–supremely hazardous to living entities.
On Saturday, April 27, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope (a NASA satellite which orbits around Earth) detected a sudden brilliant surge of gamma radiation from the collapse of a super massive star in a galaxy 3.6 billion light-years away. Gamma ray burst travel in vastly powerful beams which are very narrow–an effect which is a result of the shape of supernovae, as illustrated in the picture above. Our old friend Eta Carinae has probably exploded and produced such a burst by now. A gamma ray bust from a nearby Wolf–Rayet star (any star with more than 20 solar masses) would most likely fry away life on our planet if it were aimed directly at Earth, but such explosions are increasingly rare as the universe ages. Scientists can monitor gamma bursts from the edge of the universe (i.e. the distant past) but such a powerful event has never been monitored by our modern satellites and observatories from a middle range until now.
As the gamma ray burst fades (and the astronomy community begins to assess the initial data) other observatories will be on the lookout for the next wave of phenomena associated with the supernova. Most of the energy of a supernova explosion is believed to be dissipated as neutrinos (esoteric subatomic particles which react very little with physical matter in this universe). Fortunately humankind now possesses a sophisticated neutrino observatory on the South Pole where thousands of sensors are imbedded within a vast amount of Antarctic ice. In the rare cases where neutrinos interact with matter, they produce a cascade of charged particles which can emit Cherenkov radiation (familiar as the spooky blue glow in a nuclear reactor). Understanding the neutrino signature of such an event would potentially further our understanding of the physical parameters of existence.
Also, a luminous flash of less energetic radiation (x-rays, radio waves, light, and so forth) should be following the gamma ray burst. We understand these parts of supernovae better (since they are visible from many angles unlike the linear gamma ray bursts), but it should still be pretty–and round out our understanding of the full astronomical event.