Article written by: Jorick Vink, Astronomer at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
Have you ever been worried about the impact of an asteroid wiping out human life? Well, I have some disturbing news for you: there is another possibility involving the explosion of a massive star that gives rise to a gamma-ray burst (called by astronomers simply a GRB), when the star ends its life producing a black hole. Stars like our Sun spin slowly, with just one rotation each month. By contrast, massive stars rotate much more rapidly, reaching rotation rates of once a day. This rapid rotation is thought to have dramatic consequences for their evolution and ultimate demise, which may involve the production of a gamma-ray burst, the most intense type of cosmic explosion since the Big Bang.
Rotating massive stars
Figure 1: a theoretical calculation showing the complex internal rotation patterns inside a massive star. Credit: G. Meynet, Observatoire de Geneieve
The evolution of massive stars is thought to be the result of a complex interplay between different physical processes, most notably mass loss and rotation.
Whilst the importance of mass loss was already established in the 1970s, the role of rotation was only fully appreciated ...