Rapid spectral variability of a giant flare from a magnetar in NGC 253

Abstract

Magnetars are neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields (1013 to 1015 gauss)1,2, which episodically emit X-ray bursts approximately 100 milliseconds long and with energies of 1040 to 1041 erg. Occasionally, they also produce extremely bright and energetic giant flares, which begin with a short (roughly 0.2 seconds), intense flash, followed by fainter, longer-lasting emission that is modulated by the spin period of the magnetar3,4 (typically 2 to 12 seconds). Over the past 40 years, only three such flares have been observed in our local group of galaxies3,4,5,6, and in all cases the extreme intensity of the flares caused the detectors to saturate. It has been proposed that extragalactic giant flares are probably a subset7,8,9,10,11 of short γ-ray bursts, given that the sensitivity of current instrumentation prevents us from detecting the pulsating tail, whereas the initial bright flash is readily observable out to distances of around 10 to 20 million parsecs. Here we report X-ray and γ-ray observations of the γ-ray burst GRB 200415A, which has a rapid onset, very fast time variability, flat spectra and substantial sub-millisecond spectral evolution. These attributes match well with those expected for a giant flare from an extragalactic magnetar12, given that GRB 200415A is directionally associated13 with the galaxy NGC 253 (roughly 3.5 million parsecs away). The detection of three-megaelectronvolt photons provides evidence for the relativistic motion of the emitting plasma. Radiation from such rapidly moving gas around a rotating magnetar may have generated the rapid spectral evolution that we observe.

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Fig. 1: Temporal and spectral variability of GRB 200415A.
Fig. 2: Flux and spectral evolution of GRB 200415A.

Data availability

γ-ray data from CGRO–BATSE, Swift–BAT and Fermi–GBM are available in public repositories on NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC; https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/w3browse/all/batsegrb.html, https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/W3Browse/swift/swiftgrb.html and https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/W3Browse/fermi/fermigbrst.html, respectively); catalogues of these data are provided as citations. The raw VLA data are publicly available (https://archive.nrao.edu). The calibrated VLA data and images are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

Code availability

Standard software packages, such as rmfit for GBM and XSPEC for other instruments, are available online (https://fermi.gsfc.nasa.gov/ssc/data/analysis/rmfit/ and https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/software.html, respectively). The codes used to determine the significance of the BGO photons, to construct the BAT TTE detector response matrices and to determine the rise time are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request. The VLA data were analysed using publicly available software (CASA). The procedure for detecting and quantifying the QPOs is publicly available in Stingray (https://stingray.readthedocs.io/en/latest/). The algorithm used to determine the pulse pile-up of the GBM data is available in ref. 35. The SwiMM code is not publicly available; however, response functions can be used to reproduce our spectral results; these are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

The Fermi GBM Collaboration acknowledges the support of NASA in the United States under grant NNM11AA01A and of DRL in Germany. P.V. acknowledges support from NASA grant 80NSSC19K0595. A.T. and J.J.D. thank T. Sakamoto for access to the Swift mass model. We thank the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under a cooperative agreement by Associated Universities. D.H. acknowledges support from the DIRAC Institute in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. The DIRAC Institute is supported through gifts from the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and the Washington Research Foundation. J.J.D. acknowledges that this material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under grants PHY-1708146 and PHY-1806854 and by the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos of Pennsylvania State University.

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Contributions

O.J.R. led the research effort. O.J.R., P.V., M.G.B., M.S.B., C.K., E.G., A.T., J.D.L. and J.A.K. wrote the manuscript. O.J.R., P.V., E.Bi., D.H., M.S.B., P.N.B., S.I.C., J.J.D., J.A.K., D.K., A.T., G.Y., S.G. and R.H. contributed to the data analysis. E.Bi. completed the first analysis of the event as she was the Burst Advocate during the trigger time of GRB 200415A (GCN 27587). M.G.B. and P.V. led the interpretation of results. O.J.R., P.V., E.Bi. and G.Y. contributed to the spectral analysis of the event. P.V. worked on the time variability of GRB 200415A with P.N.B. and D.K. D.K. performed the T90 duration calculation. M.S.B. worked with P.N.B. on the data handling, and addressed the band-width issue that caused the data saturation in the GBM data. P.V. and M.S.B. analysed the highest-energy photon from GBM and did the pulse pile-up analysis. D.H. performed the quasi-periodic-oscillation analysis. J.A.K. and A.T. provided the Swift–BAT event data. J.J.D. and A.T. ran the simulations and created the response files necessary to perform analysis of the Swift–BAT data, which was performed by J.J.D., A.T. and P.V. Abstract contributions came from E.G and O.J.R. A.v.d.H., J.D.L. and S.I.C. contributed to the radio search and write-up, with S.I.C. performing most of the VLA analysis. S.G. provided initial spectral analysis (for example, Ep and correlations) and redshift estimates using his method for short GRBs. R.H. performed population analysis of GRBs with P.V. Feedback was provided by C.A.W.-H., which helped to steer the paper through the GBM internal review process. E.Bu. helped to put the result in the context of other short GRBs, performed chance likelihood calculations and helped to organize the research effort of this source by other collaborating missions. All authors reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to O. J. Roberts or P. Veres or M. G. Baring or E. Bissaldi.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 The duration of GRB 200415A.

The T90 (green) and T50 (purple) durations were calculated using the Swift–BAT data in count space. The errors are at the 1σ confidence level.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Spectra and fitted models in three time intervals for GRB 200415A.

The νFν spectra (top) and Comptonized fitting residuals (bottom) are shown for intervals (1) (left), (3) (centre) and (4) (right) of GRB 200415A. The three spectra are devoid of any instrumental effects attributed to bandwidth saturation. The fit parameters are listed in Table 1. These figures show the robustness of the fits to the data (1σ confidence), which are used in the main text and in Fig. 1d, and are a direct result of the unrivalled temporal and spectral quality of the GBM data. Arrows on the error bars are due to the lower or upper limits being unconstrained. The solid blue lines are the best fits to the data.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Energetic photons from GRB 200415A.

The grey histogram represents the counts with energies of 0.2–40 MeV (left axis). Individual TTEs of GBM BGO detector 0 are shown as black circles, superimposed over the grey histogram, with photon energies in MeV (right axis). The blue rectangle indicates energies of 2.5–3.5 MeV in intervals (2) and (3); the red rectangle shows energies of 3.5–10 MeV. We conclude that the highest photon energy unambiguously associated with GRB 200415A is 3 MeV.

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Roberts, O.J., Veres, P., Baring, M.G. et al. Rapid spectral variability of a giant flare from a magnetar in NGC 253. Nature 589, 207–210 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-03077-8

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Further reading

  • A bright γ-ray flare interpreted as a giant magnetar flare in NGC 253

    • D. Svinkin
    • , D. Frederiks
    • , K. Hurley
    • , R. Aptekar
    • , S. Golenetskii
    • , A. Lysenko
    • , A. V. Ridnaia
    • , A. Tsvetkova
    • , M. Ulanov
    • , T. L. Cline
    • , I. Mitrofanov
    • , D. Golovin
    • , A. Kozyrev
    • , M. Litvak
    • , A. Sanin
    • , A. Goldstein
    • , M. S. Briggs
    • , C. Wilson-Hodge
    • , A. von Kienlin
    • , X.-L. Zhang
    • , A. Rau
    • , V. Savchenko
    • , E. Bozzo
    • , C. Ferrigno
    • , P. Ubertini
    • , A. Bazzano
    • , J. C. Rodi
    • , S. Barthelmy
    • , J. Cummings
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    • , D. M. Palmer
    • , W. Boynton
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