BurstCube – NASA’s New Technology To Detect Gravitational Wave Counterparts

  • BurstCube is a CubeSat developed for detecting and localizing gamma-ray bursts. 
  • It’s an extension of Fermi Space Telescope that will help in detecting sources of gravitational waves.
  • It’ll detect more than 24 short gamma-ray bursts, in addition to over 100 long gamma-ray bursts and other transients.

Scientists at NASA are developing a CubeSat to identify electromagnetic counterparts that produce gravitational waves. The mission, named BurstCube, will carry a small hardware to detect and localize GRBs (gamma-ray bursts) generated by amalgamation of orbiting neutron stars and collision of giant stars.

Also, it’ll identify high-energy transients like solar flares. The BurstCube is planned to be deployed into LEO (Low Earth Orbit) in the 2020s.

For those who don’t know, CubeSat is a miniaturized satellite made of 10*10*10 centimeter cubic unit. It uses commercial off-the-shelf modules for their structure and electronics, and weighs less than 1.33 kilograms. So far, more than 800 CubeSats have been deployed into space.

Previous Discoveries

Gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars (artist’s impression) | Credit: R. Hurt / Caltech-JPL

In 2015, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) detected gravitational waves, and later, in October 2017, it confirmed the light tied to a gravitational wave, coming from 2 merging neutron stars 130 million light-years away.

Nearly after a second when LIGO found the gravitational waves, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope build by NASA, identified a weak high-energy light burst linked to a source that was emitting gravitational waves.

These discoveries have opened new doors for future space researches, providing astronomers a detailed view on observing electromagnetic radiation.

BurstCube Overview

Researchers see BurstCube as an extension of Fermi that will help the telescope to detect sources of gravitational waves. Although, it will increase the sky coverage (by 90%), Fermi won’t be able to capture the burst if it’s on the other side of Earth that’s blocking its view.

BurstCube’s aim is to assist the telescope in capturing difficult-to-observe high-energy photons and report their source locations to the ground-based telescope for further studies. It’ll detect more than 24 short gamma-ray bursts, in addition to over 100 long gamma-ray bursts and other transients.

Reference: arXiv:1708.09292 | NASA


BurstCube is a 6U CubeSat split into 2U spacecraft subsystems and 4U equipment package. It uses the same detector technology as Fermi gamma burst ray monitor. However, BurstCube uses Cesium Iodide (CsI) detection medium from 10 keV to 1 MeC with optimal energy resolution and high efficiency. These crystals have long been used in gamma ray astronomy, and they are less expensive.

Internal View of BurstCube

Engineers will put 4 blocks of CsI, functioning as scintillators, in multiple orientations within the space probe. When an event of gamma ray occurs, one or more crystal will absorb the luminesce and energy, and it will transform the energy into optical light.

Silicon photomultipliers further transform this energy to an electrical pulse, and then magnify it by producing an electron-avalanche. These magnifying effects make detectors more sensitive to weak and short-term gamma rays.

Fermi telescope consists of old, heavy photomultipliers, whereas BurstCube’s photomultipliers are made of silicon and they feature less mass and power consumption than traditional photomultiplier tubes. Also, it can collect highly robust scientific data while being more reliable.

Read: NASA To Launch Next Generation Space Telescope

Detection of sources of gravitational wave would allow us to better understand the gamma-ray burst events. The applications of this technology are literally countless.

Written by
Varun Kumar

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