gamma ray
This image shows the most common type of gamma-ray burst, thought to occur when a massive star collapses, forms a black hole, and blasts particle jets outward at nearly the speed of light NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

For the first time, a team of international scientists from the US, France, UK and Sweden have created a mini version of one of the most intense astronomical explosions of light – gamma ray bursts – in a laboratory. Scientists are still uncertain as to what causes these intense explosions of light in space. However, the new research could help researchers get a better understanding of gamma rays and even black holes.

It could also fuel the search for alien life, especially since alien hunters, including SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), look for signals or messages from alien civilisations by attempting to capture mysterious and unexplained electromagnetic signals. Gamma rays are believed to be linked to such radiation.

Gamma ray bursts are very challenging to study as they originate in far flung galaxies and last for short periods of time.

"That means you rely on looking at something unbelievably far away that happens at random, and lasts only for few seconds. It is a bit like understanding what a candle is made of, by only having glimpses of candles being lit up from time to time thousands of kilometres from you," Gianluca Sarri, a lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Physics, Queen's University Belfast, who was involved in the research, wrote in a post in The Conversation.

The researchers made use of the Gemini laser, the most intense laser on Earth, to create the mini gamma ray burst. One theory about the origins of gamma ray bursts is that they are emitted from massive astrophysical objects such as black holes. Scientists hope that detailed study of gamma ray bursts may help them further uncover the mysteries of how and why black holes originate.

"Take all the solar power that hits the whole Earth and squeeze it into a few microns (basically the thickness of a human hair) and you have got the intensity of a typical laser shot in Gemini," Sarri said. "Shooting this laser onto a complex target, we were able to release ultra-fast and dense copies of these astrophysical jets and make ultra-fast movies of how they behave. The scaling down of these experiments is dramatic: take a real jet that extends even for thousands of light years and compress it down to a few millimetres."

Sarri said the experiment allowed the researchers to observe some of the "key phenomena" that play a primary role in the creation of gamma ray bursts, "such as the self-generation of magnetic fields that lasted for a long time".

The new observations also confirm that the theoretical scientific models currently used to understand gamma ray bursts "are on the right track".

The study has been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.