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Gamma Ray Bursts by Danielle Thompson July 24, 2012

Posted by missthompsondhs in Astronomy, Gamma Ray Bursts, General.
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In an extremely distance galaxy far far away, billions of light years away from Earth, something remarkable happens nearly every day. The brightest and most energetic events known to the universe perform an electromagnetic lightshow. This extravagant phenomenon releases as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun does in its entire lifetime. This amazing occurrence is thought to be connected to the explosive death of a massive star or the collision of neutron stars. These spectacular incidents, known as gamma ray bursts, that only occur on average for 20-40 seconds produce sudden intense flashes of gamma radiation that outshines everything else in the sky.

Image Gamma Ray Burst

The discovery of the first gamma ray burst was a fortunate derivative of nuclear war defense using U.S. Vela satellites in the late 60’s. The US military satellites were carrying gamma ray detectors because nuclear reactions from bomb tests would give off gamma radiation. The satellites detected a flash of gamma radiation uncharacteristic of any nuclear weaponry. Surprisingly, this discovery was not of urgent concern to the US and over the next ten years with improved technology more information was collected and finally published in a scientific journal.

A later version of an Italian-Dutch satellite, BeppoSAX, launched in 1996 was equipped with not only a gamma ray but an x-ray detector allowing for the observation of the first “afterglow” of a gamma ray burst. An afterglow is caused from the burst colliding with the interstellar gases emitting longer wavelengths. Today NASA satellites are used to create the Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network (GCN) which coordinates space and ground-based observations to allow for better viewing of gamma ray bursts’ afterglows.

Image NASA

Further investigation into gamma ray bursts due to the improvements of satellites has allowed for the classification of long and short duration bursts. Long bursts have to last for more than 2 seconds and astronomers are fairly certain the cause of long duration gamma ray bursts is a rapidly rotating massive star, greater than 100 solar masses, and known as a supernova that is collapsing to form a black hole. Short duration bursts make up 30% of all bursts and are thought to be caused by neutron stars colliding. While studying long and short duration bursts, it has been discovered that no two bursts have the same light curve, this is a mystery that still plaques astronomers today.

ImageLight Curves

A new possible explanation for gamma ray burst is a hypernova. Scientists refer to a hypernova as a “failed supernova”, which is still a massive star whose core has collapsed but didn’t go boom. The hypernova’s shock wave doesn’t blow off the outer layers like a supernova does. The outer layers fall into the central neutron star or black hole and produces enormous amount of heat and radiation with an outcome of higher luminosity than a supernova. A hypernova has become the favored possible explanation because gamma ray bursts are more luminous than a supernova. The actually existence of hypernovae is still a hot debate.

Some astronomers suffer from ergophobia, the fear of energy, and the fear that our galaxy the Milky Way could experience a bad day. The scenario of a gamma ray burst firing its extremely energetic radiation at planet Earth is dishearting. The intense gamma rays would be stopped by the Earth’s stratosphere but the ozone layer would be destroyed. Would the depletion of the ozone layer inevitable cause a mass extinction? Gamma ray bursts fuel the speculation that there is a conceivable end to life as we know it on Earth.

Image The Milky Way


Astronomy Club Tonight: Gamma Ray Bursts November 3, 2010

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Gamma Ray Bursts.
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Astronomy Club tonight in Room 2153, at 8:00 PM in the Physical Science Building. Dr J Conwell will be talking about Gamma Ray Bursts; the most violent explosions since the big bang.

Top 10 Ways the Universe Could Kill Us! July 24, 2009

Posted by kfarley in Asteroid, Astronomy, Cosmology.
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Asteroid Impact

Asteroids and other near-Earth objects (NEOs) come near the Earth more frequently than one would guess. Question: Why don’t we ever hear of these objects hitting the Earth? Answer: Because they don’t. More often than not our atmosphere causes great friction on these solar bodies causing them to burn up. This happens before the asteroids can go through our atmosphere and hit the Earth. Our atmosphere can be a good friend to us – protecting us from solar debris that could potentially hit Earth and end civilization as we know it. If an asteroid were to make it through our atmosphere it becomes classified as a meteor. It is theorized that a large meteor hit the Earth about 65 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs. According to NASA, a meteor about 1/5 that size will hit the Earth about once or twice every million years. If Earth did get hit by an asteroid of that caliber we would most likely not survive. I haven’t heard of an asteroid that size hitting the Earth in quite some time, maybe we’re overdue. With ≈6.7 billion people in the world your chance of seeing the Earth hit by that size meteor is…well, you do the math. To learn more information on NEOs check out NASA’s FAQs.

Illustration of an asteroid that could have wiped out the dinosaurs.

Illustration of an asteroid that could have wiped out the dinosaurs.

Solar Flare

A solar flare is a huge explosion of energy in the Sun’s atmosphere. Think of it like a giant spike of light and heat that suddenly rises off the surface of the Sun. The rays emitted (mainly X-rays and UV rays) from this explosion are strong enough to disrupt radio communication on Earth! The flares can influence the surface of Earth by having an effect on our weather. Just outside our atmosphere, the flares can present radiation hazards to spacecraft and astronauts. The solar flares can also produce streams of highly energetic particles in our atmosphere. These highly energetic particles help in the production of the beautiful aurora borealis! On the other hand, the radiation from solar flares also pose incredible complications that could arise during manned missions to Mars, the Moon, or other space travel. Satellites’ orbital paths can also be disrupted by the solar flares. Kind of a catch-22, amazing Northern lights produced but also possible space travel limit. Hmm…

Aurora borealis co-created by solar flares.

Aurora borealis co-created by solar flares.


Ever had someone shine a flashlight in your eyes? Not very nice, huh? Think of shining a light in your eyes a billion times brighter! A supernova is just that – an exploding star billions of times brighter that our Sun. After the core of a star collapses it emits great energy as a flash of growing intensity before fading back out of sight. If a supernova was close enough and aimed toward our solar system, it could wipe out our atmosphere. Our planet would overheat from UV rays causing mass extinction. It’s messy too. The supernova will throw large clouds of dust and gas into space that could exceed 10 times the mass of our Sun. We should be thankful for supernovae in a way. It is hypothesized supernovae created the heavier elements such as gold, iron, and uranium found here on Earth.



Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are flashes of gamma rays that last from fractions of a second to almost an hour. They normally last a few seconds and usually come from outside our galaxy. They are the most luminous (electromagnetic) events that occur in the universe. GRBs often have an afterglow affect as longer wavelengths travel from the blast. The blast from a GRB in our galaxy would definitely cause mass extinction from the intense rays that would encompass our planet. It is hypothesized such an event caused the mass planetary extinction on Earth about 444 million years ago. A GRB depleted the ozone layer leaving our planet helpless to direct UV rays that heated and kill organisms until food chains were depleted.

P.S. Gamma rays gave the Hulk his powers (I think that is fictional though).

Illustration of a gamma ray burst hitting a planet like Earth.

Illustration of a gamma ray burst hitting a planet like Earth.

Black hole

Black holes are areas in space in which the gravitational field is so incredible that nothing can escape its pull. Not even light can be reflected from this object, hence its name. It is virtually impossible to escape a black hole once its immense gravitational pull has a hold of you. The point of no return at a black hole is called the horizon. It is an area just outside a black hole where the gravitational pull begins. Once you hit the horizon of a black hole your fate is sealed and escape from the black hole is futile. Knowing not even light can escape the pull of the black hole, you would have to travel faster than the speed of light to escape. If you were to see an object being pulled into a black hole (assuming the object can still reflect light), it would become extremely distorted. The gravitational pull is so intense, the part of the object entering the black hole first would stretch out of normal proportions. For example, if you were floating through space with your arms in front of you (Superman-style) and began to be sucked into a black hole, your arms would stretch out incredibly long before the rest of your body. Black holes are also very massive. They can range anywhere from 10 times to a million times the mass of our Sun. Currently, there are no known black holes in our galaxy. This known with the fact our space travel is limited to our Moon, you are probably safe from a black hole fate.

Illustration of what a black hole over the Milky Way might look like.

Illustration of what a black hole over the Milky Way might look like.

Death of Sun

The Sun goes through different stages during its life cycle. It’s about halfway through the “main sequence” before it goes into a different star phase. The Sun will most likely turn into a Red Giant star peaking at its highest luminosity. The Sun will then start to burn out as it turns into a small dwarf star. The Sun won’t turn into a Red Giant for another 5 billion years or so. A more immediate problem, as the Sun moves toward the next stage it becomes gradually warmer. It will get really hot. Life on Earth most likely won’t make it to the Red Giant stage. The Earth will warm up to the point where life will not be sustainable. The Sun has slowly been warming up ever since its birth. The Sun used to not be as hot, one of the reasons life didn’t always exist on the Earth. Just as the warmth of the Sun allowed life on Earth, it will also take it away.

The life cycle of our Sun.

The life cycle of our Sun.

Heat Death of Universe

The heat death of the universe occurs as all the stars and other universal matter continues to expand and uses up its energy or “burns out.” It’s like letting a candle burn and not blowing it out. Eventually it’s going to use up the wax and wick until it can’t burn anymore. The universe runs on “free” energy that is not endless. At some point the fuel for the universe will run out cutting of the energy for the cosmic bodies that give us life (namely our Sun). This probably won’t be happening anytime soon. It’s estimated the energy will run out after black holes vanish in about 10100 years (according to Hawking’s radiation). That’s one big candle!

The flame of life.

The flame of life.

The Big Rip

Just like how it sounds, all matter of the universe will be ripped apart.  We’ve all heard that the universe is expanding.  What would happen if the expansion increased at an accelerated rate?  If the universe expanded much faster than it is now, all the galaxies, stars, planets, dust, etc. would be ripped apart!  Think of it like a twizzlers.  If you pull slowly you can stretch out the twizzlers pretty far.  If you stretch too fast the twizzlers will just snap in half.  This is a possibility for our universe.  The hands pulling on our universe is something called dark energy.  Dark energy is a hypothetical energy that saturates all our universe.  It is theorized it helps our universe expand – at an accelerating pace.  This means the expansion is moving at a faster and faster rate as time goes by.  Eventually the universe will reach that point where it is pulling to fast, ripping apart everything.  What happens when everything is ripped apart and away from each other?  No one knows.

The Big Rip.

The Big Rip.

Cannibal Galaxies

Cannibal galaxies occur when a smaller galaxy is eaten by a larger galaxy! Natural selection at its best. Galaxies are gravitationally bound collections of stars, stellar bodies such as planets, space dust, and other objects. You are probably most familiar with the Milky Way galaxy (you should know this one, we live in it). Scientists can now detect our Milky Way galaxy is currently tearing apart and engulfing the Sagittarius galaxy as you read this! Closer to home than you might have expected. I guess we are saved this time but poor little Sagittarius galaxy…

Larger galaxy engulfing a smaller galaxy. (Swinburne)

Larger galaxy engulfing a smaller galaxy. (Swinburne)


When a star collapses on itself a neutron star is left behind. If we were to survive this giant explosion, we would have a new problem of pulsars to deal with. A pulsar is a neutron star that emits rays of electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation is rays that vary depending on their frequency and wavelength. Some rays provide us with the visible light we use every day. Other rays below or above the spectra can be very harmful to us. For instance, radio waves (beyond red in the visible spectra) can vibrate the cells in your body heating them up to a deadly temperature while gamma rays (beyond blue in the visible spectra) can stop the function of the cells in your body. Oddly enough, both radio waves and gamma rays are used to treat different ailments.

The Vela Pulsar. NASA pic.

The Vela Pulsar. NASA pic.

Earth’s Deadliest Nemesis: The Gamma Ray Burst? July 24, 2009

Posted by heisman50 in Astronomy, Gamma Ray Bursts.
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Maybe not right now, nor maybe not even tomorrow, but it could happen. Life on Earth could be in serious jeopardy. And the enemy is not anyone or anything on this planet, but rather the workings of an enemy 5000 to 8000 light years away. The sad thing is, there may be no way to see it coming, and most certainly nothing we can do about it. There are over 300,000 gamma ray bursts a year so there is a chance that one could be directed straight towards Earth.

When an enormous star detonates into a supernova, radioactive nuclei are shot out into interstellar space releasing countless photons. This radiation tends to be very low wavelength, high frequency in the gamma ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

To quantify the amount of energy we can use Plank’s Law. According to Plank’s law the energy of a photon can be expressed by the following equation:

plank's law
E = energy of a photon
h = Plank’s constant = 6.625 x 10-34 J*s or 4.135 x 10-15 eV*s
λ = wavelength of light

Using this equation, the photons of gamma rays will have the highest energy of all as their wavelength is exceptionally small. Thus, a gamma ray photon would produce the largest amount of energy of any type of electromagnetic radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum. While the release of one photon may seem small, the radiation from a supernova directed towards Earth may carry the energy of seemingly countless photons. The result is a tremendously high amount of energy bound for the Earth. To put the amount of energy into perspective, Dr. Edo Berger, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, the energy released by a gamma ray burst is equivalent to powering the world for 1027 years.[1]

The effects could be substantial. One scenario popularized by the History Channel’s series Mega Disasters depicts the gamma radiation attacking and destroying the ozone layer of the Earth while releasing a smog of nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and dinitrogen trioxide compounds that effectively block the Sun, break down ozone and cause acid rain. Without the Sun’s rays, a global cooling would exist and plant life could not continue, abruptly disrupting the food chain for all on Earth. According to Dr. Derek Fox, an astrophysicist at Penn State University, a gamma ray burst could irradiate the Earth to the equivalence of 100,000 atom bombs exploding just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.[2]

So how likely is the threat? The biggest possibility comes from WR104 that sits about 8000 light-years away. If directed perfectly at Earth, the effect on life could be devastating and the fate of the planet may be in jeopardy. But don’t get all worked up just yet. According to David Thompson, a NASA astrophysicist and deputy project director on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the likelihood of a gamma ray burst from WR104 is equivalent to, “the danger I might face if I found a polar bear in my closet in Bowie, Maryland. It could happen, but it is so unlikely that it is not worth worrying about.”[3]

2. History Channel. MEGA DISASTERS: GAMMA RAY BURST ©2007
3. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/03/03/wr-104-a-nearby-gamma-ray-burst/

Extreme Universe: The most distant object known! April 28, 2009

Posted by jcconwell in Extreme Universe, Gamma Ray Bursts.
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On April 23, 2009, the Swift satellite detected that explosion. This spectacular gamma ray burst was seen 13 billion light years away, with a redshift of z = 8.2, the highest ever measured.

Combined X-ray, UV image from Swift

Combined X-ray, UV image from Swift

The cataclysmic explosion of a giant star early in the history of the Universe is the most distant single object ever detected by telescopes.

The colossal blast was picked up first by Nasa’s Swift space observatory which is tuned to see the high-energy gamma-rays emitted from extreme events. Other telescopes then followed up the signal, confirming the source to be more 13 billion light-years away. Scientists say the star’s destruction probably resulted in a black hole.

“This gets us into a realm where we’ve never been before,” said Nial Tanvir, of the University of Leicester, UK.  This is the most remote gamma-ray burst (GRB) ever detected, and also the most distant object ever discovered.”

“We completely smashed the record with this one,” said Edo Berger, a professor at Harvard University and a member of the team that first measured the burst’s origin. “This demonstrates for the first time that massive stars existed in the early Universe.”

GRB 090423 Infrared afterglow as seen by Gemini North

GRB 090423 Infrared afterglow as seen by Gemini North

The burst occurred some 13.1 billion years ago, or perhaps a bit more accurate, when the Universe was only 630 million years old, a mere one-twentieth of its current age. Astronomers like to use age rather than distance because when you get this close to the big bang, there are three ways (at least) of referring to distance.

There is a Luminosity distance which ASSUMES  a 1/ (distance squared) law, which works when the space in between in FLAT.

There is the way that you’ll see it referred to in the press, most of the time, since the light has been traveling for 13.1 billion years, the distance is 13.1 billion light-years. Not wrong, but it assumes no expansion.

Then there is….sound of can opener, opening up can of worms….

the proper distance… the distance you would measure if you could take into account all the extra real-estate the universe has added for 13.1 billion years, the expansion of the universe.

To give a little background in redshift and cosmology, a redshift is an increase in the wavelength of the light. There are three types of redshift. The first is Doppler caused by the motion of the source away from the observer. The second is a gravitational redshift caused by light climbing out from a strong gravitational field, like a black hole or neutron star. The third is what we see here the cosmological redshift, caused by the expansion of the universe.

All three are measured by a number called z. This number is the fractional change in the wavelength of the light, or

z = (λ-λ0)/λ0

Where λ0 is the wavelength emitted from far away and λ is what we see in our telescope. The new gamma ray burst had a z = 8.2, meaning an ultraviolet line of Hydrogen emitted at 121 nm. would be shifted all the way down to infrared at 996 nm, (visible is between 750 nm and 380 nm)

Now in cosmology, General Relativity gives a relation between the AGE  of the object, since the big bang, with t=o as the moment of the big bang and its redshift z. Using a model of the expansion of the universe, redshift can be related to the age of an observed object, the so-called cosmic time–redshift relation. This depends on the shape and density of the universe, if we denote a density ratio as Ω0:

\Omega_0 = \frac {\rho}{ \rho_{crit}} \ ,

with ρcrit the critical density dividing a universe that eventually crunches from one that simply expands. This density is about three hydrogen atoms per cubic meter of space. At large redshifts one finds, with H0 as the Hubble constant at the present time:

 t(z) = \frac {2}{3 H_0 {\Omega_0}^{1/2} (1+ z )^{3/2}} \ ,

But finding the distance is a little more complicated.

Picture walking along a sidewalk to your friends house one block away. Now if you had a insane  construction crew adding sidewalk as you were walking, by the time you got to your friend’s house and looked back you might see a lot more than one block of sidewalk.

Well the mad construction crew of the universe can add a lot in 13.1 billion years, so that if you look back now to the gamma ray burst you might find it around 40 billion light years away.

For more info on cosmological distances go here.

Astronomy Club: Gamma Ray Bursts March 23, 2009

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Gamma Ray Bursts.
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Gamma Ray Bursts will be the topic of Robert Gaki’s talk this Wednesday at 8:00PM in Room 2153, Physical Science Building. Robert, who’s a club member, will be discussing, what many people think, are the  most mysterious and violent explosions short of the big bang.

Extreme Universe: Magnetic Fields and Magnetars March 12, 2009

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Extreme Universe, Gamma Ray Bursts, Neutron Stars.
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Neutron Stars are extreme to begin with, but magnetars add a whole new level of extreme to these exotic objects. Magnetars,  as the name implies, are neutron stars with ultra high magnetic fields. As a matter of fact, the most extreme magnetic fields ever found in the universe!

An artist's rendering of a magnetar, a type of neutron star.  (Image Credit: NASA, CXC, M. Weiss)

An artist's rendering of a magnetar, a type of neutron star. (Image Credit: NASA, CXC, M. Weiss)

There are about 15 magnetars known, they are all examples of a class of objects called “soft gamma repeaters” . The most magnetic one, and the most magnetized object in the known universe is SGR 1806-20. The magnetic field of this magnetar is estimated to be about 2 x 1011 Teslas or 2 x 1015 gauss, one Tesla being equal to 10,000 gauss.

Now, to give you some sense of how big this is, the Earth’s magnetic field is about 1/2 gauss or .00005 Tesla.  The magnet in a hospital’s  MRI is about 3.2 Tesla or 32,000 gauss, and the largest sustained magnetic field created in a lab is about 40 Tesla.

So we’re talking about magnetic fields 1000 trillion times bigger than the Earth’s field. Very weird things can happen with fields this large. One thing that’s interesting  is how much energy is stored in such a field. So let’s break out an equation from physics and use an example I did in my electricity  & magnetism  class last week. If you look it up,  you’ll find  the energy per cubic meter, or energy density, of a magnetic field is given by:

u = B2/2 μ0

u is the energy density given in Joules per cubic meter. A Joule is the energy you use to lift a kilogram about 10 centimeters off the ground. 

B is the strength of the magnetic field  given in Teslas, and  μo is a constant that has a value of 4π x 10-7 (it has units , but we’ll ignore them).  Using a field of B = 2 x 1011 Teslas, the most powerful magnetar, we will get a huge number…

1.6 x 1028 Joules/(cubic meter)

or every cubic meter contains this amount of energy. To put this in context, the largest hydrogen bombs have a yield of 20 Megatons of TNT, which is about 1017 Joules of energy. So in each cubic meter of magnetic field has the stored energy of 160,000,000,000 (160 billion), 20 Megaton bombs.

Since we’re having so much fun, lets think about it this way. Einstein showed mass and energy are equivalent, so how much mass would one cubic meter of this HUGE magnetic field have? Well…


or  m = E/ c2 = 1.6 x 1028 Joules/(3 x 108m/s)2 = 1.78 x 1011kilograms

Each cubic centimeter of magnetic field would have a mass of 178 metric tons!!! If you multiply this by the number of cubic meters in the Magnetar, about 40 trillion, assuming the whole neutron star is magnetized, you get a lot of magnetic energy stored in Magnetar.

To give you an idea of what a small amount of this energy would do, consider the events of December 27, 2004. On that day the magnetar we’ve been using as a example, SGR 1806-20, under went a “superflare”. The “superflare,” from a magnetar named SGR 1806–20, irradiated Earth with more total energy than a powerful solar flare. Yet this object is an estimated 50,000 light-years away in Sagittarius.  During that flicker of time it outshone the full Moon by a factor of two. The gamma rays struck the ionosphere and created more ionization which briefly expanded the ionosphere. Assuming that the distance estimate is accurate, the magnetar must have let loose as much energy as the Sun generates in 250,000 years.

Extreme Universe:Most Extreme Gamma-Ray Blast Ever! February 24, 2009

Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Extreme Universe, Gamma Ray Bursts.
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The explosion, designated GRB 080916C, occurred just after midnight GMT on September 16 (7:13 p.m. on the 15th in the eastern US). Two of Fermi’s science instruments — the Large Area Telescope and the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor — simultaneously recorded the event. Together, the two instruments provide a view of the blast’s gamma-ray emission from energies ranging from 3,000 to more than 5 billion times that of visible light.


GRB 080916C's X-ray afterglow appears orange and yellow in this view that merges images from Swift's UltraViolet/Optical and X-ray telescopes. (Image courtesy NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler)

With the greatest total energy, and the highest-energy initial emissions ever before seen, a gamma-ray burst recently observed by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope set new records. The blast, which also raises new questions about gamma-ray bursts, was discovered by the FGST’s Large Area Telescope, a collaboration among NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science and international partners.

A team led by Jochen Greiner at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, established that the blast occurred 12.2 billion light-years away using the Gamma-Ray Burst Optical/Near-Infrared Detector (GROND) on the 2.2-meter (7.2-foot) telescope at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile.

“Already, this was an exciting burst,” says Julie McEnery, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But with the GROND team’s distance, it went from exciting to extraordinary.”

FGST team members showed that the blast exceeded the power of nearly 9,000 ordinary supernovae, using a distance of 12.2 billion light-years, and the gas emitting the first gamma rays must have moved at no less than 99.9999 percent the speed of light. This burst’s is the most extreme to date, in both power and speed .