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Studies of Gamma-Ray Burst Prompt Emission with RHESSI and NCT

  • Author(s): Bellm, Eric Christopher
  • Advisor(s): Boggs, Steven E
  • et al.

Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRBs) are the most luminous objects in the universe. They herald a catastrophic energy release which manifests itself in tenths to hundreds of seconds of irregular gamma-ray emission. This initial "prompt" emission is followed by "afterglow" emission at other wavelengths that fades smoothly over hours to years.

GRB prompt emission has been observed with ever-increasing sophistication for more than four decades, but many details of its origin remain unknown. While GRBs are under-stood to result from relativistic jets produced by violent reconfigurations of compact objects, the composition of the outflow, the means of energy dissipation, and the radiative processes underlying the observed emission are all uncertain. I review the present understanding of all facets of GRB science in Chapter 1.

Gamma-ray spectroscopy and polarimetry provide two channels for testing models of GRB prompt emission with observed data. In Chapters 2-4, I employ the Reuven Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) to conduct broad-band time-resolved spectroscopy of bright GRBs. RHESSI is a solar observatory that uses nine coaxial germanium detectors for imaging and spectroscopy of solar flares. Because the detectors are unshielded, RHESSI also records counts from off-axis sources like GRBs. In Chapter 2, I detail the methods I use for analyzing RHESSI GRB data.

In Chapter 3, I conduct joint spectral analysis of bursts co-observed by RHESSI and Swift-BAT, enabling spectral modeling over a wide 15 keV-17 MeV band. These results reveal the difficulty of predicting the peak spectral energy of a burst from BAT observations alone.

While GRB spectra commonly have been assumed to be non-thermal and have been fit by purely phenomenological models, some authors have proposed that thermal emission from the GRB photosphere may be the source of the GRB spectral peak. In Chapter 4, I perform time-resolved spectroscopy of bright GRBs observed by RHESSI and compare the fit results of several phenomenological and quasi-thermal models. The fit results for the quasi-thermal models are poorer than those reported for fits in more narrow energy bands, and the fit parameters show significant dependence on the fit band. More sophisticated models and additional data are needed to determine the relevance of the photospheric emission.

Polarimetric studies of GRBs are in their infancy, but they have the potential to distinguish GRB emission models and probe the structure of the relativistic jet. Observations to date have exploited the polarimetric signatures produced by Compton scattering in gamma-ray observatories. Since these instruments have poor spatial resolution and are not calibrated for polarimetric observations, only a few bright GRBs have been observed, each with significant systematic effects. In Chapters 5-8, I present development work for a balloon-borne Compton telescope, the Nuclear Compton Telescope (NCT), which is capable of measuring GRB polarization. NCT uses planar cross-strip germanium detectors for Compton imaging (200 keV-10 MeV) and polarimetry (200 keV-2 MeV). Chapter 5 describes NCT and its flight history.

In Chapter 6, I discuss calibrations of the effective area of NCT during the 2009 New Mexico and 2010 Australia balloon campaigns. By placing radioactive sources of known activity throughout the NCT field of view, it is possible to determine the efficiency of the telescope. I compare these values to those derived from detailed Monte Carlo simulations. The values derived from the real data show a roughly constant deficit relative to those derived from the Monte Carlo simulations which may be related to known deficiencies in the lower-level event calibrations.

Chapter 7 assesses NCT's polarimetric performance. I generated partially polarized beams throughout NCT's field of view by scattering photons off of a scintillator slab triggered in coincidence with the NCT detectors. The measured polarimetric modulation showed good agreement with Monte Carlo simulations for some calibrations, although systematic geometric effects are present. NCT's polarimetric performance compares well to that of other Compton telescopes.

Finally, in Chapter 8 I calculate NCT's sensitivity to GRBs and expected detection rate. Using single-site and incompletely-absorbed events, NCT has about one-fourth the sensitivity of BATSE LAD. NCT could detect about half of the bursts in the BATSE catalog if they occurred in its field of view. Bursts bright enough for polarimetric analysis are too rare to detect effectively from a balloon platform, however, so a satellite instrument with NCT-like detectors would be needed to perform a useful census of GRB polarization.

Better understanding of the GRB prompt emission will clarify the place of GRBs in stellar life cycles, provide new insights into the physics of collisionless shocks and relativistic jets, and facilitate the use of GRBs as probes of the early universe and electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave and neutrino signals. The complex phenomenology of GRBs creates both a challenge and a rich opportunity to explain and utilize these enigmatic events.

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