Several days ago, the robotic spacecraft named Swift detected the 1,000th GRB as a sudden pulse of gamma rays arising from a location toward the constellation Eridanus. The burst is named GRB 151027B. It was the second detected burst of the day. As designed, Swift automatically determined the location of the GRB, broadcast the position to astronomers around the world, and turned to investigate the source with its own sensitive X-ray, ultraviolet and optical telescopes.
GRBs are no trivial matter. They are events often measured in terms of seconds or less that represent the most energetic outbursts known in the universe. They happen somewhere in the universe at least once every several days, and they are believed to emanate in a direction from a from a source in a tight cone. A close GRB, meaning a GRB in the same galaxy, will cause extinction events at all planets within its cone burst.
So never mind asteroids and local hazards. At some point in the future (hopefully the far distant future) we will probably need to find a way to predict and shield against a GRB.
In the meantime, GRBs are so energetic that they provide clues to some of the mysteries of the universe, and the Swift spacecraft is excelling at its job of detecting the bursts quickly enough to trigger signals to Earth radio telescopes so that a GRB can be observed and measured across the globe.
Swift is a multi-wavelength space observatory dedicated to the study of GRBs. The name “Swift” is a reference to the instrument’s rapid slew capability. All of Swift ’s discoveries are transmitted to the ground instantly so observatories can join Swift in observing the GRBs.
In the time between GRB events, Swift is available for other scientific investigations, and scientists from universities and other organizations can submit proposals for observations.