GRBs were discovered with the Vela satellites, whose main purpose was to verify compliance with the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Since their discovery these events, which emit the bulk of their energy in the 0.1 - 1.0 MeV range, and whose durations span milliseconds to tens of minutes, posed one of the great unsolved problems in astrophysics. GRBs are formed in extreme relativistic outflows and provide important information about highly relativistic acceleration mechanisms. Until 1997, no counterparts (quiescent as well as transient) could be found and observations did not provide a direct measurement of their distance. The breakthrough came in early 1997, when the Wide Field Cameras aboard the Italian-Dutch BeppoSAX satellite allowed rapid and accurate localization of GRBs. Follow-up on these positions resulted in the discovery of X-ray, optical and radio afterglows. These observations revealed that GRBs come from 'cosmological' distances, and that they are by far the most luminous photon sources in the Universe, with peak luminosities in γ rays up to 1052 erg/s, and total energy budgets up to several times 1053-54 erg (for assumed isotropic emission). Evidence is accumulating, however, that GRB outflow is collimated in the form of jets and when corrected for the geometry of the outflow the energies of GRBs appear to cluster around 5 x 1050 ergs- very comparable to that of supernovae. GRBs are rare phenomena with an overall rate about 2000 times smaller than that of supernovae. Indirect evidence in the last several years shows that a fraction of GRBs may be related to a peculiar type of supernova explosions. Theoretical work has shown that these supernovae most likely mark the birth events of stellar mass black holes as the final products of the evolution of very massive stars. A fundamental question is whether there are also other processes that can drive such an engine, for example the coalescence of a double neutron-star system. Finally, the expectation is that one can use the enormous optical and infrared luminosities of the afterglows of GRBs to probe the Universe out to very large redshifts, beyond what is possible using supernovae or quasars. This would open an entirely new and exciting field of astrophysics and cosmology.
Relativistic Flows in Astrophysics
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