Instant alerts by gamma-ray watchers in space now allow astronomers to trace the visible afterglow that can remain after the burst like the trail of a sparkler. "You've got armies of people chasing these things," Cominsky said. And armies of robotic telescopes that bypass people entirely, taking their data straight to the Internet.
As a result of these coordinated efforts, astronomers are almost certain that the bursts are last gasps coming from the sudden collapse of supermassive stars.
With every juicy discovery, of course, come even juicier new mysteries. The stars that Ghez and colleagues found skimming our galaxy's central black hole at 9,000 kilometers per second are far too massive to have formed in such a chaotic environment, where the black hole's huge gravitational tides would tear emerging stars apart. "There's no way star formation should be going on there," Ghez said. And yet, the stars appear far too young to have drifted in from a distant, quieter neighborhood.
And while precision measurements of microwaves from the Big Bang have pinned down the exact proportions of the various ingredients that make up the cosmos, they also left entirely unexplained what these ingredients actually are. Almost nothing is known about the 23% that is "dark matter;" less still about the 73% that goes by the name "dark energy" -- an even stranger brand of stuff that is thought to be some intrinsic property of the vacuum that exerts a repulsive, antigravity-like force.
Answering these questions may require solutions that go far beyond anything the electromagnetic spectrum has to offer.
Recently, for example, a radically new kind of observatory has begun to tune into "gravitational waves," another prediction of Einstein's relativity theory. These disturbances in space-time itself are exceedingly difficult to detect because they only barely affect matter. Even the tsunami set off by distant colliding black holes would wash up on Earth's shores as barely detectable ripples. To sense them, two four-kilometer-long laser beams are strung like spider silk at right angles between nearly perfect mirrors, poised to catch the smallest perturbation.
With two virtually identical observatories on opposite sides of the country, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) can rule out many of the local jitters (anything from a passing truck to a tiny seismic shift) that might masquerade as undulating space.
The real excitement, however, focuses on LIGO's successor, LISA, for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna -- one of two Great Einstein Observatories already in the works. LISA's three satellites will comprise an orbiting, triangular observatory with a 5-million-kilometer base. That makes it large enough to detect the lingering thunderclap of long-period waves set off when an ordinary black hole falls into the grasp of a supermassive black hole millions of times the mass of the sun -- mergers and acquisitions on a cosmic scale.
Following such violent events, LISA could sense space crumpling and time freezing. "Gravity wave astronomy has become a real subject," Kulkarni said. "In less than 10 years, we may be actually seeing the birth of black holes."
And because everything is transparent to gravity waves, LISA has the potential to peer all the way back to the Big Bang. If so, it might be able to watch matter coming into being from the vacuum of empty space, or see how three dimensions of space evolved out of a cosmos with many more dimensions. Both LISA and the second Great Einstein Observatory -- a flying array of four X-ray telescopes, Constellation X -- are on track for launch by 2010 or 2011.
Other astronomers, meanwhile, are turning to ghostly particles called neutrinos to see deep inside exotic objects like exploding stars.
Because neutrinos barely notice either light or matter (trillions pass through your body every second), they can travel unhindered from almost anywhere in the cosmos. When Supernova 1987A exploded, neutrinos arrived in detectors on Earth many hours before astronomers saw the light.
A neutrino "telescope" aptly named Ice Cube will soon string a cubic kilometer of South Pole ice with detectors, looking for neutrinos from similar cosmic-scale catastrophes.
As our keyhole expands, the universe, as Einstein put it, "beckons like a liberation" from the other side. Of course, as Alice learned, you never know what you'll find when you slip through a keyhole.