The blazar 3C 279, one of the brightest identified extragalactic objects in the γ-ray sky, underwent a large (factor of ~10 in amplitude) flare in γ-rays toward the end of a 3 week pointing by Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), in 1996 January-February. The flare peak represents the highest γ-ray intensity ever recorded for this object. During the high state, extremely rapid γ-ray variability was seen, including an increase of a factor of 2.6 in ~8 hr, which strengthens the case for relativistic beaming. Coordinated multifrequency observations were carried out with Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA; or, Astro-D), Roentgen Satellite (ROSAT), and International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) and from many ground-based observatories, covering most accessible wavelengths. The well-sampled, simultaneous RXTE light curve shows an outburst of lower amplitude (factor of ?3) well correlated with the γ-ray flare without any lag larger than the temporal resolution of ~1 day. The optical-UV light curves, which are not well sampled during the high-energy flare, exhibit more modest variations (factor of ~2) and a lower degree of correlation. The flux at millimetric wavelengths was near a historical maximum during the γ-ray flare peak, and there is a suggestion of a correlated decay. We present simultaneous spectral energy distributions of 3C 279 prior to and near to the flare peak. The γ-rays vary by more than the square of the observed IR-optical flux change, which poses some problems for specific blazar emission models. The synchrotron self-Compton (SSC) model would require that the largest synchrotron variability occurred in the mostly unobserved submillimeter/far-infrared region. Alternatively, a large variation in the external photon field could occur over a timescale of a few days. This occurs naturally in the "mirror" model, wherein the flaring region in the jet photoionizes nearby broad emission line clouds, which, in turn, provide soft external photons that are Comptonized to γ-ray energies.
- GALAXIES: PHOTOMETRY, GAMMA RAYS: OBSERVATIONS, GALAXIES: QUASARS: INDIVIDUAL ALPHANUMERIC: 3C 279, RADIATION MECHANISMS: NONTHERMAL