Fermi telescope captures 14 years of cosmic gamma-ray dance

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope transforms the cosmos into a vibrant tapestry in a mesmerizing time-lapse spanning 14 years. Illuminating the sky with gamma rays, the film captures the sun’s rhythmic journey amid a celestial dance of high-energy phenomena.

Seth Digel, a senior staff scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, crafted the visuals, narrating the cosmic saga unfolding above. The Milky Way, bathed in a constant gamma-ray glow, reveals intermittent bursts—prolonged flares propelled by supermassive black holes in galaxies eons away. As these jets streak across the firmament, their luminance, a product of events millions to billions of years past, reaches Fermi.

Gamma rays, the most energetic form of light, dominate the spectacle, showcasing intensities surpassing 200 million electron volts. Judy Racusin, Fermi Deputy Project Scientist, notes our sun’s graceful arc, mirroring Earth’s annual orbit. The sun, usually a faint presence, flares during solar eruptions, briefly casting it as a brilliant gamma-ray source.

The film unfolds in two views. The rectangular perspective unveils the entire sky, with the galaxy’s heart at its core—a tapestry of gamma rays generated by cosmic rays colliding with interstellar gas and starlight. Dotted with celestial remnants and neutron stars, this central band contrasts with the celestial expanses above and below, revealing a broader cosmos teeming with evolving sources.

A shift to the poles offers a distinct view, exposing distant galaxies, particularly blazars. These galactic powerhouses, centered around black holes with masses exceeding a million suns, emit high-speed matter jets. The head-on view enhances their brilliance and variability, serving as a canvas for studying dynamic changes in these cosmic behemoths.

Racusin emphasizes the importance of capturing these celestial flares swiftly. Fermi, a linchpin in a collaborative network of missions, acts as a cosmic observer, contributing to our evolving comprehension of the universe’s intricate dynamics.

The film unveils galaxies, like 4C +21.35, whose light embarked on a 4.6-billion-year journey—flares witnessed as our solar system took shape. More distant blazars, extending over twice that distance, offer glimpses into black hole activities spanning cosmic epochs.

Not depicted are the fleeting events Fermi scrutinizes, such as gamma-ray bursts, the universe’s mightiest explosions. This omission results from data processing spanning several days, enhancing image clarity.

The brainchild of SLAC, Fermi’s journey involves assembly, testing, and ongoing data processing at the laboratory. As a testament to international collaboration, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, managed by Goddard, embodies a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and contributions from global academic institutions.

In this cosmic ballet, Fermi emerges as a crucial player, unveiling the universe’s secrets as it continues its mission at the intersection of astrophysics and particle physics.

Source: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

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