August 31, 2014

04.04.10-Fermi: Einstein Still Rules.

 

High & Low energy photons race through frothy space! (Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet).

High & Low energy photons race through frothy space! (Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet).

   We just can’t seem to get enough of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. The successor to the late Compton observatory that was de-orbited in 2002, Fermi has already pinpointed over 1,000 discrete gamma-ray sources, five times more than previously known. Now Fermi has also provided a rare test of Einstein’s theories of relativity. Relativity says that all electromagnetic waves (including highly energetic gamma-rays) travel through space at the same cosmic speed of 186,282 miles per second. Being a classical theory, however, what Einstein doesn’t do is meld gravity satisfactorily with the other three fundamental forces; electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Gravity stubbornly refuses to be unified, and such a goal has been the holy grail of physics for over the last half century. An alternative model of gravity at the microscopic scale would say that the nature of space-time is “frothy,” and a predicted effect should be a measureable drag induced on high energy photons. Recently, Fermi had a chance to put this to the test; on May 10th of last year, GRB 090510, a short gamma-ray burst 7.3 billion light years distant, was measured by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope. The verdict; gamma-ray photons varying a by a factor of a million times in energy arrived just nine-tenths of a second apart, far below what would be predicted by “frothy” space… that’s round one for Einstein!

23.10.09:Fermi Pegs Gamma-Ray Pulsars.

the gamma-ray sky as seen by Fermi. (Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT team).

The gamma-ray sky as seen by Fermi. the plane of our galaxy runs down the center, while pulsars dot the periphery. (Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT team).

NASA’s Large Area Telescope aboard the orbiting Fermi gamma-ray observatory continues to turn out some amazing science, picking up where Compton left off in 2002 as it surveys the gamma-ray sky. Of particular interest are gamma-rays emitted from pulsars. Pulsars are the swiftly rotating remnants of massive stars that have gone supernova, leaving a superdense core in their wake. These are sometimes called “neutron stars” because the matter comprising them is packed so tightly the individual nuclei are literally stacked end to end, making a spoonful weigh as much as a mountain! After all, most ordinary matter is made of….nothing. A neutron star can be thought of as a large, singular atomic nucleus, again weird stuff. Most of the 1,800 pulsars thus detected are because of their copious radio emissions beaming from their poles. Thus, we have to be in the line of sight before we see their blinking radio pulsations. Enter Fermi, which has thus far spotted 16 new pulsars via their gamma-ray emissions alone. This promises to aid in identifying pulsars whose poles aren’t tipped to our line of sight, which are probably in the majority. But even the gamma-ray sky is relatively dim; for example, the Vela pulsar is one of the brightest in the sky, and it emits a mere 1 gamma-ray photon every 2 minutes! Initially dubbed “Little Green Men” (LGMs!) during their discovery in the 1960′s, pulsars were soon naturally explained, but still continue to amaze. Watch this space and the Fermi mission for news from the high energy end of the spectrum!