Its wide-eyed Large Area Telescope (LAT) sweeps across the entire sky every three hours, capturing the highest-energy form of light -- gamma rays -- from sources across the universe.
This image compresses the Vela movie sequence into a single snapshot by merging pie-slice sections from eight individual frames.
Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
These range from supermassive black holes billions of light-years away to intriguing objects in our own galaxy, such as X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and pulsars.
Now a Fermi scientist has transformed LAT data of a famous pulsar into a mesmerizing movie that visually encapsulates the spacecraft's complex motion.
Pulsars are neutron stars, the crushed cores of massive suns that destroyed themselves when they ran out of fuel, collapsed and exploded. The blast simultaneously shattered the star and compressed its core into a body as small as a city yet more massive than the sun. The result is an object of incredible density, where a spoonful of matter weighs as much as a mountain on Earth. Equally incredible is a pulsar's rapid spin, with typical rotation periods ranging from once every few seconds up to hundreds of times a second. Fermi sees gamma rays from more than a hundred pulsars scattered across the sky.
One pulsar shines especially bright for Fermi. Called Vela, it spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees. Although gamma-ray bursts and flares from distant black holes occasionally outshine the pulsar, they don't have Vela's staying power. Because pulsars emit beams of energy, scientists often compare them to lighthouses, a connection that in a broader sense works especially well for Vela, which is both a brilliant beacon and a familiar landmark in the gamma-ray sky.
Most telescopes focus on a very small region of the sky, but the LAT is a wide-field instrument that can detect gamma rays across a large portion of the sky at once. The LAT is, however, much more sensitive to gamma rays near the center of its field of view than at the edges. Scientists can use observations of a bright source like Vela to track how this sensitivity varies across the instrument's field of view.
With this in mind, LAT team member Eric Charles, a physicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in California, used the famous pulsar to produce a novel movie. He tracked both Vela's position relative to the center of the LAT’s field of view and the instrument's exposure of the pulsar during the first 51 months of Fermi’s mission, from Aug. 4, 2008, to Nov. 15, 2012.
The movie renders Vela’s position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT’s field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT's vision.
The pulsar traces out a loopy, hypnotic pattern reminiscent of art produced by the colored pens and spinning gears of a Spirograph, a children's toy that produces geometric patterns.
The pattern created in the Vela movie reflects numerous motions of the spacecraft. The first is Fermi's 95-minute orbit around Earth, but there's another, subtler motion related to it. The orbit itself also rotates, a phenomenon called precession. Similar to the wobble of an unsteady top, Fermi's orbital plane makes a slow circuit around Earth every 54 days.
In order to capture the entire sky every two orbits, scientists deliberately nod the LAT in a repeating pattern from one orbit to the next. It first looks north on one orbit, south on the next, and then north again. Every few weeks, the LAT deviates from this pattern to concentrate on particularly interesting targets, such as eruptions on the sun, brief but brilliant gamma-ray bursts associated with the birth of stellar-mass black holes, and outbursts from supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.
The Vela movie captures one other Fermi motion. The spacecraft rolls to keep the sun from shining on and warming up the LAT's radiators, which regulate its temperature by bleeding excess heat into space.
The braided loops and convoluted curves drawn by Vela hint at the complexity of removing these effects from the torrent of data Fermi returns, but that’s a challenge LAT scientists long ago proved they could meet. Still going strong after more than four years on the job, Fermi continues its mission to map the high-energy sky, which is now something everyone can envision as a celestial Spriograph traced by a pulsar pen.Francis Reddy
Francis Reddy | EurekAlert!
New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)
Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study
30.03.2017 | Rochester Institute of Technology
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
24.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.04.2017 | Life Sciences