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Integral’s first look at the gamma-ray Universe


ESA’s gamma-ray satellite, Integral, is fully operational. Today Integral’s first ground-breaking images of the high-energy Universe were presented in Paris, France. Astronomers call such initial observations ’first-light’ images.

The high-energy Universe is a violent place of exploding stars and their collapsed remnants such as the ultra-compressed neutron stars and, at the most extreme, all-consuming black holes. These celestial objects create X-rays and gamma rays that are many times more powerful than the optical radiation we can see with our eyes and optical telescopes. Integral’s Principal Investigators – the scientists responsible for the instruments on board - explain the crucial role that high-energy missions like Integral play in astronomy. “X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy is a pathfinder to unusual objects. At optical wavelengths, the number of stars is staggering. At X-ray and gamma-ray wavelengths, there are fewer objects, but the ones that remain are the really peculiar ones.”

As a first test, Integral observed the Cygnus region of the sky, looking particularly at that enigmatic object, Cygnus X-1. Since the 1960s, we have known this object to be a constant generator of high-energy radiation. Most scientists believe that Cygnus X-1 is the site of a black hole, containing around five times the mass of our Sun and devouring a nearby star. Observing Cygnus X-1, which is relatively close by in our own Galaxy - ’only’ 10 000 light years from us - is a very important step towards understanding black holes. This will also help understand the monstrous black hole - three million times the mass of our Sun - at the centre of our Galaxy.

During the initial investigations, scientists had a pleasant surprise when Integral captured its first gamma-ray burst. These extraordinary celestial explosions are unpredictable, occurring from random directions about twice a day. Their precise origin is contentious: they could be the result of massive stars collapsing in the distant Universe or alternatively the result of a collision between two neutron stars. Integral promises to provide vital clues to solving this particular celestial mystery.

To study these peculiarities, Integral carries two powerful gamma-ray instruments. It has a camera, or imager, called IBIS and a spectrometer, SPI. Spectrometers are used to measure the energy of the gamma rays received. Gamma-ray sources are often extremely variable and can fluctuate within minutes or seconds. It is therefore crucial to record data simultaneously in different wavelengths. To achieve this, Integral also carries an X-ray and an optical monitor (JEM-X and OMC). All four instruments will observe the same objects, at the same time. In this way they can capture fleeting events completely. Integral sends the data from all the instruments to the Integral Science Data Centre (ISDC) near Geneva, Switzerland, where they are processed for eventual release to the scientific community.

"We have been optimising the instruments’ performance to produce the best overall science. We expect to be ready for astronomers around the world to use Integral by the end of the year," says Arvind Parmar, acting Integral Project Scientist at ESA. "These images and spectra prove that Integral can certainly do the job it was designed to do, and more", which is to unlock some of the secrets of the high-energy Universe.

Integral’s primary mission will last for two years, but it is carrying enough fuel to continue for five years, all being well.

Dr Arvind Parmar | alfa
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