Fermi’s latest gamma-ray census highlights cosmic mysteries

This all-sky image, constructed from two years of observations by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, shows how the sky appears at energies greater than 1 billion electron volts (1 GeV). Brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. For comparison, the energy of visible light is between 2 and 3 electron volts. A diffuse glow fills the sky and is brightest along the plane of our galaxy (middle). Discrete gamma-ray sources include pulsars and supernova remnants within our galaxy as well as distant galaxies powered by supermassive black holes.

Every three hours, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope scans the entire sky and deepens its portrait of the high-energy universe. Every year, the satellite’s scientists reanalyze all of the data it has collected, exploiting updated analysis methods to tease out new sources. These relatively steady sources are in addition to the numerous transient events Fermi detects, such as gamma-ray bursts in the distant universe and flares from the sun.

Earlier this year, the Fermi team released its second catalog of sources detected by the satellite’s Large Area Telescope (LAT), producing an inventory of 1,873 objects shining with the highest-energy form of light. “More than half of these sources are active galaxies, whose massive  are responsible for the gamma-ray emissions that the LAT detects,” said Gino Tosti, an astrophysicist at the University of Perugia in Italy and currently a visiting scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif.

One of the scientists who led the new compilation, Tosti today presented a paper on the catalog at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division in Newport, R.I. “What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of our new catalog is the large number of sources not associated with objects detected at any other wavelength,” he noted.

Indeed, if the Fermi catalog were a recipe, the two major ingredients would be active galaxies and pure mystery. To them, add in a pinch of pulsars, a dollop of supernova remnants, and a dash of other celestial objects, such as globular star clusters and galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Astronomers delight in the possibility of finding new types of gamma-ray-emitting objects within the “unassociated sources” that constitute roughly a third of the catalog. But Fermi’s LAT is revealing gamma-rays from an increasing — and sometimes, surprising — variety of astronomical objects. To highlight the range of LAT discoveries, the Fermi team created the following “top ten” list of five sources within the Milky Way and five beyond our galaxy.

Active galaxies called blazars constitute the single largest source class in the second Fermi LAT catalog, but nearly a third of the sources are unassociated with objects at any other wavelength. Their natures are unknown.

The Crab Nebula. The famous Crab Nebula, located in the constellation Taurus, is the wreckage of an exploded star whose light reached Earth in 1054. Located 6,500 light-years away, the Crab is one of the most studied objects in the sky. At the heart of an expanding gas cloud lies what’s left of the original star’s core, a superdense neutron star (also called a pulsar) that spins 30 times a second. Until recently, all of the Crab’s high-energy emissions were thought to be the result of physical processes near the pulsar that tapped into this rapid spin…… Continue reading Fermi’s latest gamma-ray census highlights cosmic mysteries