Pick Your Favorite Findings From Fermi’s First Decade
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been observing some of the most extreme objects and events in the universe — from supermassive black holes to merging neutron stars and thunderstorms — for 10 years. Fermi studies the cosmos using gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, and has discovered thousands of new phenomena for scientists.
Here are a few of our favorite Fermi discoveries, pick your favorite in the first round of our “Fermi Science Playoff.”
Colliding Neutron Stars
In 2017, Fermi detected a gamma ray burst at nearly the same moment ground observatories detected gravitational waves from two merging neutron stars. This was the first time light and ripples in space-time were detected from the same source.
The Sun and Moon in Gamma Rays
In 2016, Fermi showed the Moon is brighter in gamma rays than the Sun. Because the Moon doesn’t have a magnetic field, the surface is constantly pelted from all directions by cosmic rays. These produce gamma rays when they run into other particles, causing a full-Moon gamma-ray glow.
Record Rare from a Blazar
The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy 3C 279 weighs a billion times the mass of our Sun. In June 2015, this blazar became the brightest gamma-ray source in the sky due to a record-setting flare.
The First Gamma-Ray Pulsar in Another Galaxy
In 2015, for the first time, Fermi discovered a gamma-ray pulsar, a kind of rapidly spinning superdense star, in a galaxy outside our own. The object, located on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula, also set the record for the most luminous gamma-ray pulsar we’ve seen so far.
A Gamma-Ray Cycle in Another Galaxy
Many galaxies, including our own, have black holes at their centers. In active galaxies, dust and gas fall into and “feed” the black hole, releasing light and heat. In 2015 for the first time, scientists using Fermi data found hints that a galaxy called PG 1553+113 has a years-long gamma-ray emission cycle. They’re not sure what causes this cycle, but one exciting possibility is that the galaxy has a second supermassive black hole that causes periodic changes in what the first is eating.
Gamma Rays from Novae
A nova is a fairly common, short-lived kind of explosion on the surface of a white dwarf, a type of compact star not much larger than Earth. In 2014, Fermi observed several novae and found that they almost always produce gamma-rays, giving scientists a new type of source to explore further with the telescope.
A Record-Setting Cosmic Blast
Gamma-ray bursts are the most luminous explosions in the universe. In 2013, Fermi spotted the brightest burst it’s seen so far in the constellation Leo. In the first three seconds alone, the burst, called GRB 130427A, was brighter than any other burst seen before it. This record has yet to be shattered.
Cosmic Rays from Supernova Leftovers
Cosmic rays are particles that travel across the cosmos at nearly the speed of light. They are hard to track back to their source because they veer off course every time they encounter a magnetic field. In 2013, Fermi showed that these particles reach their incredible speed in the shockwaves of supernova remains — a theory proposed in 1949 by the satellite’s namesake, the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi.
Discovery of a Transformer Pulsar
In 2013, the pulsar in a binary star system called AY Sextanis switched from radio emissions to high-energy gamma rays. Scientists think the change reflects erratic interaction between the two stars in the binary.
Gamma-Ray Measurement of a Gravitational Lens
A gravitational lens is a kind of natural cosmic telescope that occurs when a massive object in space bends and amplifies light from another, more distant object. In 2012, Fermi used gamma rays to observe a spiral galaxy 4.03 billion light-years away bending light coming from a source 4.35 billion light-years away.
New Limits on Dark Matter
We can directly observe only 20 percent of the matter in the universe. The rest is invisible to telescopes and is called dark matter — and we’re not quite sure what it is. In 2012, Fermi helped place new limits on the properties of dark matter, essentially narrowing the field of possible particles that can describe what dark matter is.
‘Superflares’ in the Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula supernova remnant is one of the most-studied targets in the sky — we’ve been looking at it for almost a thousand years! In 2011, Fermi saw it erupt in a flare five times more powerful than any previously seen from the object. Scientists calculate the electrons in this eruption are 100 times more energetic than what we can achieve with particle accelerators on Earth.
Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space
Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes are created by thunderstorms. In 2011, Fermi scientists announced the satellite had detected beams of antimatter above thunderstorms, which they think are a byproduct of gamma-ray flashes.
Giant Gamma-Ray Bubbles in the Milky Way
Using data from Fermi in 2010, scientists discovered a pair of “bubbles” emerging from above and below the Milky Way. These enormous bubbles are half the length of the Milky Way and were probably created by our galaxy’s supermassive black hole only a few million years ago.
Hint of Starquakes in a Magnetar
Neutron stars have magnetic fields trillions of times stronger than Earth’s. Magnetars are neutron stars with magnetic fields 1,000 times stronger still. In 2009, Fermi saw a storm of gamma-ray bursts from a magnetar called SGR J1550-5418, which scientists think were related to seismic waves rippling across its surface.
A Dark Pulsar
We observe many pulsars using radio waves, visible light or X-rays. In 2008, Fermi found the first gamma-ray only pulsar in a supernova remnant called CTA 1. We think that the “beam” of gamma rays we see from CTA 1 is much wider than the beam of other types of light from that pulsar. Those other beams never sweep across our vision — only the gamma-rays.
Have a favorite Fermi discovery or want to learn more? Cast your vote in the first of four rounds of the Fermi Science Playoff to help rank Fermi’s findings. Or follow along as we celebrate the mission all year.
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11 Jun, 2018
Pick Your Favorite Findings From Fermi’s First Decade
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