New results are in from the Fermi Space Telescope, which settled into orbit in the summer of 2008, and the findings seem to prove Albert Einstein right once again. Man, that guy was good.
The telescope detected and studied a gamma ray burst, one of the massively bright and powerful explosions that occurs when stars go supernova in distant galaxies. Astronomers were interested in the gamma rays of differing energies and wavelengths that were generated by the explosion, and that raced each other across the universe. After a journey of 7.3 billion light-years, they all arrived within nine-tenths of a second of one another in a detector on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, at 8:22 p.m., Eastern time, on May 9 [The New York Times].
The researchers were wondering if certain gamma rays with both high energies and short wavelengths would arrive last, at the back of the pack. That would suggest that they had violated one of the principles set out in Einstein‘s theory of relativity: that the speed of light is always constant. If researchers could detect a significant lag in some gamma rays, it would also give fresh hope to those ambitious researchers searching for a theory of everything.
Three recent studies raised hopes that physicists had caught the first glimpses of dark matter, but the somewhat contradictory results guarantee that researchers will be puzzling over the issue for some time to come. The latest results come from NASA’s orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which was launched last June. The evidence is a reported excess of high-energy electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, which could be created as dark matter particles annihilate or decay [Nature News].
Peter Michelson, principal investigator for the instrument on Fermi that made the detection, cautions that his group is not yet claiming to have found a smoking gun for dark matter. The signal could also come from more mundane sources nearby, such as pulsars, the spinning remnants of supernovae. “But if it isn’t pulsars, it is some new physics,” says Michelson [Nature News]. The new findings are published in Physical Review Letters. Meanwhile, a satellite named PAMELA recently detected higher than expected numbers of positrons, which seems to corroborate the Fermi findings. But results from a balloon experiment conducted high over Antarctica last year add a dash of confusion to the mix.
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope may have just gotten a hint in its hunt for the mysterious dark matter that is thought to make up the bulk of the universe’s mass. A group of astrophysicists has run a simulation of the distribution of dark matter in a galaxy like our Milky Way, and say that if the telescope scans the right region of space it may be able to detect gamma rays given off by collisions between the particles that are thought to make up dark matter (which have never been directly detected, and are still speculative).
Previously, some cosmologists have proposed that the best chance of a detection lies in nearby dwarf galaxies, since they should contain dense nuggets of dark matter that could be relatively easy to pinpoint. But a new study argues that a diffuse dark matter ‘halo’ surrounding the Milky Way offers an even better shot at glimpsing the mysterious stuff. “I would bet on it,” says lead author Volker Springel…. “And I’d be willing to risk a bit of money as well” [New Scientist].
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope only settled into its orbit a few months ago, but it’s already producing results that are delighting astronomers. Yesterday, NASA announced that Fermi had found a strange pulsar (a fast-spinning neutron star) by detecting only the gamma rays it emits. This is a first, NASA explains. Although astronomers have catalogued nearly 1800 pulsars, this is the first pulsar that seems to emit only gamma-ray radiation. Most other pulsars have been found using radio telescopes, although some also beam energy in visible light and X-rays [New Scientist].
Neutron stars are the small and incredibly dense bodies formed when massive stars explode into supernovas; perhaps the oddest of neutron stars are pulsars, which send out jets of radiation from their magnetic poles that sweep across Earth’s line of sight as the star spins on its axis. The newfound pulsar, which sits 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus, rotates at about a million miles an hour, and its beam of gamma rays reaches Earth about three times a second [National Geographic News]. Pulsars are often compared to lighthouses for the way their beams flash across our telescopes (see NASA animation).