The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy
What’s the News: The walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, the centuries-old seat of Florentine government, have doubtless housed many secrets over the years. Now, a physicist, a photographer, and a researcher who uses advanced technology to analyze art are teaming up to reveal one secret that may still linger there: a long-lost mural by Leonardo da Vinci, thought to be hidden behind a more recent fresco. The team plans to use specially designed cameras, based on nuclear physics, to peer behind the fresco and determine whether the da Vinci is actually there—and if so, to take a picture of it.
Those two purple lobes in the figure-eight shape are balloons of gamma ray energy that reach out 25,000 light years above and below the plane of the galaxy. Yet these huge structures have remained hidden from astronomers, until now.
Using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, Doug Finkbeiner and colleagues detected the bubbles after they managed to remove from their images an obstructing “fog” of gamma rays between here and there.
Researchers do not yet know what produced the bubbles, but the fact that they appear to have relatively sharp edges suggests that they were produced in a single event. Finkbeiner said that would have required the rapid release of energy equivalent to about 100,000 supernovae, or exploding stars. One possibility is that there was a burst of star formation in the center of the galaxy producing massive, short-lived stars that exploded and ejected a great deal of gas and dust over a few million years. [Los Angeles Times]
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).
A massive burst of gamma rays from a star that exploded billions of years ago reached Earth on March 19, and clocked in as the brightest burst of gamma rays ever observed, astronomers say. The blast, dubbed GRB 080319B, came from 7.5 billion light years away, more than halfway across the universe. Despite the immense distance, it would have been visible with the naked eye at dark sites on Earth for 40 seconds [New Scientist]. Researchers say they burst was so bright because the jet of matter and energy was pointed directly at Earth.
Gamma ray bursts, the universe’s most luminous explosions, occur when massive stars, perhaps 20 to 30 times the mass of the sun, burn out their nuclear fuel. As a star’s core collapses, it creates a black hole that drives powerful gas jets outward [Reuters]. The collisions of particles within those jets create high-energy gamma rays, which heat up surrounding gas and produce visible light. Nobody knows whether anyone looked up at the right spot in the sky at the right moment on March 19 to see the pulse of light, but NASA’s robotic Swift observatory did what it’s supposed to when it detects a gamma-ray burst, and swung into action [Ars Technica].
Yesterday, NASA released the first set of images from its newest space telescope, the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope, which has now been renamed Fermi in honor of the particle physicist Enrico Fermi. After less than three months of collecting data, the Fermi telescope produced a map of the sky showing the sources of powerful gamma rays as bright spots of light.
“I like to call it our extreme machine,” said Jon Morse, the director of astrophysics for NASA. “It will help us crack the mysteries of these enormously powerful emissions.” Gamma rays are powerful light rays invisible to the naked eye [Washington Post]. As the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gamma rays, they can only be studied from an orbiting telescope.
The $700 million telescope will observe gamma rays emitted by black holes, neutron stars, and other cosmic eccentrics, and will also scan the skies for the mysterious gamma ray bursts that are of special interest to astronomers because they are among the brightest events ever observed. The intense flashes of gamma rays can release within seconds the same amount of energy that the sun will put out over its entire ten-billion-year lifetime—but no one is sure what causes them. The going theory is that the bursts are tied to the explosive deaths of massive stars, but exactly what types of stars and how the explosions are triggered remains a mystery [National Geographic News]. Already, the Fermi telescope has detected gamma ray bursts at a rate of about one a day.
There’s some weird stuff out there in the remote reaches of the universe, things that we humans have only caught occasional glimpses of, or things whose existence we’ve only guessed at. But astrophysicists hope they’ll be able to aim a telescope deep into those dark corners by sometime next week, if all goes well with the launch of the $690 million orbital telescope tomorrow.
The Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), which has been cleared for launch, will scan the skies for gamma rays, the highest-energy form of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum, and will then try to identify their origins. That’s when it will get really weird and wonderful.