Categories: Missions

The Vela Pulsar as a Spirograph

I loved my Spirograph when I was young, and obviously Eric Charles, a physicist with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope team did too. Charles has taken data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope and turned it into a mesmerizing movie of the Vela Pulsar. It actually is a reflection of the complex motion of the spacecraft as it stared at the pulsar.

The video shows the intricate pattern traced by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s view of the Vela Pulsar over the spacecraft’s 51 months in orbit.

Fermi orbits our planet every 95 minutes, building up increasingly deeper views of the universe with every circuit. Its wide-eyed Large Area Telescope (LAT) sweeps across the entire sky every three hours, capturing the highest-energy form of light — gamma rays — from sources across the universe. The Fermi telescope has given us our best view yet of the bizarre world of the high energy Universe, which include supermassive black holes billions of light-years away to intriguing objects in our own galaxy, such as X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and pulsars.

Francis Reddy from the Goddard Spaceflight Center describes the movie:

The Vela pulsar outlines a fascinating pattern in this movie showing 51 months of position and exposure data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT). The pattern reflects numerous motions of the spacecraft, including its orbit around Earth, the precession of its orbital plane, the manner in which the LAT nods north and south on alternate orbits, and more. The movie renders Vela’s position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT’s field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT’s vision. Better knowledge of how the LAT’s sensitivity changes across its field of view helps Fermi scientists better understand both the instrument and the data it returns.

The pulsar traces out a loopy, hypnotic pattern reminiscent of art produced by the colored pens and spinning gears of a Spirograph, a children’s toy that produces geometric patterns.

The Vela pulsar spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees. While gamma-ray bursts and flares from distant black holes occasionally outshine the pulsar, the Vela pulsar is like a persistant beacon, much like the light from a lighthouse.

Find out more about this movie and the Fermi Telescope here.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

View Comments

  • A Spirograph! Too funny~ I had one too!

    Am reading 'Art and Physics - Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light" by Leonard Shlain. To quote from the intro: "Some people might object to pairing art and physics, since the artist is concerned not only with external reality but with the inner realm of emotions, myths, dreams, and the spirit as well. While art is thought to be relatively subjective, physics, until this century, scrupulously avoided any mention of the inner thoughts that related to the outer world. Physics concerned itself instead with the objective arena of motion, things, and forces. This stark difference between art and physics blurs in light of the startling revelations put forth by the quantum physicists that emerged from the fusion of the contradictory aspect of light." (i.e. Wave vs Particle)

    "John Wheeler, one of Bohr's students, subsequently expanded on Bohr's duality, proposing that Mind and Universe, like wave and particle, constitute another complementary pair. Wheeler's theory proposed a connection between the inner realm of consciousness (Mind) and its reciprocal, the external world of the senses (Universe). According to Wheeler, Mind and Universe are inextricably integrated. The Talmud expresses this subtle relationship in a apocryphal story of a dialogue between God and Abraham. God begins by chiding Abraham, "If it wasn't for Me, you wouldn't exist." After a moment of thoughtful reflection, Abraham respectfully replies, "Yes, Lord, I am very appreciative and grateful. However, if it wasn't for me, You wouldn't be known."... Wheeler suggests, the two, Mind and Universe, are simply aspects of a binary system. Art and physics, then, may be seen as two pincers of a claw the Mind can use to grasp the nature of Wheeler's complementary image, the Universe."

    Shlain goes into great detail of how artists exploring the nature of light and perspective, helped us begin to conceptualize space and time.... an interesting read for all who enjoy art and/or physics...

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