Fermi Links Neutrino Blast To Known Extragalactic Blazar

This image shows the galaxy PKS B1424-418, and the blazar that lives there. The dotted circle is the area in which Fermi detected the neutrino Big Bird. Image: NASA/DOE/LAT Collaboration.

A unique observatory buried deep in the clear ice of the South Pole region, an orbiting observatory that monitors gamma rays, a powerful outburst from a black hole 10 billion light years away, and a super-energetic neutrino named Big Bird. These are the cast of characters that populate a paper published in Nature Physics, on Monday April 18th.

The observatory that resides deep in the cold dark of the Antarctic ice has one job: to detect neutrinos. Neutrinos are strange, standoffish particles, sometimes called ‘ghost particles’ because they’re so difficult to detect. They’re like the noble gases of the particle world. Though neutrinos vastly outnumber all other atoms in our Universe, they rarely interact with other particles, and they have no electrical charge. This allows them to pass through normal matter almost unimpeded. To even detect them, you need a dark, undisturbed place, isolated from cosmic rays and background radiation.

This explains why they built an observatory in solid ice. This observatory, called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, is the ideal place to detect neutrinos. On the rare occasion when a neutrino does interact with the ice surrounding the observatory, a charged particle is created. This particle can be either an electron, muon, or tau. If these charged particles are of sufficiently high energy, then the strings of detectors that make up IceCube can detect it. Once this data is analyzed, the source of the neutrinos can be known.

The next actor in this scenario is NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Fermi was launched in 2008, with a specific job in mind. Its job is to look at some of the exceptional phenomena in our Universe that generate extraordinarily large amounts of energy, like super-massive black holes, exploding stars, jets of hot gas moving at relativistic speeds, and merging neutron stars. These things generate enormous amounts of gamma-ray energy, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that Fermi looks at exclusively.

Next comes PKS B1424-418, a distant galaxy with a black hole at its center. About 10 billion years ago, this black hole produced a powerful outburst of energy, called a blazar because it’s pointed at Earth. The light from this outburst started arriving at Earth in 2012. For a year, the blazar in PKS B1424-418 shone 15-30 times brighter in the gamma spectrum than it did before the burst.

Detecting neutrinos is a rare occurrence. So far, IceCube has detected about a hundred of them. For some reason, the most energetic of these neutrinos are named after characters on the popular children’s show called Sesame Street. In December 2012, IceCube detected an exceptionally energetic neutrino, and named it Big Bird. Big Bird had an energy level greater than 2 quadrillion electron volts. That’s an enormous amount of energy shoved into a particle that is thought to have less than one millionth the mass of an electron.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is a series of strings of detectors, drilled deep into the Antarctic ice. Image:  Nasa-verve - IceCube Science Team - Francis Halzen, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26350372
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is a series of strings of detectors, drilled deep into the Antarctic ice. Image: Nasa-verve – IceCube Science Team – Francis Halzen, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26350372

Big Bird was clearly a big deal, and scientists wanted to know its source. IceCube was able to narrow the source down, but not pinpoint it. Its source was determined to be a 32 degree wide patch of the southern sky. Though helpful, that patch is still the size of 64 full Moons. Still, it was intriguing, because in that patch of sky was PKS B1424-418, the source of the blazar energy detected by Fermi. However, there are also other blazars in that section of the sky.

The scientists looking for Big Bird’s source needed more data. They got it from TANAMI, an observing program that used the combined power of several networked terrestrial telescopes to create a virtual telescope 9,650 km(6,000 miles) across. TANAMI is a long-term program monitoring 100 active galaxies that are located in the southern sky. Since TANAMI is watching other active galaxies, and the energetic jets coming from them, it was able to exclude them as the source for Big Bird.

The team behind this new paper, including lead author Matthias Kadler of the University of Wuerzberg in Germany, think they’ve found the source for Big Bird. They say, with only a 5 percent chance of being wrong, that PKS B1424-418 is indeed Big Bird’s source. As they say in their paper, “The outburst of PKS B1424–418 provides an energy output high enough to explain the observed petaelectronvolt event (Big Bird), suggestive of a direct physical association.”

So what does this mean? It means that we can pinpoint the source of a neutrino. And that’s good for science. Neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect, and they’re not that well understood. The new detection method, involving the Fermi Telescope in conjunction with the TANAMI array, will not only be able to locate the source of super-energetic neutrinos, but now the detection of a neutrino by IceCube will generate a real-time alert when the source of the neutrino can be narrowed down to an area about the size of the full Moon.

This promises to open a whole new window on neutrinos, the plentiful yet elusive ‘ghost particles’ that populate the Universe.

The Heavens are Ablaze With Blazars

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From a JPL press release:

Astronomers are actively hunting a class of supermassive black holes throughout the universe called blazars thanks to data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The mission has revealed more than 200 blazars and has the potential to find thousands more.

Blazars are among the most energetic objects in the universe. They consist of supermassive black holes actively “feeding,” or pulling matter onto them, at the cores of giant galaxies. As the matter is dragged toward the supermassive hole, some of the energy is released in the form of jets traveling at nearly the speed of light. Blazars are unique because their jets are pointed directly at us.

“Blazars are extremely rare because it’s not too often that a supermassive black hole’s jet happens to point towards Earth,” said Francesco Massaro of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology near Palo Alto, Calif., and principal investigator of the research, published in a series of papers in the Astrophysical Journal. “We came up with a crazy idea to use WISE’s infrared observations, which are typically associated with lower-energy phenomena, to spot high-energy blazars, and it worked better than we hoped.”

The findings ultimately will help researchers understand the extreme physics behind super-fast jets and the evolution of supermassive black holes in the early universe.

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky in infrared light in 2010, creating a catalog of hundreds of millions of objects of all types. Its first batch of data was released to the larger astronomy community in April 2011 and the full-sky data were released last month.

This artist's concept shows a "feeding," or active, supermassive black hole with a jet streaming outward at nearly the speed of light. Such active black holes are often found at the hearts of elliptical galaxies. Not all black holes have jets, but when they do, the jets can be pointed in any direction. If a jet happens to shine at Earth, the object is called a blazar. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Massaro and his team used the first batch of data, covering more than one-half the sky, to test their idea that WISE could identify blazars. Astronomers often use infrared data to look for the weak heat signatures of cooler objects. Blazars are not cool; they are scorching hot and glow with the highest-energy type of light, called gamma rays. However, they also give off a specific infrared signature when particles in their jets are accelerated to almost the speed of light.

One of the reasons the team wants to find new blazars is to help identify mysterious spots in the sky sizzling with high-energy gamma rays, many of which are suspected to be blazars. NASA’s Fermi mission has identified hundreds of these spots, but other telescopes are needed to narrow in on the source of the gamma rays.

Sifting through the early WISE catalog, the astronomers looked for the infrared signatures of blazars at the locations of more than 300 gamma-ray sources that remain mysterious. The researchers were able to show that a little more than half of the sources are most likely blazars.

“This is a significant step toward unveiling the mystery of the many bright gamma-ray sources that are still of unknown origin,” said Raffaele D’Abrusco, a co-author of the papers from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “WISE’s infrared vision is actually helping us understand what’s happening in the gamma-ray sky.”

The team also used WISE images to identify more than 50 additional blazar candidates and observed more than 1,000 previously discovered blazars. According to Massaro, the new technique, when applied directly to WISE’s full-sky catalog, has the potential to uncover thousands more.

“We had no idea when we were building WISE that it would turn out to yield a blazar gold mine,” said Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who is not associated with the new studies. “That’s the beauty of an all-sky survey. You can explore the nature of just about any phenomenon in the universe.”

Fermi Gamma Ray Observatory Harvests Cosmic Mysteries

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When it comes to high-energy sources, no one knows them better than NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Taking a portrait of the entire sky every 240 minutes, the program is continually renewing and updating its sources and once a year the scientists harvest the data. These annual gatherings are then re-worked with new tools to produce an ever-deeper look into the Universe around us.

Fermi is famous for its analysis of steady gamma-ray sources, numerous transient events, the dreaded GRB and even flares from the Sun. Its all-sky map absolutely bristles with the energy that’s out there and earlier this year a second catalog of objects was released to eager public eyes. An astounding 1,873 objects were detected by the satellite’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) and this high energy form of light is turning some heads.

“More than half of these sources are active galaxies, whose massive black holes 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, California.

One of the scientists who led the new compilation, Tosti 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.

If we were to look at Fermi’s gathering experience as a harvest, we’d see two major components – crops and mystery. Add to that a bushel of pulsars, a basket of supernova remnants and a handful of other things, like galaxies and globular clusters. For Fermi farmers, harvesting new types of gamma-ray-emitting objects that are from “unassociated sources” would account for about 31% of the cash crop. However, the brave little Fermi LAT is producing results from some highly unusual sources. Mystery growth? Think this way… If it’s a light source, then it has a spectrum. When it comes to gamma rays, they’re seen at different energies. “At some energy, the spectra of many objects display what astronomers call a spectral break, that is, a greater-than-expected drop-off in the number of gamma rays seen at increasing energies.” Let’s take a look at two…

Within our galaxy is 2FGL J0359.5+5410. Right now, scientists just don’t understand what it is… only that it’s located in the constellation Camelopardalis. Since it appears about midplane, we’re just assuming it belongs to the Milky Way. From its spectrum, it might be a pulsar – but one without a pulse. Or how about 2FGL J1305.0+1152? It also resides along the midplane and smack dab in the middle of galaxy country – Virgo. Even after two years, Fermi can’t tease out any more details. It doesn’t even have a spectral break!

Pulsar? Blazar? Mystery…

Original Story Source: NASA Fermi News.

Magnetic Fields in Inter-cluster Space: Measured at Last

How Does Light Travel?

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The strength of the magnetic fields here on Earth, on the Sun, in inter-planetary space, on stars in our galaxy (the Milky Way; some of them anyway), in the interstellar medium (ISM) in our galaxy, and in the ISM of other spiral galaxies (some of them anyway) have been measured. But there have been no measurements of the strength of magnetic fields in the space between galaxies (and between clusters of galaxies; the IGM and ICM).

Up till now.

But who cares? What scientific importance does the strength of the IGM and ICM magnetic fields have?

The Large Area Telescope (LAT) on Fermi detects gamma-rays through matter (electrons) and antimatter (positrons) they produce after striking layers of tungsten. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

Estimates of these fields may provide “a clue that there was some fundamental process in the intergalactic medium that made magnetic fields,” says Ellen Zweibel, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One “top-down” idea is that all of space was somehow left with a slight magnetic field soon after the Big Bang – around the end of inflation, Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, or decoupling of baryonic matter and radiation – and this field grew in strength as stars and galaxies amassed and amplified its intensity. Another, “bottom-up” possibility is that magnetic fields formed initially by the motion of plasma in small objects in the primordial universe, such as stars, and then propagated outward into space.

So how do you estimate the strength of a magnetic field, tens or hundreds of millions of light-years away, in regions of space a looong way from any galaxies (much less clusters of galaxies)? And how do you do this when you expect these fields to be much less than a nanoGauss (nG), perhaps as small as a femtoGauss (fG, which is a millionth of a nanoGauss)? What trick can you use??

A very neat one, one that relies on physics not directly tested in any laboratory, here on Earth, and unlikely to be so tested during the lifetime of anyone reading this today – the production of positron-electron pairs when a high energy gamma ray photon collides with an infrared or microwave one (this can’t be tested in any laboratory, today, because we can’t make gamma rays of sufficiently high energy, and even if we could, they’d collide so rarely with infrared light or microwaves we’d have to wait centuries to see such a pair produced). But blazars produce copious quantities of TeV gamma rays, and in intergalactic space microwave photons are plentiful (that’s what the cosmic microwave background – CMB – is!), and so too are far infrared ones.

MAGIC telescope (Credit: Robert Wagner)

Having been produced, the positron and electron will interact with the CMB, local magnetic fields, other electrons and positrons, etc (the details are rather messy, but were basically worked out some time ago), with the net result that observations of distant, bright sources of TeV gamma rays can set lower limits on the strength of the IGM and ICM through which they travel. Several recent papers report results of such observations, using the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, and the MAGIC telescope.

So how strong are these magnetic fields? The various papers give different numbers, from greater than a few tenths of a femtoGauss to greater than a few femtoGauss.

“The fact that they’ve put a lower bound on magnetic fields far out in intergalactic space, not associated with any galaxy or clusters, suggests that there really was some process that acted on very wide scales throughout the universe,” Zweibel says. And that process would have occurred in the early universe, not long after the Big Bang. “These magnetic fields could not have formed recently and would have to have formed in the primordial universe,” says Ruth Durrer, a theoretical physicist at the University of Geneva.

So, perhaps we have yet one more window into the physics of the early universe; hooray!

Sources: Science News, arXiv:1004.1093, arXiv:1003.3884

World-wide Campaign Sheds New Light on Nature’s “LHC”

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In a manner somewhat like the formation of an alliance to defeat Darth Vader’s Death Star, more than a decade ago astronomers formed the Whole Earth Blazar Telescope consortium to understand Nature’s Death Ray Gun (a.k.a. blazars). And contrary to its at-death’s-door sounding name, the GASP has proved crucial to unraveling the secrets of how Nature’s “LHC” works.

“As the universe’s biggest accelerators, blazar jets are important to understand,” said Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) Research Fellow Masaaki Hayashida, corresponding author on the recent paper presenting the new results with KIPAC Astrophysicist Greg Madejski. “But how they are produced and how they are structured is not well understood. We’re still looking to understand the basics.”

Blazars dominate the gamma-ray sky, discrete spots on the dark backdrop of the universe. As nearby matter falls into the supermassive black hole at the center of a blazar, “feeding” the black hole, it sprays some of this energy back out into the universe as a jet of particles.

Researchers had previously theorized that such jets are held together by strong magnetic field tendrils, while the jet’s light is created by particles spiraling around these wisp-thin magnetic field “lines”.

Yet, until now, the details have been relatively poorly understood. The recent study upsets the prevailing understanding of the jet’s structure, revealing new insight into these mysterious yet mighty beasts.

“This work is a significant step toward understanding the physics of these jets,” said KIPAC Director Roger Blandford. “It’s this type of observation that is going to make it possible for us to figure out their anatomy.”

Over a full year of observations, the researchers focused on one particular blazar jet, 3C279, located in the constellation Virgo, monitoring it in many different wavebands: gamma-ray, X-ray, optical, infrared and radio. Blazars flicker continuously, and researchers expected continual changes in all wavebands. Midway through the year, however, researchers observed a spectacular change in the jet’s optical and gamma-ray emission: a 20-day-long flare in gamma rays was accompanied by a dramatic change in the jet’s optical light.

Although most optical light is unpolarized – consisting of light with an equal mix of all polarizations – the extreme bending of energetic particles around a magnetic field line can polarize light. During the 20-day gamma-ray flare, optical light from the jet changed its polarization. This temporal connection between changes in the gamma-ray light and changes in the optical polarization suggests that light in both wavebands is created in the same part of the jet; during those 20 days, something in the local environment changed to cause both the optical and gamma-ray light to vary.

“We have a fairly good idea of where in the jet optical light is created; now that we know the gamma rays and optical light are created in the same place, we can for the first time determine where the gamma rays come from,” said Hayashida.

This knowledge has far-reaching implications about how a supermassive black hole produces polar jets. The great majority of energy released in a jet escapes in the form of gamma rays, and researchers previously thought that all of this energy must be released near the black hole, close to where the matter flowing into the black hole gives up its energy in the first place. Yet the new results suggest that – like optical light – the gamma rays are emitted relatively far from the black hole. This, Hayashida and Madejski said, in turn suggests that the magnetic field lines must somehow help the energy travel far from the black hole before it is released in the form of gamma rays.

“What we found was very different from what we were expecting,” said Madejski. “The data suggest that gamma rays are produced not one or two light days from the black hole [as was expected] but closer to one light year. That’s surprising.”

In addition to revealing where in the jet light is produced, the gradual change of the optical light’s polarization also reveals something unexpected about the overall shape of the jet: the jet appears to curve as it travels away from the black hole.

“At one point during a gamma-ray flare, the polarization rotated about 180 degrees as the intensity of the light changed,” said Hayashida. “This suggests that the whole jet curves.”

This new understanding of the inner workings and construction of a blazar jet requires a new working model of the jet’s structure, one in which the jet curves dramatically and the most energetic light originates far from the black hole. This, Madejski said, is where theorists come in. “Our study poses a very important challenge to theorists: how would you construct a jet that could potentially be carrying energy so far from the black hole? And how could we then detect that? Taking the magnetic field lines into account is not simple. Related calculations are difficult to do analytically, and must be solved with extremely complex numerical schemes.”

Theorist Jonathan McKinney, a Stanford University Einstein Fellow and expert on the formation of magnetized jets, agrees that the results pose as many questions as they answer. “There’s been a long-time controversy about these jets – about exactly where the gamma-ray emission is coming from. This work constrains the types of jet models that are possible,” said McKinney, who is unassociated with the recent study. “From a theoretician’s point of view, I’m excited because it means we need to rethink our models.”

As theorists consider how the new observations fit models of how jets work, Hayashida, Madejski and other members of the research team will continue to gather more data. “There’s a clear need to conduct such observations across all types of light to understand this better,” said Madejski. “It takes a massive amount of coordination to accomplish this type of study, which included more than 250 scientists and data from about 20 telescopes. But it’s worth it.”

With this and future multi-wavelength studies, theorists will have new insight with which to craft models of how the universe’s biggest accelerators work. Darth Vader has been denied all access to these research results.

Sources: DOE/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Press Release, a paper in the 18 February, 2010 issue of Nature.

Fermi Spies Energetic Blazar Flare

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The blazar 3C 454.3, a bright source of gamma rays from a galaxy 7 billion light-years away just got a whole lot brighter. Observations from the Fermi gamma-ray telescope confirm that since September 15th the blazar has flared up considerably, increasing in gamma-ray brightness by about ten times in the from earlier this past summer, making it currently the brightest gamma-ray source in the sky.

3C 454.3 is a blazar, a jet of energetic particles that is caused by the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. Most galaxies are thought to house a supermassive black hole at their center, and as it chomps down matter from the accretion disk that surrounds it, the supermassive black hole can form large jets that stream out light and energy in fantastic proportions. In the case of 3C 454.3, one of these jets is aimed at the Earth, which allows for us to see and study it.

This blazar has started to outshine the Vela pulsar, which because it is only 1,000 light-years away from the Earth is generally the brightest gamma-ray source in the sky. 3C 454.3 is almost twice as bright as Vela in the gamma-ray part of the spectrum, even though it lies 7 million times further away from the Earth. 3c 454.3 has also brightened significantly in the infrared, X-ray, radio and visible light.

This is not the first time the blazar has shown an increase in brightness. Over the course of observations of the blazar, it flared-up in brightness in May 2005, and again in July and August of 2007.

Dr. Erin Wells Bonning, Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said of the recent flare in comparison with previous brightening events:

“In 2005, it reached a R-band magnitude of 12. Our peak observed R-band magnitude was 13.83, so we’re still not at the brightness of the 2005 outburst (about a factor of 5 below). On July 19, 2007, it reached a R-band magnitude of 13, not as bright as the 2005 event, but still brighter than we see it now. In 2005, there were no gamma-ray instruments to observe 3C 454.3, but the 2007 flare was observed by AGILE with a flux above 100 MeV of 3 +- 1 * 10^-6 cts/s/cm^s. The Fermi and AGILE count rates for Dec 2-3, 2009  are 6-9 times as high. So, interestingly, although it is not currently as bright optically as it was in 2007, it is a good deal brighter in gamma-rays.”

The Fermi gamma-ray space telescope (formerly GLAST) keeps tabs on the gamma-ray emissions from many sources in the sky. 3C 454.3 is just one of the top ten brightest sources of gamma-rays visible to the satellite, a list of which can be found in an article Nancy wrote in March, The Top Ten Gamma-Ray Sources from the Fermi Telescope.

Of course, the blazar 3C 454.3 is not as intrinsically bright as many of the Gamma-Ray Bursts observed by telescopes like Swift and Fermi, but it is the consistently brightest source of gamma-rays in the sky right now. Bonning said that, “While both GRBs and blazars are highly beamed toward us, the Lorentz factors (speed of particles in the jet) associated with GRBs are much higher than in blazars, causing them to appear brighter due to special relativistic effects.”

Observations 3C 454.3 are continuing in all wavelengths to capture the light curve of the event, and better understand these periodic flares. Bonning said, “The source has been relatively quiescent since it emerged from behind the Sun, and began to increase in brightness around the end of July. It then entered a bright period of fairly rapid variability, peaking every 20 days or so. The most recent, very intense, flare began around the end of November. Per our [Astronomer’s Telegram], since Nov 21, 3C 454 has increased about a factor of 3 in brightness in both optical and infrared. (B, V, and R filters are in optical wavelengths, and J and K are near-infrared).  Similarly, the gamma-ray flux has increased also by a factor of 3 in the 0.1-300 GeV band over the same period.”

The cause of the intermittent flare-ups in 3C 454.3 and other blazars is still a mystery, but this current brightening will give astronomers better data as to what the possible cause could be. There seem to be no periodic events associated with the flares in blazars (with the exception of the possible “supermassive black hole binary” OJ 287).

Bonning said of a potential cause, “This is actually a very active field of research – there are numerous existing models, but no one hypothesis is clearly preferred. Perhaps particles have been shocked at some location in the blazar jet, or the jet may be precessing so that is closer to our line of sight, or there may be some other explanation.”

There will be numerous telescopes around the world zooming in on the current flare-up. According to Bonning:

“Blazars are multi-wavelength objects — their spectral energy distribution covers radio through gamma-rays, so a diverse collection of facilities will be observing 3C 454.3 during this outburst. Besides Fermi, the Italian AGILE satellite has been observing in gamma rays. The Swift X-ray telescope began monitoring in early December.  The blazar monitoring group at Boston University headed by Alan Marscher is observing it with VLBA (radio; 13GHz). There is also a radio astronomy group at Michigan also observing with VLBA, as well one headed by Yuri Kovalev at Max Planck institute in Germany.  There is an optical program with the ATOM telescope associated with the HESS TeV instrument in Namibia. (3C 454.3 is not bright at TeV energies, by the way.)  This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but at any rate numerous facilities across the globe and operating at a wide range of energies will be taking a very close look at 3C 454.3 as it goes through this flare.”

Source: NASA press release, email interview with Erin Wells Bonning