Crab Nebula Flares

A composite illustration of the AGILE satellite and the Crab Nebula imaged by the Chandra observatory. [Image courtesy of ASI, INAF and NASA]

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The Crab Nebula is one of the most popular targets for astronomers of all stripes. It is readily viewable in moderate sized amateur telescopes and wows new viewers at star parties when they’re informed they’re looking at the remnant of a supernova that exploded in 1054 AD. The nebula is also a popular target for professional astronomers looking to study physics in the environment of a pulsar. Powered by synchrotron radiation from the pulsar, the nebula glows brightly across numerous wavelengths in a steady manner that is so consistent, that astronomers have used it to calibrate instruments in different portions of the spectrum. The largest regular variation discovered was a mere 3.5% in the X-ray portion of the spectrum.

But on September 22 of 2010, the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite observed a sudden brightening in the nebula in the gamma ray portion of the spectrum. The Large Area Telescope (LAT) on board the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which observes the Crab regularly, confirmed this flaring. Strangely, telescopes observing the nebula in other spectral regimes showed no brightening at all. The lone exception was a small knot roughly one arcsecond in diameter seen by the Chandra X-ray telescope which is believed to correspond to the base of a jet emanating from the pulsar.

Many telescopes observed the central pulsar in X-rays as well as radio to attempt to discover if there had been a sudden change in the power source itself that caused the sudden brightening, but no changes were apparent. This suggests that the flare didn’t come directly from the pulsar, but rather from the nebula itself, perhaps as an interaction between the jet and the magnetic field of the nebula causing intense synchrotron radiation. If this is the cause, then the energy of the accelerated electrons is among the highest of any astronomical event. Such a case is of interest to astronomers and physicists because it provides a rare test bed into relativistic physics and particle acceleration theory.

While this event was certainly noteworthy, it was not entirely unique. AGILE detected a previous flare on October 7, 2007 and Fermi’s LAT had discovered another in February 2009. Currently, none of these events have been entirely explained but will likely give astronomers a target for future studies. Based on the amount of coverage the Crab Nebula receives from telescopes, astronomers are no expecting that such flares are a relatively common occurrence, happening about once a year. If so, this will provide an excellent opportunity to study such events with more scrutiny.

What Are Gamma Rays

Fermi mapped GeV-gamma-ray emission regions (magenta) in the W44 supernova remnant. The features clearly align with filaments detectable in other wavelengths. This composite merges X-ray data (blue) from the Germany/U.S./UK ROSAT mission, infrared (red) from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and radio (orange) from the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, NASA/ROSAT, NASA/JPL-Caltech, and NRAO/AUI

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In the universe there are kinds of energy and different ways it manifests itself. One common form is radiation. Radiation is the wave energy produced by electromagnetic forces. There are different kinds and their strength can be divided into three categories. There are alpha rays, beta rays, and finally gamma rays. Essentially each example is high energy particles traveling in a straight line. However, there are limits for level. Alpha rays are the weakest and can be blocked by human skin and gamma rays are the strongest and only dense elements like lead can block them.

So what are gamma rays? Gamma rays are the strongest from of radiation. This is what makes nuclear radiation so dangerous. This high energy form of radiation can damage human tissue and cause mutations. In circumstances where gamma radiation is plentiful most life forms would be killed within a short amount of time.

Gamma rays differ from alpha and beta waves in their composition. Alpha and beta rays are composed of discrete subatomic particles. This is part of the reason why these rays are more easily deflected by less dense matter. Gamma rays are on a whole different level. They are pure energy and radiation so only the most dense kind of matter can deflect it.

Gamma rays can be found practically anywhere in the universe. The best example is celestial bodies like the sun, pulsars, and white dwarfs. Each of these are massive sources energy burning off hydrogen in massive nuclear reactions. This produces massive amounts of radiation in the form of rays. Outside of the Earth’s protective atmosphere the radiation manifests itself in cosmic rays. Cosmic rays carry tremendous amounts of energy but what makes them pack such a punch are the gamma rays that they are made up of.

The most interesting characteristic of gamma rays is that they don’t have a uniform energy level. In some cases the energy levels vary so much you can have gamma rays that meet every criterion for the term but in the end have less energy than an x ray from a X ray machine at the hospital. The energy of the gamma ray largely depends on the source and production of the radiation.

In the end Gamma rays are one the many interesting energy phenomena in our universe and scientist are constantly looking to learn more about them and gain a better understanding of their properties.

We have written many articles about Gamma Ray for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Gamma Rays, and here are the Top Ten Gamma Ray Sources from the Fermi Telescope.

If you’d like more info on Gamma Rays, check out the NASA Official Fermi Website. And here’s a link to NASA’s Article on Gamma Rays.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 136: Gamma Ray Astronomy.

Electron Volt

Fermi mapped GeV-gamma-ray emission regions (magenta) in the W44 supernova remnant. The features clearly align with filaments detectable in other wavelengths. This composite merges X-ray data (blue) from the Germany/U.S./UK ROSAT mission, infrared (red) from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and radio (orange) from the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, NASA/ROSAT, NASA/JPL-Caltech, and NRAO/AUI

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From the name, electron volt, you might guess that this has something to do with electricity. Well, you’d be right, it does … but did you know that the electron volt is actually a unit of energy, like the erg or joule?

The symbol for the electron volt is eV – lower case e, upper case V. Like the meter, and parsec, the electron volt can have a prefix, so lots of electron volts can be written easily, so there’s a kilo-electron volt (keV, one thousand eV), mega-electron volt (MeV, one million eV), giga-electron volt (GeV, one thousand million eV), and so on.

About the energy the electron volt represents: if you accelerate an isolated electron through an electric potential difference of one volt, it will gain one electron volt of kinetic energy. Now a volt is a joule per coulomb, so an electron volt is one electric charge times one, or approx 1.6 x 10-19 joules (J).

Astronomers use electron volts to measure the energy of electromagnetic radiation, or photons, in the x-ray and gamma-ray wavebands of the electromagnetic spectrum, and also use electron volts to describe the difference in atomic or molecular energy states which give rise to ultraviolet, visual, or infrared lines, or limits. So, for example, the Lyman limit – which corresponds to the energy to just ionize an atom of hydrogen – is both 91.2 nm and 13.6 eV.

Now particle physicists use the electron volt, as a unit of energy too; however, confusingly, they also use it as a unit of mass! They do this by using the famous E = mc2 equation, so 1 eV – the unit of mass – is equal to 1 eV (the unit of energy) divided by c2 (c is the speed of light). So, for example, the mass of the proton is 0.938 GeV/c2, which makes the GeV/c2 a very convenient unit (= 1.783 x 10-27 kg). By convention, the c2 is usually dropped, and masses quoted in GeV.

Oh, and in some branches of physics, the eV is also a unit of temperature!

Would you like to read more on the electron volt? Try Energetic Particles (NASA), and How Big is an Electron Volt? (Fermilab).

Universe Today has many stories in which the electron volt features; here is a sample: Is a Nearby Object in Space Beaming Cosmic Rays at Earth?, Gamma-ray Afterglow reveals Pre-Historic Particle Accelerator, and Gamma Ray Bursts May Propel Fast Moving Particles.

The Astronomy Cast episode Gamma Ray Astronomy is a good example of electron volts in action.

Sources:
Wikipedia
NASA Science
GSU Hyperphysics

New Pulsar “Clocks” Will Aid Gravitational Wave Detection

This illustration shows a pulsar’s magnetic field (blue) creates narrow beams of radiation (magenta). Image credit: NASA

How do you detect a ripple in space-time itself? Well, you need hundreds of precision clocks distributed throughout the galaxy, and the Fermi gamma ray telescope has given astronomers a new way to find them.

The “clocks” in question are actually millisecond pulsars – city-sized, sun-massed stars of ultradense matter that spin hundreds of times per second. Due to their powerful magnetic fields, pulsars emit most of their radiation in tightly focused beams, much like a lighthouse. Each spin of the pulsar corresponds to a “pulse” of radiation detectable from Earth. The rate at which millisecond pulsars pulse is extremely stable, so they serve as some of the most reliable clocks in the universe.

Astronomers watch for the slightest variations in the timing of millisecond pulsars which might suggest that space-time near the pulsar is being distorted by the passage of a gravitational wave. The problem is, to make a reliable measurement requires hundreds of pulsars, and until recently they have been extremely difficult to find.

“We’ve probably found far less than one percent of the millisecond pulsars in the Milky Way Galaxy,” said Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

Data from the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, which started collecting data in 2008, have changed the way millisecond pulsars are detected. The Fermi telescope has identified hundreds of gamma-ray sources in the Milky Way. Gamma rays are high-energy photons, and they are produced near exotic objects, including millisecond pulsars.

“The data from Fermi were like a buried-treasure map,” Ransom said. “Using our radio telescopes to study the objects located by Fermi, we found 17 millisecond pulsars in three months. Large-scale searches had taken 10-15 years to find that many.”

Ransom and collaborator Mallory Roberts of Eureka Scientific used the National Science Foundation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find eight of the 17 new pulsars.

Right now astronomers have only barely enough millisecond pulsars to make a convincing gravitational wave detection, but with Fermi to help identify more pulsars, the odds of detecting these ripples in space-time are steadily increasing.

Ransom and Roberts announced their discoveries today at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Washington, DC.

(NRAO Press Release)

Gamma Waves

“Gamma wave” is not, strictly speaking, a standard scientific term … at least not in physics, and this is rather curious (the standard physics term is “gamma ray”).

The part of the electromagnetic spectrum ‘to the left’ (high energy/short wavelength/high frequency) is called the gamma ray region; the word ‘ray’ was in common use at the time of the discovery of this form of radiation (‘cathode rays’, ‘x-rays’, and so on); by the time it was discovered that gamma rays (and x-rays) are electromagnetic radiation (and that cathode rays, beta radiation, and alpha radiation, is not), the word ‘ray’ was well-entrenched. On the other hand, radio waves were discovered as a result of a new theory of electromagnetism … Maxwell’s equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves (and that’s exactly what Hertz discovered, in 1886).

Paul Villard is credited with having discovered gamma radiation, in 1900, though it was Rutherford who gave them the name “gamma rays”, in 1903 (Rutherford had discovered alpha and beta rays in 1899). So when, and how, was it discovered that gamma rays are, in fact, gamma waves (just like radio waves, only with much, much, much shorter wavelengths)? In 1914; Ernest Rutherford and Edward Andrade used crystal diffraction to measure the wavelength of gamma rays emitted by Radium B (which is the radioactive isotope of lead, 214Pb) and Radium C (which is the radioactive isotope of bismuth, 214Bi).

We usually think of electromagnetic radiation in terms of photons, a term which arises from quantum physics; for astronomy (which is almost entirely based on electromagnetic radiation/photons), however, instruments and detectors are nearly always more easily understood in terms of whether they detect waves (e.g. radio receivers) or particles (e.g. scintillators). In gamma ray astronomy, in all instruments used to date, the particle nature of gamma rays is key (for direct detection anyway; Cherenkov telescopes work quite differently!). Can the circle be closed? Is it possible to use crystal diffraction (or something similar) – as Rutherford and Andrade did – and the wave nature of gamma rays, to build gamma ray astronomical instruments? Yes … and the next generation of gamma ray observatories might include just such instruments!

NASA has some good background material on gamma rays as electromagnetic radiation, and gamma ray astronomy: for example, Gamma Rays, and Electromagnetic Spectrum.

Universe Today has a few stories related to the wave nature of gamma rays; for example INTEGRAL Dissects Super-Bright Gamma Ray Burst, and Watching Gamma Rays from the Safety of Earth. Here’s some information on alpha radiation.

Astronomy Cast episodes Gamma Ray Astronomy, Detectors, and Electromagnetism give good background too.

Sources:
Wikipedia
NASA

Einstein Still Rules, Says Fermi Telescope Team

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While the Fermi Space Telescope has mapped the gamma ray sky with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, it now has been able to take a measurement that has provided rare experimental evidence about the very structure of space and time, unified as space-time. Einstein’s theory of relativity states that all electromagnetic radiation travels through a vacuum at the same speed. Fermi detected two gamma ray photons which varied widely in energy; yet even after traveling 7 billion years, the two different photons arrived almost simultaneously.

On May 10, 2009, Fermi and other satellites detected a so-called short gamma ray burst, designated GRB 090510. Astronomers think this type of explosion happens when neutron stars collide. Ground-based studies show the event took place in a galaxy 7.3 billion light-years away. Of the many gamma ray photons Fermi’s LAT detected from the 2.1-second burst, two possessed energies differing by a million times. Yet after traveling some seven billion years, the pair arrived just nine-tenths of a second apart.

“This measurement eliminates any approach to a new theory of gravity that predicts a strong energy dependent change in the speed of light,” Michelson said. “To one part in 100 million billion, these two photons traveled at the same speed. Einstein still rules.”

“Physicists would like to replace Einstein’s vision of gravity — as expressed in his relativity theories — with something that handles all fundamental forces,” said Peter Michelson, principal investigator of Fermi’s Large Area Telescope, or LAT, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. “There are many ideas, but few ways to test them.”

Artist concept of Fermi in space. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of Fermi in space. Credit: NASA

Many approaches to new theories of gravity picture space-time as having a shifting, frothy structure at physical scales trillions of times smaller than an electron. Some models predict that the foamy aspect of space-time will cause higher-energy gamma rays to move slightly more slowly than photons at lower energy.

GRB 090510 displayed the fastest observed motions, with ejected matter moving at 99.99995 percent of light speed. The highest energy gamma ray yet seen from a burst — 33.4 billion electron volts or about 13 billion times the energy of visible light — came from September’s GRB 090902B. Last year’s GRB 080916C produced the greatest total energy, equivalent to 9,000 typical supernovae.

More images and videos about the Fermi Space Telescope.

Lead image caption: In this illustration, one photon (purple) carries a million times the energy of another (yellow). Some theorists predict travel delays for higher-energy photons, which interact more strongly with the proposed frothy nature of space-time. Yet Fermi data on two photons from a gamma-ray burst fail to show this effect. The animation below shows the delay scientists had expected to observe. Credit: NASA/Sonoma State University/Aurore Simonnet

Source: NASA

What is Cherenkov Radiation?

Cherenkov radiation is named after the Russian physicist who first worked it out in detail, in 1934, Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov (he got a Nobel for his work, in 1958; because he’s Russian, it’s also sometimes called Cerenkov radiation).

Nothing’s faster than c, the speed of light … in a vacuum. In the air or water (or glass), the speed of light is slower than c. So what happens when something like a cosmic ray proton – which is moving way faster than the speed of light in air or water – hits the Earth’s atmosphere? It emits a cone of light, like the sonic boom of a supersonic plane; that light is Cherenkov radiation.

The Cherenkov radiation spectrum is continuous, and its intensity increases with frequency (up to a cutoff); that’s what gives it the eerie blue color you see in pictures of ‘swimming pool’ reactors.

Perhaps the best known astronomical use of Cherenkov radiation is in ICATs such CANGAROO (you guessed it, it’s in Australia!), H.E.S.S. (astronomers love this sort of thing, that’s a ‘tribute’ to Victor Hess, pioneer of cosmic rays studies), and VERITAS (see if you can explain the pun in that!). As a high energy gamma ray, above a few GeV, enters the atmosphere, it creates electron-positron pairs, which initiate an air shower. The shower creates a burst of Cherenkov radiation lasting a few nanoseconds, which the ICAT detects. Because Cherenkov radiation is well-understood, the bursts caused by gamma rays can be distinguished from those caused by protons; and by using several telescopes, the source ‘on the sky’ can be pinned down much better (that’s what one of the Ss in H.E.S.S. stands for, stereoscopic).

The more energetic a cosmic ray particle, the bigger the air shower it creates … so to study really energetic cosmic rays – those with energies above 10^18 ev (which is 100 million times as energetic as what the LHC will produce), which are called UHECRs (see if you can guess) – you need cosmic ray detectors spread over a huge area. That’s just what the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory is; and its workhorse detectors are tanks of water with photomultiplier tubes in the dark (to detect the Cherenkov radiation of air shower particles).

However I think the coolest use of Cherenkov radiation in astronomy is IceCube, which detects the Cherenkov radiation produced by muons in Antarctic ice … traveling upward. These muons are produced by rare interactions of muon neutrinos with hydrogen or oxygen nuclei (in the ice), after they have traveled through the whole Earth, from the Artic (and before that perhaps a few hundred megaparsecs from some distant blazer).

ICAT: imaging Cherenkov Air Telescope
CANGAROO: Collaboration of Australia and Nippon (Japan) for a Gamma Ray Observatory in the Outback
H.E.S.S.: High Energy Stereoscopic System
VERITAS: Very Energetic Imaging Telescope Array System
UHECR: ultra-high-energy cosmic ray

This NASA webpage gives more details of how ICATs work.

Quite a few Universe Today stories are about Cherenkov radiation; for example Astronomers Observe Bizarre Blazar with Battery of Telescopes, and High Energy Gamma Rays Go Slower Than the Speed of Light?.

Examples of Astronomy Casts which include this topic: Cosmic Rays, and Gamma Ray Astronomy.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherenkov_radiation
http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/glossary/cerenkov_radiation.html

Top Ten Gamma Ray Sources from the Fermi Telescope

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The Fermi Telescope is seeing a Universe ablaze with Gamma Rays! A new map combining nearly three months of data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is giving astronomers an unprecedented look at the high-energy cosmos.

“Fermi has given us a deeper and better-resolved view of the gamma-ray sky than any previous space mission,” said Peter Michelson, the lead scientist for the spacecraft’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) at Stanford University. “We’re watching flares from supermassive black holes in distant galaxies and seeing pulsars, high-mass binary systems, and even a globular cluster in our own.”

The sources of these gamma rays come from within our solar system to galaxies billions of light-years away. To show the variety of the objects the LAT is seeing, the Fermi team created a “top ten” list comprising five sources within the Milky Way and five beyond our galaxy.

The top five sources within our galaxy are:

The Sun. Now near the minimum of its activity cycle, the sun would not be a particularly notable source except for one thing: It’s the only one that moves across the sky. The sun’s annual motion against the background sky is a reflection of Earth’s orbit around the sun.

“The gamma rays Fermi now sees from the sun actually come from high-speed particles colliding with the sun’s gas and light,” Thompson notes. “The sun is only a gamma-ray source when there’s a solar flare.” During the next few years, as solar activity increases, scientists expect the sun to produce growing numbers of high-energy flares, and no other instrument will be able to observe them in the LAT’s energy range.

LSI +61 303. This is a high-mass X-ray binary located 6,500 light-years away in Cassiopeia. This unusual system contains a hot B-type star and a neutron star and produces radio outbursts that recur every 26.5 days. Astronomers cannot yet account for the energy that powers these emissions.

PSR J1836+5925. This is a pulsar — a type of spinning neutron star that emits beams of radiation — located in the constellation Draco. It’s one of the new breed of pulsars discovered by Fermi that pulse only in gamma rays.

47 Tucanae. Also known as NGC 104, this is a sphere of ancient stars called a globular cluster. It lies 15,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana.

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
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

Click here to view an animation of the LAT

Unidentified. More than 30 of the brightest gamma-ray sources Fermi sees have no obvious counterparts at other wavelengths. This one, designated 0FGL J1813.5-1248, was not seen by previous missions, and Fermi’s LAT sees it as variable. The source lies near the plane of the Milky Way in the constellation Serpens Cauda. As a result, it’s likely within our galaxy — but right now, astronomers don’t know much more than that.

The top five sources beyond our galaxy are:

NGC 1275. Also known as Perseus A, this galaxy at the heart of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster is known for its intense radio emissions. It lies 233 million light-years away.

Hubble Space Telescope image of a blazar galaxy.  Credit: NASA
Hubble Space Telescope image of a blazar galaxy. Credit: NASA

3C 454.3. This is a type of active galaxy called a “blazar.” Like many active galaxies, a blazar emits oppositely directed jets of particles traveling near the speed of light as matter falls into a central supermassive black hole. For blazars, the galaxy happens to be oriented so that one jet is aimed right at us. Over the time period represented in this image, 3C 454.3 was the brightest blazar in the gamma-ray sky. It flares and fades, but for Fermi it’s never out of sight. The galaxy lies 7.2 billion light-years away in the constellation Pegasus.

PKS 1502+106. This blazar is located 10.1 billion light-years away in the constellation Boötes. It appeared suddenly, briefly outshone 3C 454.3, and then faded away.

PKS 0727-115. This object’s location in the plane of the Milky Way would lead one to expect that it’s a member of our galaxy, but it isn’t. Astronomers believe this source is a type of active galaxy called a quasar. It’s located 9.6 billion light-years away in the constellation Puppis.

Unidentified. This source, located in the southern constellation Columba, is designated 0FGL J0614.3-3330 and probably lies outside the Milky Way. “It was seen by the EGRET instrument on NASA’s earlier Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which operated throughout the 1990s, but the nature of this source remains a mystery,” Thompson says.

The LAT scans the entire sky every three hours when operating in survey mode, which is occupying most of the telescope’s observing time during Fermi’s first year of operations. These snapshots let scientists monitor rapidly changing sources.

The all-sky image released today shows us how the cosmos would look if our eyes could detect radiation 150 million times more energetic than visible light. The view merges LAT observations spanning 87 days, from August 4 to October 30, 2008.

Source: NASA