This image compresses the Vela movie sequence into a single snapshot by merging pie-slice sections from eight individual frames. (Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration) Enlarge
Feb. 27, 2013 — NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope 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. These range from supermassive black holes billions of light-years away to intriguing objects in our own galaxy, such as X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and pulsars.
Now a Fermi scientist has transformed LAT data of a famous pulsar into a mesmerizing movie that visually encapsulates the spacecraft's complex motion.
Pulsars are neutron stars, the crushed cores of massive suns that destroyed themselves when they ran out of fuel, collapsed and exploded. The blast simultaneously shattered the star and compressed its core into a body as small as a city yet more massive than the sun. The result is an object of incredible density, where a spoonful of matter weighs as much as a mountain on Earth. Equally incredible is a pulsar's rapid spin, with typical rotation periods ranging from once every few seconds up to hundreds of times a second. Fermi sees gamma rays from more than a hundred pulsars scattered across the sky.
One pulsar shines especially bright for Fermi. Called Vela, it spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees. Although gamma-ray bursts and flares from distant black holes occasionally outshine the pulsar, they don't have Vela's staying power. Because pulsars emit beams of energy, scientists often compare them to lighthouses, a connection that in a broader sense works especially well for Vela, which is both a brilliant beacon and a familiar landmark in the gamma-ray sky.
Most telescopes focus on a very small region of the sky, but the LAT is a wide-field instrument that can detect gamma rays across a large portion of the sky at once. The LAT is, however, much more sensitive to gamma rays near the center of its field of view than at the edges. Scientists can use observations of a bright source like Vela to track how this sensitivity varies across the instrument's field of view.
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