NASA's Fermi mission energizes the sky with gamma-ray constellations

October 17, 2018 by Francis Reddy, NASA
Scientists with NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope devised a set of constellations for the high-energy sky to highlight the mission’s 10th year of operations. Characters from modern myths, like the Hulk and the time-warping TARDIS from “Doctor Who,” represent one source of inspiration. Others include scientific concepts and tools, like the Fermi Satellite, and famous landmarks in countries contributing to the development and operation of Fermi. The mission has mapped about 3,000 gamma-ray sources -- 10 times the number known before its launch and comparable to the number of bright stars in the traditional constellations. The background shows the gamma-ray sky as mapped by Fermi. The prominent reddish band is the plane of our own galaxy, the Milky Way; brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. Credit: NASA

Long ago, sky watchers linked the brightest stars into patterns reflecting animals, heroes, monsters and even scientific instruments into what is now an official collection of 88 constellations. Now scientists with NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have devised a set of modern constellations constructed from sources in the gamma-ray sky to celebrate the mission's 10th year of operations.

The new constellations include a few characters from modern myths. Among them are the Little Prince, the time-warping TARDIS from "Doctor Who," Godzilla and his heat ray, the antimatter-powered U.S.S. Enterprise from "Star Trek: The Original Series" and the Hulk, the product of a gamma-ray experiment gone awry.

"Developing these unofficial constellations was a fun way to highlight a decade of Fermi's accomplishments," said Julie McEnery, the Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "One way or another, all of the gamma-ray constellations have a tie-in to Fermi science."

Since July 2008, Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) has been scanning the entire sky each day, mapping and measuring sources of gamma rays, the highest-energy light in the universe. The emission may come from pulsars, nova outbursts, the debris of supernova explosions and giant gamma-ray bubbles located in our own galaxy, or supermassive black holes and gamma-ray bursts—the most powerful explosions in the cosmos—in others. 

Fermi scientists developed unofficial constellations for the gamma-ray sky to highlight the mission’s 10th year of operations. These high-energy constellations include characters from modern myths, like Godzilla, the Little Prince and Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek: The Original Series.” Others represent scientific concepts and tools, like Saturn V Rocket, and famous landmarks in countries contributing to Fermi’s development and operation. The background shows the gamma-ray sky as mapped by Fermi. The prominent reddish band is the plane of our own galaxy, the Milky Way; brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. Credit: NASA
"By 2015, the number of different sources mapped by Fermi's LAT had expanded to about 3,000—10 times the number known before the mission," said Goddard's Elizabeth Ferrara, who led the project. "For the first time ever, the number of known was comparable to the number of bright stars, so we thought a new set of constellations was a great way to illustrate the point."    

The 21 gamma-ray constellations include famous landmarks—such as Sweden's recovered warship, Vasa, the Washington Monument and Mount Fuji in Japan—in countries contributing to Fermi science. Others represent scientific ideas or tools, from Schrödinger's Cat—both alive and dead, thanks to quantum physics—to Albert Einstein, Radio Telescope and Black Widow Spider, the namesake of a class of pulsars that evaporate their unfortunate companion stars.

Ferrara and Daniel Kocevski, an astrophysicist now at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, developed a web-based interactive to showcase the constellations, with artwork from Aurore Simonnet, an illustrator at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, and a map of the whole gamma-ray sky from Fermi. Clicking on a constellation turns on its artwork and name, which includes a link to a page with more information. Other controls switch on the visible sky and selected traditional constellations.

"Fermi is still going strong, and we are now preparing a new all-sky LAT catalog," said Jean Ballet, a Fermi team member at the French Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay. "This will add about 2,000 sources, many varying greatly in brightness, further enriching these constellations and enlivening the high-energy sky!"

Explore further: Fermi satellite celebrates 10 years of discoveries

Related Stories

Fermi satellite celebrates 10 years of discoveries

June 11, 2018

On June 11, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope celebrates a decade of using gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light in the cosmos, to study black holes, neutron stars, and other extreme cosmic objects and events.

Fermi telescope explores new energy extremes

January 10, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- After more than three years in space, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is extending its view of the high-energy sky into a largely unexplored electromagnetic range. Today, the Fermi team announced its ...

Recommended for you

Exoplanet stepping stones

November 20, 2018

Astronomers have gleaned some of the best data yet on the composition of a planet known as HR 8799c—a young giant gas planet about 7 times the mass of Jupiter that orbits its star every 200 years.

Encouraging prospects for moon hunters

November 20, 2018

Astrophysicists of the University of Zürich, ETH Zürich and the NCCR PlanetS show how the icy moons of Uranus were born. Their result suggests that such potentially habitable worlds are much more abundant in the Universe ...

Gravitationally lensed quasars

November 19, 2018

The path of light is bent by mass, an effect predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity, and when a massive galaxy or cluster lies along our line-of-sight to a more distant galaxy its matter will act as a lens to image the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.