During its first year of operations, NASA’s Fermi Gamma
Ray Space Telescope mapped the extreme sky with unprecedented
resolution and sensitivity. It captured more than one thousand
discrete sources of gamma rays — the highest-energy form of light.
Capping these achievements was a measurement that provided rare
experimental evidence about the very structure of space and time,
unified as space-time in Einstein’s theories.
“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.”
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.
Such a model would violate Einstein’s edict that all electromagnetic
radiation — radio waves, infrared, visible light, X-rays and gamma
rays — travels through a vacuum at the same speed.
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.”
Fermi’s secondary instrument, the Gamma ray Burst Monitor, has
observed low-energy gamma rays from more than 250 bursts. The LAT
observed 12 of these bursts at higher energy, revealing three record
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.
Scanning the entire sky every three hours, the LAT is giving Fermi
scientists an increasingly detailed look at the extreme universe.
“We’ve discovered more than a thousand persistent gamma ray sources
— five times the number previously known,” said project scientist
Julie McEnery at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
“And we’ve associated nearly half of them with objects known at other
Blazars — distant galaxies whose massive black holes emit fast-moving
jets of matter toward us — are by far the most prevalent source, now
numbering more than 500. In our own galaxy, gamma ray sources include
46 pulsars and two binary systems where a neutron star rapidly orbits
a hot, young star.
“The Fermi team did a great job commissioning the spacecraft and
starting its science observations,” said Jon Morse, Astrophysics
Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “And now Fermi
is more than fulfilling its unique scientific promise for making novel, high-impact discoveries about the extreme universe and the fabric of space-time.”
NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S.
Department of Energy, along with important contributions from
academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan,
Sweden and the United States.
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