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’s main instrument, the Large Area Telescope (LAT), has observed more than 5,000 individual gamma-ray sources.
In 1949, Enrico Fermi — an Italian-American pioneer in high-energy physics and Nobel laureate for whom the mission was named — suggested that cosmic rays, particles traveling at nearly the speed of light, could be propelled by supernova shock waves. In 2013, Fermi’s LAT used gamma rays to prove these stellar remnants are at least one source of the speedy particles.
Fermi’s all-sky map, produced by the LAT, has revealed two massive structures extending above and below the plane of the Milky Way. These two “bubbles” span 50,000 light-years and were probably produced by the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy only a few million years ago.
The Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), Fermi’s secondary instrument, can see the entire sky at any instant, except the portion blocked by Earth. The satellite has observed over 2,300 gamma-ray bursts, the most luminous events in the universe. Gamma-ray bursts occur when massive stars collapse or neutron stars or black holes merge and drive jets of particles at nearly the speed of light. In those jets, matter travels at different speeds and collides, emitting gamma rays.
On Aug. 17, 2017, Fermi detected a gamma-ray burst from a powerful explosion in the constellation Hydra. At almost the same time, the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detected ripples in space-time from the same event, the merger of two neutron stars. This was the first time light and gravitational waves were detected from the same source. Scientists also used another gamma-ray burst detected by Fermi to confirm Einstein’s theory that space-time is smooth and continuous.