Gamma rays are the universe’s big guns. Produced by pyrotechnic events like exploding stars, pulsar bursts, or galactic cores, these rays represent light at its most energetic and powerful, and are capable of ravaging wide swaths of space like merciless cosmic steamrollers.
While the human eye is too limited to behold gamma rays—a fact that was famously bemoanedin a legendary performance by Dean Stockwell in Battlestar Galactica—we can build artificial eyes that can detect them, and help us understand where they come from.
To that point, there is no better observer of the high-energy skies than NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST), as evidenced by the below video from NASA Goddard. The clip condenses down six years of FGST’s data into one minute of glorious gamma ray space porn, revealing the best view of the universe’s high energy skies ever produced.
Best view of the high-energy gamma-ray sky. Video: NASA Goddard/YouTube
Most of the gamma rays in the above video were generated by blazars, which are compact elliptical galaxies anchored by supermassive black holes. But the video also provides an annotated overview of other objects that the FGST has captured, such as the Gamma Cygni supernova remnant, the Crab Nebula, or the hulking twin stars of the Eta Carinae system. Numerous pulsars are also labeled, as well as a newly discovered gamma ray source that has yet to be categorized.
All of the objects displayed produce light with frequencies between 50 billion and two trillion electron volts, which is a unit used to measure energy. To put those numbers in context, the optical light your eyes receive ranges from about two to three electron volts. So the next time you have to squint at a bright light, imagine upping that energy about one trillion times, and you’ll get a sense of the brain-exploding power of the gamma ray.
It should come as no surprise that these extreme wavelengths are of enormous interest to astronomers, given that they are missives from the most tempestuous regions of the universe. With this comprehensive new catalog and visualization, the FGST team has expanded our grasp of what the high energy universe looks like through the telescope’s eyes, but the work is far from over.
"An exciting aspect of this catalog is that we find many new sources that emit gamma rays over a comparatively large patch of the sky," said Jamie Cohen, a Fermi team member and University of Maryland graduate student, in a statement.
"Finding more of these objects enables us to probe their structures as well as better understand mechanisms that accelerate the subatomic particles that ultimately produce gamma-ray emission."