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Gamma-Ray Astronomy

Gamma-Ray Astronomy — Gamma-ray astronomy is the astronomical study of gamma rays.

Long before experiments could detect gamma rays emitted by cosmic sources, scientists had known that the universe should be producing these photons. Work by Feenberg and Primakoff in 1948, Hayakawa and Hutchinson in 1952, and, especially, Morrison in 1958 had led scientists to believe that a number of different processes which were occurring in the universe would result in gamma-ray emission.

These processes included cosmic ray interactions with interstellar gas, supernova explosions, and interactions of energetic electrons with magnetic fields. However, it was not until the 1960s that our ability to actually detect these emissions came to pass.

Gamma-rays coming from space are mostly absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. So gamma-ray astronomy could not develop until it was possible to get our detectors above all or most of the atmosphere, using balloons or spacecraft.

The first gamma-ray telescope carried into orbit, on the Explorer-XI satellite in 1961, picked up fewer than 100 cosmic gamma-ray photons. These appeared to come from all directions in the Universe, implying some sort of uniform “gamma-ray background”. Such a background would be expected from the interaction of cosmic rays (very energetic charged particles in space) with gas found between the stars.

Significant gamma-ray emission from our galaxy was first detected in 1967 by the gamma-ray detector aboard the OSO-3 satellite. It detected 621 events attributable to cosmic gamma-rays. However, the field of gamma-ray astronomy took great leaps forward with the SAS-2 (1972) and the COS-B (1975-1982) satellites.

These two satellites provided an exciting view into the high-energy universe (sometimes called the ‘violent’ universe, because the kinds of events in space that produce gamma-rays tend to be explosions, high-speed collisions, and such). They confirmed the earlier findings of the gamma-ray background, produced the first detailed map of the sky at gamma-ray wavelengths, and detected a number of point sources. However, the poor resolution of the instruments made it impossible to identify most of these point sources with individual stars or stellar systems.

Perhaps the most spectacular discovery in gamma-ray astronomy came in the late 1960s and early 1970s from a constellation of defense satellites which were put into orbit for a completely different reason. Detectors on board the Vela satellite series, designed to detect flashes of gamma-rays from nuclear bomb blasts, began to record bursts of gamma-rays — not from the vicinity of the Earth, but from deep space!

Today, these gamma-ray bursts are seen to last for fractions of a second to minutes, popping off like cosmic flashbulbs from unexpected directions, flickering, and then fading after briefly dominating the gamma-ray sky.

Studied for over 25 years now with instruments on board a variety of satellites and space probes, including Soviet Venera spacecraft and the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, the sources of these enigmatic high-energy flashes remain a mystery. They appear to come from far away in the Universe, and currently the most likely theory seems to be that at least some of them come from so-called hypernova explosions – supernovas creating black holes rather than neutron stars.

In 1977, NASA announced plans to build a “great observatory” for gamma-ray astronomy. The Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory (CGRO) was designed to take advantage of the major advances in detector technology during the 1980s, and was launched in 1991.

The satellite carried four major instruments which have greatly improved the spatial and temporal resolution of gamma-ray observations. The CGRO provided large amounts of data which are being used to improve our understanding of the high-energy processes in our Universe. CGRO was de-orbited in June 2000 as a result of the failure of one of its stabilizing gyroscopes.

Currently, the main gamma ray observatory is the INTErnational Gamma-Ray Asrophysics Laboratory, (INTEGRAL). INTEGRAL is an ESA mission with contributions from Czech, Poland, USA and Russia. It was launched on 17 October 2002.

Gamma-ray astronomy is still mostly dominated by the quality of data. More and better data from newer missions and better instruments is therefore essential for progress in the field.

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Gamma-Ray Astronomy


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