Image: GLAST
NASA and General Dynamics
Depicted in an artist's illustration, the GLAST spacecraft uses the highest energy form of light.
updated 6/5/2008 9:40:25 PM ET 2008-06-06T01:40:25

By scanning the universe for the most powerful form of radiation known, the Gamma-Ray Large Area Space Telescope could shed light on dark matter, microscopic black holes and other cosmic enigmas.

In fact its greatest promise is that it might discover something nobody is even looking for.

Gamma rays are the highest energy form of light, created under some of the most violent events in the universe, such as the death of stars or the annihilation of matter. GLAST is the first gamma-ray observatory to survey the entire sky every day with unprecedented sensitivity, and the hope is that it will open a dramatic new window onto the cosmos. This multi-agency, multi-national effort is working toward a launch on June 11.

"If you could see the sky with gamma-ray eyes, it would look entirely different from the night sky now," said Steve Ritz, the GLAST project scientist and an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "Gamma rays are emitted in the most extreme environments in the universe, where the gravitational and electric and magnetic fields are so much higher than anything you could ever study directly on Earth.

For example, GLAST could help find dark matter, the as yet unseen substance that could make up 90 percent of all matter in the universe, whose presence scientists infer by its effects on the motion of galaxies. In theory, dark matter particles are their own antiparticles, meaning they destroy each other when they come into contact.

The annihilation of dark matter would result in gamma rays with energies specific to the masses of the obliterated particles, "a signature that would be unmistakable," Ritz said. "There are a lot of mysteries about what dark matter is, how densely it is distributed, and where in the galaxy it clumps that GLAST could help answer."

Tiny black holes
GLAST may also detect microscopic black holes that may have formed right after the Big Bang. No one is sure if any exist, but if they did and have survived until now, they could be smaller than a proton but have the mass of Mt. Everest. All black holes theoretically evaporate at least some of their mass away as energy, and microscopic black holes could in theory vanish completely in an explosion of sundry particles and gamma rays that GLAST could detect.

"If these microscopic black holes exist and they evaporated, there would be this rising pulse of gamma rays that would then go to zero, and that's never been seen before, so that would be a very distinct signal," said Chip Meegan, GLAST Burst Monitor principal investigator and an astrophysicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 At least once a day, the universe is rocked by the mightiest explosions known — blasts of incredibly powerful gamma rays. The engine that powers these gamma ray bursts is unknown, but they seem to emerge during the births of black holes, or during the mergers of neutron stars with black holes or other neutron stars.

"We don't really understand the physics involved because it's so complicated, since you're releasing a lot of energy in such a short time — they can each release as much energy in a few seconds as the sun does in its entire 10 billion year lifetime," Meegan said. "Hopefully we'll be able to study whole new aspects of gamma ray bursts that we didn't before."

The super-massive black holes at the center of galaxies — which have as much as billions of times the mass of our sun — also generate incredible amounts of gamma rays. As they rip stars apart, they spew out jets of hot gas moving near the speed of light that emit gamma rays. By analyzing this radiation, GLAST could help solve the mystery of how these jets are made, and therefore yield insights on how black holes affect the space around them.

"We want to understand how these super-massive black holes work, how they got there, and how they can accomplish feats of such power," Ritz said. "We're really just beginning to understand them."

Light's speed
GLAST could also help see if the speed of light really is constant regardless of wavelength. According to Einstein's theory of relativity, all light travels at the same speed, but some recent theories suggest that extremely high-energy, short-wavelength gamma rays might experience a turbulence of sorts in space-time from virtual matter repeatedly forming and disappearing. As such, their speed might vary slightly over the course of billions of light years, making them arrive just before or after lower-energy rays from the same gamma ray burst.

"If this effect exists, it's not something that you could really see on Earth," Ritz said. "You'd essentially want to see how light does on a long-distance race, and that's billions of light years. But gamma ray bursts are so bright that you could see them from such vast distances. GLAST could really see these time differences."

Perhaps most exciting is the possibility that GLAST will find something no one is expecting. This space telescope can peer a range of high-energy gamma rays that is virtually unexplored.

"There's such a leap forward in capabilities with GLAST that we have a really good chance of discovering things not even on the list yet," Ritz said.

This space observatory's Large Area Telescope can see a fifth of the sky at any given moment with unparalleled sensitivity for gamma rays. To improve it further, the GLAST Burst Monitor constantly sees in all directions at once to watch for sudden flares of gamma rays produced by gamma ray bursts and solar flares. GLAST will circle some 340 miles above the Earth to view gamma rays unimpeded by the atmosphere, completing an orbit every 95 minutes and viewing the entire sky every two orbits.

GLAST will receive a new name once in orbit, chosen from some 12,000 suggestions given by the general public around the world. The space telescope's first basic results might come out as soon as three months afterward.

The mission is scheduled for liftoff atop a Delta 2 rocket at 11:45 a.m. ET on June 11. The mission has been delayed three times because of technical issues.

This report has been updated to reflect a new launch date for the GLAST mission.

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