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Gamma-ray probe gets new name and fame

Image: Gamma-ray map
This all-sky view from the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope reveals bright emission in the plane of the Milky Way (center), bright pulsars and supermassive black holes.NASA / DOE / Intl. LAT Team
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NASA's new gamma-ray telescope is up and running in orbit, and going by a brand new name.

On Tuesday, NASA renamed what used to be known as the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST. It's now called the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, in honor of the late Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, a pioneer in high-energy physics.

"Enrico Fermi was the first person to suggest how cosmic particles could be accelerated to high speeds," said Paul Hertz, chief scientist for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "His theory provides the foundation for understanding the powerful phenomena his namesake telescope will discover."

The Fermi observatory produced its first all-sky map in gamma rays within the first few days of operation, revealing the glowing gas of our Milky Way galaxy, blinking spinning stars called pulsars and a flaring galaxy billions of light-years away.

"We did this map in a very brief period of time, just in a matter of days," Fermi project scientist Steve Ritz of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said during a Tuesday teleconference. "The previous experiment, EGRET [NASA's Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope], took more than a year to make an equivalent map. That holds a tremendous amount of promise for things to come."

The $690 million Fermi telescope was launched on June 11 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, beginning a planned five-year mission to scan the skies for high-energy gamma-ray light. This radiation, far beyond the range visible to the human eye, reveals some of the most energetic and mysterious events in the universe, including dark matter, black holes and spinning pulsars.

Since its launch, the Fermi observatory has seen smooth sailing, with no major issues during its checkout phase, mission managers said.

"Everything worked as expected, and then some," Ritz said. "None of us could have actually have asked for such a smooth turn-on. It went like clockwork where we were actually ahead of the clock."

Artist's illustration of the GLAST spacecraft.

Fermi recently completed its 60-day checkout and calibration period, and has officially begun its mission to survey the sky continuously and investigate any detected sources of gamma-ray bursts. These few-seconds-long fireworks are the most luminous flashes seen in the universe since the big bang. Scientists aren't sure what causes the displays, but they suspect they occur when a black hole swallows up a massive star.

So far the observatory hasn't been able to study any of these bursts in detail yet with its Large Area Telescope instrument, or LAT.

"There's been a little bit of bad luck: The bursts haven't been cooperating with us," said Marshall Space Flight Center's Charles "Chip" Meegan, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope burst monitor principal investigator. "There's no doubt were gonna get some good ones. It's just a matter of waiting."

The Fermi observatory mission is a collaborative effort between NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.