Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope gets a new lease on life

An artist's illustration of NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

A NASA space telescope tasked with probing the most powerful explosions in the universe has a new lease on life.

NASA officials said Wednesday that they have officially extended the lifetime of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has just completed its initial five-year mission. The new mission phase will allow Fermi telescope scientists to further probe the Milky Way in search of gamma-ray signals from elusive dark matter.

"As Fermi opens its second act, both the spacecraft and its instruments remain in top-notch condition and the mission is delivering outstanding science," Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. [See photos from NASA's gamma-ray hunting Fermi Space Telescope]

Scientists working with the $690 million Fermi telescope may change up their observing strategy for the new portion of the mission, according to NASA officials.

The Large Area Telescope (LAT) instrument onboard Fermi will start to take deeper exposures of the central portion of the Milky Way. This part of the galaxy is filled with sources of high-energy such as pulsars, possibly making it a great place to hunt for signals of dark matter — a mysterious substance that doesn’t emit or absorb visible light.

Some scientists suspect that dark matter could be formed from "exotic particles that produce a flash of gamma rays when they interact," NASA officials said.

This all-sky view shows how the sky appears at energies greater than 1 billion electron volts (GeV) according to five years of data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space ,Telescope.

"As the LAT builds up an increasingly detailed picture of the gamma-ray sky, it simultaneously reveals how dynamic the universe is at these energies," Peter Michelson, the instrument's principal investigator and a professor of physics at Stanford University in California said in a statement.

During its five-year mission, Fermi successfully dodged space junk and helped astronomers investigate gamma-ray bursts: the most powerful explosions in the known universe.

The probe's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) instrument sees the entire sky except for the part blocked by Earth on the lookout for these powerful bursts that could happen at any moment, NASA officials said.

"More than 1,200 gamma-ray bursts, plus 500 flares from our sun and a few hundred flares from highly magnetized neutron stars in our galaxy have been seen by the GBM," principal investigator Bill Paciesas, a senior scientist at the Universities Space Research Association's Science and Technology Institute in Huntsville, Ala., said in a statement.

Fermi also made a surprising galactic discovery in 2010. The probe found giant bubbles stretching more than 25,000 light-years above and below the plane of the Milky Way, NASA officials said. The mysterious structures could be the result of outbursts from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

NASA launched the Fermi space telescope in June 2008. The space-based gamma-ray observatory is expected to continue its mission through 2018, NASA officials said.

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