The next time you gaze up in wonder at the night sky, take comfort in knowing that the Little Prince, Albert Einstein, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and even The Incredible Hulk are all returning the favor. These modern characters are among 21 new gamma-ray constellations NASA has named in celebration of a decade of science using the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
"Developing these unofficial constellations was a fun way to highlight a decade of Fermi's accomplishments," said Julie McEnery, Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "One way or another, all of the gamma-ray constellations have a tie-in to Fermi science."
Launched into low Earth orbit in June 2008, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope scans the heavens for gamma-rays, the highest energy light associated with the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe. Classic emitters of gamma-rays include such celestial wonders as black holes, pulsars, or the debris of supernova explosions.
While gamma-rays are beautiful, our eyes can't actually perceive them. The rays also quite dangerous, with harmful doses capable of widespread cellular damage. It's theorized that past mass extinctions on Earth were caused by gamma ray bursts that occurred within our own Milky Way. Thankfully, Earth's atmosphere acts as a shield to block the more common, faraway sources.
To move beyond the constraints of biological and planetary evolution, NASA developed the Fermi Space Telescope to pull back the curtain on this fascinating source of electromagnetic radiation and reveal even more of our hidden cosmos.
"By 2015, the number of different sources mapped by Fermi's LAT had expanded to about 3,000 — 10 times the number known before the mission," said Goddard's Elizabeth Ferrara. "For the first time ever, the number of known gamma-ray sources was comparable to the number of bright stars, so we thought a new set of constellations was a great way to illustrate the point."
Fun –– with a point
All of the new unofficial constellations named by NASA have roots in the history of humanity's study and fascination with gamma-rays. Bruce Banner's accidental exposure to gamma-rays led to his becoming the Incredible Hulk. Einstein theorized that gamma-rays, despite their high energy, traveled through the vacuum of space at the same speed as other forms of electromagnetic radiation — naturally, he was right. And the engines of the U.S.S. Enterprise are powered by the annihilation of matter and antimatter –– a process that, you guessed it, produces energy in the form of gamma-rays.
The other constellations created by NASA include Thor's hammer "Mjolnir" (forged from the heart of a dying star), Doctor Who's TARDIS (which travels through time and space), and even the classic movie monster Godzilla (awakened by gamma-ray-producing nuclear tests).
While we can't actually see these new constellations with our own eyes, NASA has created an interactive online gamma-ray sky map that indicates where Einstein, Godzilla and even the Roman Colosseum (symbolizing Italy's contributions to Fermi science) are located.
And for the many more gamma-ray inspired icons of our world that didn't get a shot at this first round of immortality in the night sky, NASA says more opportunities to connect the dots are coming.
"Fermi is still going strong, and we are now preparing a new all-sky LAT catalog," Jean Ballet, a Fermi team member at the French Atomic Energy Commission in Saclay added. "This will add about 2,000 sources, many varying greatly in brightness, further enriching these constellations and enlivening the high-energy sky!"