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Gamma-ray astronomy is the astronomical study of the cosmos with gamma rays. Gamma-rays are the most energetic form of "light" (electromagnetic radiation) that travel across the universe, and gamma-rays thus have the smallest wavelength of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum.
Gamma-rays are created by celestial events such as supernova explosions, destruction of positrons, creation of black holes and even the decay of radioactive material (gamma decay) in space. For example, supernova SN 1987A emitted an "afterglow" of gamma-ray photons from the decay of newly-made radioactive cobalt-56 ejected into space in a cloud, by the explosion. Most astronomical gamma-rays are thought to be produced not from radioactive decay, however, but from the same type of accelerations of electrons, and electron-photon interactions, that produce X-rays in astronomy (but occurring at a higher energy in the production of gamma-rays). Astronomical literature tends to hyphenate "gamma-ray" by analogy with the term "X-ray."
Long before experiments could detect gamma rays emitted by cosmic sources, scientists had known that the universe should be producing these photons. Work by Eugene Feenberg and Henry Primakoff in 1948, Sachio Hayakawa and I.B. Hutchinson in 1952, and, especially, Philip 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.
Most gamma rays coming from space are absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere, so gamma-ray astronomy could not develop until it was possible to get detectors above all or most of the atmosphere using balloons and spacecraft. The first gamma-ray telescope carried into orbit, on the Explorer 11 satellite in 1961, picked up fewer than 100 cosmic gamma-ray photons. They 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 interstellar gas.
The first true astrophysical gamma-ray sources were solar flares, which revealed the strong 2.223 MeV line predicted by Morrison. This line results from the formation of deuterium via the union of a neutron and proton; in a solar flare the neutrons appear as secondaries from interactions of high-energy ions accelerated in the flare process. These first gamma-ray line observations were from OSO-3, OSO-7, and the Solar Maximum Mission, the latter spacecraft launched in 1980. The solar observations inspired theoretical work by Reuven Ramaty and others.
Significant gamma-ray emission from our galaxy was first detected in 1967 by the 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 high-speed collisions and similar processes). 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 resolution of the instruments was insufficient to identify most of these point sources with specific visible stars or stellar systems.
A discovery in gamma-ray astronomy came in the late 1960s and early 1970s from a constellation of military defense satellites. 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 from deep space rather than the vicinity of the Earth. Later detectors determined that these gamma-ray bursts are seen to last for fractions of a second to minutes, appearing suddenly from unexpected directions, flickering, and then fading after briefly dominating the gamma-ray sky. Studied since the mid-1980s 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 November 2010, using the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, two gigantic gamma-ray bubbles were detected at the heart of our galaxy. These bubbles appear as a mirror image of each other. These bubbles of high-energy radiation are suspected as erupting from a massive black hole or evidence of a burst of star formations from millions of years ago. These bubbles have been measured and span 25,000 light-years across. They were discovered after scientists filtered out the "fog of background gamma-rays suffusing the sky". This discovery confirmed previous clues that a large unknown "structure" was in the center of the Milky Way.
On June 19, 1988, from Birigüi (50° 20' W 21° 20' S) at 10:15 UTC a balloon launch occurred which carried two NaI(Tl) detectors (600 cm2 total area) to an air pressure altitude of 5.5 mb for a total observation time of 6 hr. The supernova SN1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was discovered on February 23, 1987, and its progenitor is a blue supergiant (Sk -69 202) with luminosity of 2-5 x 1038 erg/s. The 847 keV and 1238 keV gamma-ray lines from 56Co decay have been detected.
A solar flare is an explosion in a solar atmosphere and was originally detected visually in our own sun. Solar flares create massive amounts of radiation across the full electromagnetic spectrum from the longest wavelength, radio waves, to high energy gamma rays. The correlations of the high energy electrons energized during the flare and the gamma rays are mostly caused by nuclear combinations of high energy protons and other heavier ions. These gamma-rays can be observed and allow scientists to determine the major results of the energy released, which is not provided by the emissions from other wavelengths. Nuclear gamma rays were observed from the solar flares of August 4 and 7, 1972, and November 22, 1977.
During its High Energy Astronomy Observatory program 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.
BeppoSAX was launched in 1996 and deorbited in 2003. It predominantly studied X-rays, but also observed gamma-ray bursts. By identifying the first non-gamma ray counterparts to gamma-ray bursts, it opened the way for their precise position determination and optical observation of their fading remnants in distant galaxies. The High Energy Transient Explorer 2 (HETE-2) was launched in October 2000 (on a nominally 2 yr mission) and was still operational in March 2007. Swift, a NASA spacecraft, was launched in 2004 and carries the BAT instrument for gamma-ray burst observations. Following BeppoSAX and HETE-2, it has observed numerous x-ray and optical counterparts to bursts, leading to distance determinations and detailed optical follow-up. These have established that most bursts originate in the explosions of massive stars (supernovas and hypernovas) in distant galaxies.
Currently the main space-based gamma-ray observatories are the INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, (INTEGRAL), and Fermi. INTEGRAL is an ESA mission with additional contributions from Czech, Poland, USA and Russia. It was launched on 17 October 2002. NASA launched Fermi on 11 June 2008. It includes LAT, the Large Area Telescope, and GBM, the GLAST Burst Monitor, for studying gamma-ray bursts.
Very energetic gamma rays, with photon energies over ~30 GeV, can also be detected by ground based experiments. The extremely low photon fluxes at such high energies require detector effective areas that are impractically large for current space-based instruments. Fortunately such high-energy photons produce extensive showers of secondary particles in the atmosphere that can be observed on the ground, both directly by radiation counters and optically via the Cherenkov light the ultra-relativistic shower particles emit. The Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescope technique currently achieves the highest sensitivity. The Crab Nebula, a steady source of so called TeV gamma-rays, was first detected in 1989 by the Whipple Observatory at Mt. Hopkins, in Arizona in the USA. Modern Cherenkov telescope experiments like H.E.S.S., VERITAS, MAGIC, and CANGAROO III can detect the Crab Nebula in a few minutes. The most energetic photons (up to 16 TeV) observed from an extragalactic object originate from the blazar Markarian 501 (Mrk 501). These measurements were done by the High-Energy-Gamma-Ray Astronomy (HEGRA) air Cherenkov telescopes.
Gamma-ray astronomy observations are still limited by non-gamma ray backgrounds at lower energies, and, at higher energy, by the number of photons that can be detected. Larger area detectors and better background suppression are essential for progress in the field.
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