Picture of the Day: The Vela movie merged into a single snapshot: a spirograph


This image compresses the Vela movie sequence into a single snapshot by merging pie-slice sections from eight individual frames. (Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration)

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope orbits our planet every 95 minutes, building up increasingly deeper views of the universe with every round.

The Vela pulsar, a neutron star that was formed when a massive star collapsed. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Toronto/M.Durant et al; Optical: DSS/Davide De Martin)

Its wide-eyed Large Area Telescope (LAT) sweeps across the entire sky every three hours, capturing gamma rays from sources across the universe.

Now a Fermi scientist has transformed LAT data of a famous pulsar, called Vela,  into a mesmerizing movie that visually encapsulates the spacecraft’s complex motion.

What is a Pulsar?

Pulsars are neutron stars, the crushed cores of massive suns that destroyed themselves when they ran out of fuel, collapsed and exploded. The blast simultaneously shattered the star and compressed its core into a body as small as a city yet more massive than the sun. The result is an object of incredible density, where a spoonful of matter weighs as much as a mountain on Earth. Equally incredible is a pulsar’s rapid spin, with typical rotation periods ranging from once every few seconds up to hundreds of times a second. Fermi sees gamma rays from more than a hundred pulsars scattered across the sky.

One pulsar shines especially bright for Fermi. Vela, spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees.

LAT team member Eric Charles, a physicist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in California, used the famous pulsar to produce a novel movie. He tracked both Vela’s position relative to the center of the LAT’s field of view and the instrument’s exposure of the pulsar during the first 51 months of Fermi’s mission, from Aug. 4, 2008, to Nov. 15, 2012.

You can view it below:

The movie renders Vela’s position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT’s field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT’s vision.

The pulsar traces out a loopy, hypnotic pattern reminiscent of art produced by the colored pens and spinning gears of a Spirograph, a children’s toy that produces geometric patterns.

Still going strong after more than four years on the job, Fermi continues its mission to map the high-energy sky, which is now something everyone can envision as a celestial Spriograph traced by a pulsar pen.

Sources: nasa.gov, sciencedaily.com

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