Star gazing seems especially good on a clear autumn night. From our back deck our amateur eyes scan the sky and its wonder. We first notice Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. A beautiful harvest moon rises over the hill, lighting up jet streams that crisscross the stars and planets. We see Orion, the bowl and handle of the Big Dipper, the Square of Pegasus, the vast Milky Way and we are fortunate to see an occasional falling star. We are in awe of the beauty of our night sky but it’s what we can’t see that is truly amazing.
Spectacular explosions, which can’t be detected with the human eye, light up the gamma-ray sky about once a day. These explosions, called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), are from distant galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away from earth and are thought to be triggered by supernovae or exploding stars. They release more energy than our sun will put out in a lifetime.
GRBs have been an observational and theoretical challenge since they were first observed in the 60s. An ongoing international collaborative effort is working to gain a better understanding of the GRBs, how they are formed and how they affect our universe. Department of Energy scientists like Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) Brenda Dingus and Gus Sinnis are major players in the GMB research. They are both leaders of LANL’s Milagro Gamma-Ray Observatory and the follow-up highly sensitive High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC), a bi-national project between Mexico and the United States. These unconventional telescopes view the universe at very high energies rather than with visible light.
You can learn about the science behind GRBs in Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper In the OSTI Collections: Gamma Ray Bursts. William provides a compilation of the history and challenges of GMB research, the gradual development of astrological instruments and how they led to further research. He details important science objectives and lessons learned from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and its first year surveying the sky and he helps us understand the science behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an international collaboration endeavor scheduled for construction in northern Chile (2014 – 2021).
With the help of DOE researchers and the international science community we are learning to star gaze in a different way, to see beyond our limits, forever changing what we know about our universe.