All aboard the Magic Bastard Bus, students! We’re going to SPACE! That’s right, those nerdy bastards as NASA have gone where every nerd has wanted to go before – etching some of Nerdkind’s favorite things into the stars themselves in the form of constellations! From comic books to sci-fi, NASA has added a list of unofficial constellations to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. The telescope’s mission covers a range of different functions, but in relation to the constellations, Fermi observes Gamma-rays, unseen by the naked eye. Scientists have made new discoveries based on their findings, being able to see into the past by observing Gamma-rays from further away. But what pop-culture references made it into the night sky and more importantly – how do we know where they are?
Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observes Gamma-rays all day, constantly soaking up information for NASA to use to learn more about the universe around us.
Unfortunately for those of us interested in these new constellations, Gamma-rays aren’t visible to the naked eye. But, of course, NASA knew that. That when their 10th anniversary for Fermi came around, not only did they name pop-culture references as constellations to mark new origin points of Gamma-rays, but they gave us a handy-dandy interactive map to go along with them. Not only does that map showcase the constellations, but they’re also clickable, letting you learn about why they chose that image and how it relates to the information Fermi is gathering.
Joining the likes of the Roman Coliseum, Japan’s Mount Fuji, Sweden’s recovered warship, Vasa, sitting nestled up in the inky night sky some of Earth’s mightiest heroes and most recognizable science fiction icons. straddle the cosmos themselves.
One of the most recognizable figures in the Gamma-ray constellations is none other than the Incredible Hulk. NASA’s page goes into detail, talking about why they chose the Hulk for their constellation.
“Comic book fans all know the backstory of Hulk, the big, green, angry alter ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, whose experiments with gamma rays went terribly wrong. Gamma rays are the strongest form of light. They pack enough punch to convert into matter under the right circumstances, a transformation both Banner and the Hulk would certainly appreciate.
All light carries energy. Visible light provides enough energy that solar panels can convert it into electricity, and green plants use it to manufacture food. Higher-energy ultraviolet light can give us suntans and sunburns. At still higher energies, X-rays can penetrate materials, allowing doctors to see broken bones and airport security personnel to check baggage.
The lowest-energy gamma rays seen by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) carry more than 6 million times the energy of the bluest visible light. At the high end, the LAT is designed to detect gamma rays with energies tens of millions of times greater than this.
The LAT works by taking advantage of the ability of gamma rays to transform into matter. The instrument contains dense foils of tungsten. When a gamma ray enters the LAT, it travels through these foils until it passes close to a tungsten atom. The interaction transforms the gamma ray into an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron. These particles continue through the LAT, which tracks them to figure out the direction of the original gamma ray.”
Joining his ‘friend from work’ is Thor’s mythical hammer, Mjolnir.
“Mjolnir is the mythical hammer of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Mjolnir was a fearsome weapon said to be capable of leveling mountains and unleashing lightning. The Vikings wore amulets shaped like Mjolnir for protection, and more than a thousand have been found across Northern Europe. This constellation symbolizes Fermi’s work investigating Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes (TGFs) associated with lightning from thunderstorms on Earth.
A thunderstorm is a powerful natural particle accelerator. It can generate streams of subatomic particles moving near the speed of light that result in a flash of gamma rays lasting about a thousandth of a second.”
Among the other superheroes in a hero of another kind. A scientific hero whose contributions to science haven’t diminished in the years since he lived. Albert Einstein joins Hulk and Thor among the stars.
“During its first year, Fermi provided experimental evidence about the very structure of space and time, unified as space-time in Einstein’s theories. Some scientists have suggested that space-time may not be perfectly smooth. If true, it would mean that high-energy light would take longer to travel a given distance than lower-energy light. But Einstein’s theories declare that all electromagnetic radiation — radio waves, infrared, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays — travels through a vacuum at the same speed.
From a distant explosive event called a gamma-ray burst, Fermi observed gamma rays over a wide range of energies. If the prediction that space had texture was correct, Fermi’s LAT would have detected a significant time lag between the arrival of the lowest-energy and highest-energy gamma rays. In fact, to within one part in 100 million billion, the two photons traveled at the same speed. Fermi showed that any effect of this nature must be incredibly small and may not exist at all.
In addition, Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that gravity can alter the path of light. Space-time bends near massive objects, and light is deflected as it travels along curved space-time. This means that foreground galaxies can act like a lens and produce magnified images of more distant objects.”
What would the realm of Science today look like without scientists growing up with wonderful Science-Fiction? To honor that, NASA added a couple of Sci-Fi’s most popular ships to the heavens. Star Trek’s Enterprise was a clear choice.
“The engines of the most famous vessel in the “Star Trek” universe, the USS Enterprise, are powered by the annihilation of matter and antimatter, a process that produces energy in the form of gamma rays. More than half the gamma-ray sources cataloged by the Fermi mission come from a different type of engine — supermassive black holes in the cores of distant galaxies.”
Joining its colleague, the Enterprise, is sci-fi pioneering TARDIS from the BCC’s Doctor Who.
“The Doctor is a Time Lord who travels through space and time aboard a sentient vessel known as the TARDIS (short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space). Thanks to a broken chameleon circuit, the TARDIS has the appearance of a London police box from the 1960s, and thanks to its advanced technology, it’s famously bigger on the inside.
In our universe, astronomers can’t travel into the past, but they can look into it by studying light from distant objects. The farther away we look, the longer light takes to reach us, so studying objects at different distances lets astronomers piece together the history and development of the cosmos.
Scientists are also looking for mechanisms that, like the TARDIS, defy the known laws of physics. By searching for cracks in current theories, scientists hope to expand and improve their understanding of the universe. One type of crack scientists are searching for is a violation of a principle called Lorentz invariance, and gamma rays detected by Fermi are providing one means to do so.”
Capping off our nerdy list is the one, the only, king of monsters himself, Godzilla!
“Godzilla ranks as one of cinema’s most famous monsters and is among the most recognizable symbols of Japanese popular culture. In the original 1954 movie, nuclear weapons tests disturb the creature’s deep ocean habitat, and it emerges from the sea to wreak havoc in Japan.
Godzilla’s trademark weapon is its “heat ray,” a fiery jet. This bears at least a passing resemblance to gamma-ray jets associated with black holes and neutron stars.
When matter falls toward a black hole, vast amounts of energy are released. Gas falling toward the black hole is compressed and heated to millions of degrees and glows brightly near the black hole. Strong magnetic fields, combined with the black hole’s rotation, can accelerate some of these charged particles to velocities approaching the speed of light. Particles accelerated near the black hole’s event horizon, the point of no return, can escape along the black hole’s spin axis, forming a jet that rushes outward at nearly the speed of light.”
Click the links to the constellation pages to read more about the constellations, the images they’re named after, and the work of Fermi that they’re associated with, as well as others like France’s Little Prince, Pharos of Alexandria, the Golden Gate Bridge and to learn about phenomena like Fermi Bubbles.
Do you have a favorite constellation? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter!