Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gamma Ray Flare in Pegasus

"Brightest Gamma-Ray Flare in Universe Spotted" (December 11, 2009)

"A distant galaxy with a giant black hole in its center has been acting up recently, emitting extremely bright flashes of gamma ray light.

"The flares began Sept. 15, making the galaxy currently the brightest source of gamma rays in the sky and boosting its own brightness to more than 10 times its regular luminosity over the summer. NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has been observing the phenomenon to learn more about how such active galaxies work. Astronomers think this galaxy, identified as 3C 454.3, is what's called a blazar.

"Blazars, like many active galaxies, emit oppositely directed jets of particles traveling near the speed of light when matter falls toward their central supermassive black holes. What makes a blazar so bright in gamma rays is its orientation in space. One of the jets happens to be aimed straight at us, so it is easy to spot when viewed from Earth...."

Astronomers and astrophysicists still don't know what happened in 3C 454.3's jet to make it flare up, but right now it's the brightest persistent gamma-ray source in Earth's sky. Happily, the jet of high-energy particles that's pointed at us is a nice, safe 7,200,000,000 or so light-years away from us. Right now, even at that distance, it's outshining the Vela pulsar, whose jet is also pointed at us, and is a comparatively close 1,000 light-years away.

(from Fermi/NASA, used w/o permission)

Whatever's boosting gamma ray output in 3C 454.3 is increasing its brightness in radio and visible wavelengths, too: just not as much.

I'll grant that all of this doesn't have much to do with who's likely to win the next soccer cup, or (probably) what the weather will be like tomorrow.

On the other hand, I'm interested in this sort of thing for two reasons.

First, it's knowledge; knowledge is power; and "I like power." (Cobra Bubbles, "Stitch! The Movie" (2003))

And, although there's no guarantee that this particular avenue of exploration will pan out - immediately, anyway - I suspect that studying how apparently-unreasonable amounts of energy gets generated and directed could lead to quite practical applications. Like squeezing more energy out of matter than nuclear reactions manage.

We don't need that sort of power, yet. But, if people want to travel around at what we regard as a reasonable rate, we'll need power sources that aren't off-the-shelf technology today.

"...Alcubierre's intriguing equations suggest that we'll be able to travel faster than the speed of light: as soon as we figure out how to build machines that can warp space-time on a fairly large scale...." (May 29, 2009)

Actually, that'll probably take more power than any source we know of, theoretical or otherwise.

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