In August, NASA plans to deploy a high-altitude balloon that will hunt for gamma rays, or high-energy wavelengths, that produce some of the most powerful explosions in our universe. Last week, the agency provided an update on the mission.
The novel instrument, known as ComPair, has been officially sent to the launch site in New Mexico in preparation for liftoff next month.
If all goes well on the big day, Compair will sit about 133,000 feet (40,000 meters) above the ground, which NASA compares to four times the height of a commercial airliner. Once locked-in-place, it will test key technologies designed to catch information-rich gamma-ray signals traveling through space.
Simply put, gamma-rays are invisible waveforms created by the most intense cosmic entities and interstellar conditions you can imagine. They often arise Neutron starsFor example, stellar bodies are very dense, about the same as one tablespoon The weight of Mount Everest. They can be found in places with black holes, pulsars, and even supernovae. Detecting these rays will help scientists document the strange and intense objects that spit them out.
Related: Here’s What the Sky Would Look Like If Humans Could See Gamma Rays (VIDEO)
Ultimately, figuring out what these enigmatic near-spaces are could lead to new types of physics, as gamma-rays are found in regions that could serve as a kind of space lab. For example, many experts enjoy Testing whether the general theory of relativityIt still holds strong near things like neutron stars, which have unimaginably strong gravitational fields compared to objects in our solar system, which have much to do with the force of gravity.
In a way, by looking at the stars, humans can perform experiments that would be unthinkable on our own planet.
It’s true that lightning-like gamma rays can be detected on Earth, but with ComPair, NASA wants to detect these waves with specific energies ranging from 200,000 to 20 million electron volts. That level of gamma-ray power is typically associated with cosmic explosions, supermassive black holes, and what are known as gamma-ray bursts, the agency says. Gamma-ray bursts, in essence, are thought to be produced during the formation of black holes, and are considered by many experts to be the most powerful and brilliant explosions in our universe.
“The gamma-ray energy range we are targeting with comPair is not well covered by current observatories,” said Carolyn Kierans, the instrument’s principal investigator at Goddard. said in a statement. “After a successful balloon test flight, we hope to use future versions of the technologies in space-based missions.”
The Kierans observatory refers to NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Although in contrast to ComPair, Fermi observes light In the energy range of 8,000 to 300 billion electron volts — a much wider field than the agency’s upcoming gamma-ray tracker.
However, according to a recent press release, Fermi is how the team decoded the perfect sequence to program for Comparer’s gamma-ray hunt.
ComPair’s system lives up to its name.
“com” is short for Compton scattering and “pair” is short for pair production. Compton scattering and pair production are the basic methods of detecting and measuring gamma-rays.
In short, Compton scattering When a high-energy light particle called a photon hits another particle, such as an electron, the photon transfers some energy to any other particle it collides with. Because gamma-rays are a form of light — invisible to the human eye — this is expected to occur at some point as the rays travel through the fabric of space.
In contrast, pair production refers to the event in which a gamma-ray grazes the nucleus of an atom, thereby converting the gamma-ray itself into a particle pair. One part of the resulting pair will be an electron and the other a positron, which you can think of as the antimatter electron. It’s just that the positron, unlike the electron, has a positive charge.
For this reason, positrons are sometimes called antielectrons—and yes, there are also antiprotons.
Returning to ComPair, the instrument has four components that are expected to work together in detecting incoming gamma-rays. They will essentially decode whether one of the two processes mentioned has occurred, and measure various aspects of the signal.
To start, NASA explains, the comparator is equipped with a device consisting of 10 layers of silicon detectors that can determine the general position of incoming gamma-rays. Then there is a high-resolution calorimeter that can measure Compton-scattered gamma-rays, and another calorimeter that can measure those associated with pair production.
Finally, there is something called an anticoincidence detector. Basically, the anticoincidence detector can distinguish whether the incoming signal is a gamma-ray or another type of high-energy particle beam. Cosmic Rays. In the case of the latter, the detector can tell other devices on the ComPair to ignore the signal. Otherwise, there may be noise in the data and some confusion about what we’re looking at.
But now, the next step in ComPair’s journey is to fly into the void. Through August, ComPair.