BATON ROUGE – The Crab Nebula, once considered to be a source of energy so stable that astronomers used it to calibrate their instruments, is dimming. LSU physicists Mike Cherry, Gary Case and graduate student James Rodi, together with an international team of colleagues using the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor, or GBM, on NASA's Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, discovered the anomaly. This revelation has proven astonishing for astronomers.
The Crab Nebula, one of the most studied objects in the sky, is the wreckage of a star that exploded in 1054. Considered a cornerstone of astronomical research, it even inspired its own unit of measurement, the "millicrab," which is used as a standard for measuring the intensity from other high-energy sources.
The GBM instrument was launched into orbit in summer 2008. This summer, the scientists were working on a catalog of the high energy X-ray and gamma ray signals detected mainly from sources in the galaxy powered by black holes and neutron stars. As they were preparing the catalog, which has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, they realized that the intensity coming from the Crab Nebula was dimming.
"We were using the Crab as our calibration source and comparing the other high energy sources to it," said Case. "But as we collected more and more data, we noticed that the intensity we were measuring for the Crab was going down. This was a rather startling discovery, and it took awhile for us to believe it."
The initial suspicion was that the instrument was losing sensitivity. The team then gathered data from three other sensitive X-ray and gamma ray observatories currently in orbit – NASA's Swift and Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer, or RXTE, and the European Space Agency's International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, or INTEGRAL. The result was that all four instruments were seeing the same decrease in intensity of about 7 percent since the summer of 2008.
"Nearly every other source of high energy radiation in the sky shows evidence of explosive, time-variable, transient activity. The Crab was the exception," said Cherry. "It was the only object that was bright enough and steady enough to serve as a 'standard candle.'"
Colleen Wilson-Hodge, an astrophysicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Ala., recently presented the findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.
"Now, for the first time, we're clearly seeing how much our candle flickers," she said. The findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Additional analysis showed that the Crab Nebula has brightened and dimmed several times since 1999 on approximately a three-year time scale. The current decrease is the largest so far observed, and the international team will continue to monitor the Crab Nebula to observe how much the decline continues.
The cause of the changes is not understood, but apparently involves changes in the magnetic fields close to the nebula's central neutron star. Because of this news, the scientists said that astronomers will now need to find new ways to calibrate their instruments in flight and to explore the possible effects of the inconstant Crab Nebula emissions on past findings.
About NASA's Fermi:
NASA's Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States. For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/Fermi.
Contact Ashley Berthelot
LSU Media Relations
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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The Astrophysical Journal Letters