Multiwavelength Astronomy

Photo of Chryssa Kouveliotou

Gamma Ray Impact, Chryssa Kouveliotou

New Phenomenon

Time lapse video of soft gamma-ray repeater J1550-5418 over six days, captured by Swift's XRT: Swift's X-Ray Telescope (XRT) captured an apparent expanding halo around the flaring neutron star SGR J1550-5418. The halo formed as X-rays from the brightest flares scattered off of intervening dust clouds. The animation shows the glow of the halo pulsing and dispersing over six days in January 2009.
Credit: NASA/Swift/Jules Halpern, Columbia University

When I was at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center for my first sabbatical, I had a job working on solar flares, large explosions in the Sun's atmosphere that release about 1/6th of the Sun's total energy in a matter of seconds. I moonlighted during evenings, nights and weekends researching gamma-ray bursts. A colleague who knew that I was spending my so-called spare time studying these bursts emailed me and asked me to look in my database to help confirm his observation that a series of the bursts came from the same part of the sky. I jumped at the chance!

Every night, after my daytime research, I carried armloads of tapes--as many as I could hold--down to the basement of the building where I worked. I stayed until midnight every night analyzing tapes, looking for these repeating gamma-ray bursts. Some people said I was wasting my time, but I hit the jackpot! I found them, and in the process became part of the discovery team for a brand new phenomenon called a soft gamma repeater. Later it was believed that soft gamma repeaters were actually neutron stars with extraordinarily strong magnetic fields, called magnetars. I confirmed this in observations for which I was recognized with the 2003 Bruno Rossi Prize of the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Artist’s visualization of J1550-5418: Gamma-ray flares from SGR J1550-5418 may arise when the magnetar's surface suddenly cracks, releasing energy stored within its powerful magnetic field.
Credit: NASA/Swift/Jules Halpern, Columbia University

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This material is based upon work supported by NASA under Grant Nos. NNX09AD33G and NNX10AE80G issued through the SMD ROSES 2009 Program.

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