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University of Delaware astronomers detect once-in-a-lifetime gamma rays

In a cluster of some of the most massive and luminous stars in our galaxy, about 5,000 light years from Earth, astronomers detected particles being accelerated by a rapidly rotating neutron star as it passed by the massive star it orbits only once every 50 years.

The discovery is extremely rare, according to University of Delaware astrophysicist Jamie Holder and doctoral student Tyler Williamson, who were part of the international team that documented the occurrence.

Holder called this eccentric pair of gravitationally linked stars a “gamma-ray binary system” and likened the once-in-a-lifetime event to the arrival of Halley’s comet or last year’s U.S. solar eclipse.

The project was led by a team of scientists, including Holder and Williamson, using the VERITAS telescope array at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, in collaboration with scientists using the MAGIC telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory located in La Palma, an island of the Canary Islands, Spain. (VERITAS stands for Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System and MAGIC stands for Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov telescopes.)

The researchers recently reported their findings in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Funding for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Ud Holder

UD Professor Jamie Holder (left) and doctoral student Tyler Williamson have been studying gamma rays with the help of the VERITAS telescopes located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona.

Photos by Evan Krape, John Millis, John Quinn and courtesy of Jamie Holder

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