Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

May 1, 1997
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A Galactic Cloud of Antimatter
W. Purcell (NWU) et al., OSSE, Compton Observatory, NASA

Explanation: The center of our Milky Way Galaxy is full of surprises. Its latest spectacular is a mysterious cloud glowing in gamma rays produced by annihilating antimatter particles! Star Trek fans are all too familiar with the consequences of mixing matter (electrons) and antimatter (positrons) - the particles catastrophically annihilate converting their masses to energy according to Einstein's famous E=mc2. Positron/electron annihilation energy is emitted as gamma rays with photon energies of 511,000 electron volts. Searching for these high energy photons, the OSSE instrument onboard NASA's orbiting Compton Gamma Ray Observatory has recently produced this map of the Galactic Center (GC) region. As anticipated, it shows annihilation gamma rays as a bright spot at the GC with fainter horizontal emission from the galactic plane. Astoundingly, it also reveals a large and unexpected cloud of annihilation radiation, probably about 4,000 light years across, extending nearly 3,500 light years above the GC. What could have created this cloud? Associated with no previously known object, it seems to imply that a fountain of antimatter positrons streams from the GC. Present guesses about the source of the positrons include the violent and exotic environments surrounding starbirth, neutron star collisions, and black holes at the GC. Are there other such clouds in our Galaxy?

Tomorrow's picture: X-Rays from IC 443

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