In the Heart of Cygnus, NASA's Fermi Reveals Cosmic-ray Cocoon

November 29, 2011

The constellation Cygnus, now visible in the western sky as twilight deepens after sunset, hosts one of our galaxy's richest-known stellar construction zones. Astronomers viewing the region at visible wavelengths see only hints of this spectacular activity thanks to a veil of nearby dust clouds forming the Great Rift, a dark lane that splits the Milky Way, a faint band of light marking our galaxy's central plane.

Located in the vicinity of the second-magnitude star Gamma Cygni, the star-forming region was named Cygnus X when it was discovered as a diffuse radio source by surveys in the 1950s. Now, a study using data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope finds that the tumult of star birth and death in Cygnus X has managed to corral fast-moving particles called cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are subatomic particles – mainly protons – that move through space at nearly the speed of light. In their journey across the galaxy, the particles are deflected by magnetic fields, which scramble their paths and make it impossible to backtrack the particles to their sources.

Yet when cosmic rays collide with interstellar gas, they produce gamma rays – the most energetic and penetrating form of light – that travel to us straight from the source. By tracing gamma-ray signals throughout the galaxy, Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT) is helping astronomers understand the sources of cosmic rays and how they're accelerated to such high speeds. In fact, this is one of the mission's key goals.

The galaxy's best candidate sites for cosmic-ray acceleration are the rapidly expanding shells of ionized gas and magnetic field associated with supernova explosions. For stars, mass is destiny, and the most massive ones – known as types O and B – live fast and die young.

They're also relatively rare because such extreme stars, with masses more than 40 times that of our sun and surface temperatures eight times hotter, exert tremendous influence on their surroundings. With intense ultraviolet radiation and powerful outflows known as stellar winds, the most massive stars rapidly disperse their natal gas clouds, naturally limiting the number of massive stars in any given region.

Which brings us back to Cygnus X ...

For full story, more images, plus video, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/GLAST/news/cygnus-cocoon.html.