NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has discovered a faint but sprawling glow of high-energy light around a nearby pulsar. If visible to the human eye, this gamma-ray “halo” would appear about 40 times bigger in the sky than a full Moon. This structure may provide the solution to a long-standing mystery about the amount of antimatter in our neighborhood.
“To study the halo, we had to subtract out all other sources of gamma rays, including diffuse light produced by cosmic ray collisions with interstellar gas clouds,” said co-author Silvia Manconi, a postdoctoral researcher at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. “We explored the data using 10 different models of interstellar emission.”
What remained when these sources were removed was a vast, oblong glow spanning some 20 degrees in the sky at an energy of 10 billion electron volts (GeV). That’s similar to the size of the famous Big Dipper star pattern — and the halo is even bigger at lower energies.
“Lower-energy particles travel much farther from the pulsar before they run into starlight, transfer part of their energy to it, and boost the light to gamma rays. This is why the gamma-ray emission covers a larger area at lower energies ,” explained co-author Fiorenza Donato at the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics and the University of Turin. “Also, Geminga’s halo is elongated partly because of the pulsar’s motion through space.”
The team determined that the Fermi LAT data were compatible with the earlier HAWC observations. Geminga alone could be responsible for as much as 20% of the high-energy positrons seen by the AMS-02 experiment. Extrapolating this to the cumulative emission from all pulsars in our galaxy, the scientists say it’s clear that pulsars remain the best explanation for the positron excess.