MICA Faculty Member Leads Discovery of First Gamma-Ray Binary Outside the Milky Way

An international team of researchers led by Dr. Robin Corbet, part-time faculty member in MICA's Humanistic Studies Department and astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has discovered the first gamma-ray binary in a galaxy other than our own using data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and other facilities. The team's findings, "A Luminous Gamma-ray Binary In the Large Magellanic Cloud," will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Prior to this, only five binary star systems (pairs of stars orbiting each other) that emit high-energy gamma rays had been detected, and those were found within our galaxy. The sixth — and most luminous — such system is unique because it is located outside of the Milky Way. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, our next-door neighbor at 163,000 light years away, the dual-star system, dubbed LMC P3, contains a massive star and a crushed stellar core that interact to produce a cyclic flood of gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light. This type of light can be seen here.

These rare systems contain either a neutron star or a black hole and radiate most of their energy in the form of gamma rays. Hundreds of these binary systems have been found that emit X-rays, but only a handful emit even higher-energy gamma rays.

"Fermi has detected only five of these systems in our own galaxy, so finding one so luminous and distant is quite exciting," said Corbet, who is also senior research scientist at University of Maryland Baltimore County's Center for Space Sciences and Technology.

In addition to teaching in MICA's Humanistic Studies Department, Corbet is a co-instructor in MICA's Advanced 2D Animation course along with Animation Department Chair Laurence Arcadias. Students in Advanced 2D Animation collaborate with NASA scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center, exploring a range of research material gathered from the Fermi satellite. Students work in groups to learn about subjects such as binary stars, Fermi bubbles, and dark matter, and go on to develop animations that visually illustrate the cosmic phenomena.