July 7, 2014


When I was five, my mother and my aunt took me on a trip to Florida to go to Disney World, Epcot Center, Sea World, and even a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. Now, admittedly, I do not remember much of it. I was too young, I suppose, but there are parts of the trip that still stand out to me. I remember getting stung by a jellyfish… yeah, fun. I remember thinking that all the people in those full suits of the Disney character were kind of scary looking in person, as were men in spacesuits. I remember getting to pet a stingray in a small, circular pool. I also remember being in awe of all the amazing technology they had at the Kennedy Space Center. Sure, I did not understand what anything did, but it was still an incredible sight to be behold.

Nowadays, I have a bit more of an understanding of what many things do, and I am still amazed by them. Take the HESS-II for instance — the High Energy Stereoscopic System — in Namibia. This incredible setup boasts four 12-meter reflecting telescopes surrounding a fifth, 28-meter one and is the first Cherenkov system that uses several different sized telescopes to detect cosmic TeV gamma rays. The HESS-II was recently tested and succeeded in detecting a pulsed gamma ray within the energy range of 30 GeV (Giga electron volts) attributed to the Vela pulsar. This makes the HESS-II the second ground-based gamma ray telescope system ever to detect a pulsar, the first being the Crab telescope in 2011. This incredible achievement is the culmination of two full years of intensive software development on the part of the Namibian observatory team, which is itself an international collaboration of more than 180 scientists from 42 different research institutes in 14 separate countries.

According to Mathieu de Naurois, an CNRS researcher at the Loboratoire Leprince-Ringuet (CNRS/Ecole Polytechnique), as well as the deputy director of the HESS collaboration, “For the reconstruction of the data from the 28-metre telescope, we performed a highly sensitive analysis based on extremely complex algorithms. For the first time, this allowed us to detect gamma radiation of only 30 GeV from ground level. Since we are able to survey a projected area of 10 hectares in the atmosphere, we have a considerably higher yield of gamma rays than the largest satellite experiments such as Fermi.”

Projects such as the latest generation telescopes of the HESS-II are a way in which we hope to unravel many of the mysteries of the universe. The Milky Way galaxy is full of pulsars and other incredible phenomena, and thanks to the HESS-II in Namibia, we are able to explore such events in much greater detail and from much further away. Imagine being able to investigate pulsars that originate from all the way in the very core of our galaxy using ground-based telescopes!

Technological achievements such as this one have always fascinated me, as they themselves are but tools used to expand our own understanding of our universe, as magnificent as they are in their own right. I look forward to hearing about its future achievements and what secrets it will unveil to the world and, even more interestingly, what new mysteries it will reveal to us and drive us to discover.

Image Credit: Christian Föhr, MPIK

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