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American Prize for Polish Astronomers
June 17, 2010   
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Polish scientists taking part in an international research project for investigating very-high-energy gamma rays have received a prestigious prize from the American Astronomical Society.

The project is known as the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS), and the prize is named after leading Italian-American experimental physicist Bruno Rossi. It was granted for the Polish scientists’ outstanding contribution to research on very-high-energy cosmic gamma rays, involving fundamental questions of particle acceleration and the origins of cosmic radiation.

The Polish researchers are investigating issues such as supernova remnants, pulsar wind nebulas, and nearby active galaxies. This is the second time the American Astronomical Society has handed out a prize to Polish scientists. The first one went to astronomer and astrophysicist Bohdan Paczyński in 2000.

The prizewinners
Scientists from five Polish research centers are taking part in the HESS project. These are the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) in Warsaw, the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, the University of Warsaw, the PAN Institute of Nuclear Physics in Cracow, and the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.

The prizewinners are Jarosław Dyks, Ph.D.; Tomasz Bulik, Ph.D.; Rafał Moderski, Ph.D.; Prof. Bronisław Rudak; Prof. Marek Sikora; Prof. Włodzimierz KluĽniak; Prof. Andrzej Zdziarski; Prof. Michał Ostrowski; Łukasz Stawarz, Ph.D.; Jacek Niemiec, Ph.D.; Michał Dyrda, Ph.D.; and Krzysztof Katarzyński, Ph.D.

In 2006, the same group received the Descartes Prize from the European Commission in recognition of the importance of their discoveries as part of the HESS project.

The project
The HESS project, which investigates very-high energy cosmic gamma rays, is being carried out by more than 100 researchers from France, Germany, Poland, Britain, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Armenia, South Africa, and Namibia. The acronym was chosen to honor Austrian physicist Victor Hess, who in 1912 was the first scientist to hypothesize the existence of cosmic radiation. The hypothesis won Hess the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1936.

The core of the HESS project is an astronomical observatory in Namibia, which consists of four huge optical telescopes. Each is fitted with a spherical, 107-square-meter reflector that is 13 meters in diameter and composed of 382 round mirrors.

The HESS telescopes are currently the most sensitive instruments of this kind in the world, according to the researchers. They detect what is known as Cherenkov light, or radiation—ultra-short flashes of visible bluish glow generated by secondary air showers that develop in upper layers of the atmosphere when high-energy gamma photons collide with atoms and particles of the air. The radiation was discovered by Russian physicist Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov, a Nobel Prize winner from 1958. The radiation is characterized by extremely high energies of gamma photons ranging between 100 GeV and 10 TeV. That is over a million times more than the energy of thermonuclear blasts carried out on Earth. Cherenkov light detection and analysis are the only method known to science where cosmic sources of gamma rays can be observed from the Earth surface. Such observations are often more efficient than observations conducted on the Earth orbit.

The observation of the universe in such high energy ranges is a new and rapidly developing field of astronomical research, which often results in surprising, if not sensational findings and discoveries. Images from the HESS telescopes allow researchers to determine the mass, energy and direction of gamma photons which trigger air showers. That, in turn, enables imaging of astronomical objects in gamma rays.

The observatory in Namibia boasts a number of successes, the most remarkable ones being the discovery of many previously unknown gamma ray sources in the Milky Way, including supernova remnants, microquasars, relativistic winds in nebulas around pulsars, the center of the galaxy, clusters of massive stars and active galactic centers containing supermassive black holes. Scientists believe that the discoveries are of key importance to understanding many important phenomena and objects in our galaxy and beyond.

What’s the matter with dark matter?

According to experts, the HESS project is a giant leap toward figuring out the mysterious origins of cosmic rays, which are energetic participles reaching the Earth from space. Cosmic rays were first observed by Victor Hess in 1912. Some researchers also suggest that the observation of gamma rays as part of the HESS project may help explain the nature of what is known as dark matter. The key to understanding dark matter is a key to understanding the evolution of the universe, experts say.

The Polish researchers joined the HESS project in late 2005 after receiving a research grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The Polish scientists are conducting research and taking part in the expansion of the observatory.

The HESS observatory is the crowning achievement of years of joint efforts by a multinational team of more than 100 scientists and engineers. It went into operation in September 2004, when it was officially opened by Namibian prime minister Theo-Ben Guirab. Namibia was picked as the system’s location because of its excellent optical quality, the researchers say. The location ensures good conditions for the observation of the most interesting areas of the Milky Way as far as gamma rays are concerned. Moreover, the climate in Namibia makes it possible to radically reduce the cost of the project because the researchers do not have to use any special equipment to protect the telescopes.

The HESS project is now entering phase two in which a fifth telescope will be added to the observatory. At 24 meters in diameter, this new telescope will stand as the largest of the five. Phase two of the HESS project will help enhance the sensitivity of the system and broaden the range of energies it detects, thus increasing the project’s research potential.

The American Astronomical Society, established in 1899 and based in Washington, D.C, is an association of professional astronomers and other individuals with an interest in astronomy. It aims to promote discoveries in astronomy and related sciences.

Julia Pawłowska
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