The spacecraft that changed how I see the universe

Since 2008, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has captured cosmic wonders that would otherwise be hidden from human eyes.

Galaxy Centaurus A hosts an enormous black hole dining on nearby matter. During this messy and lengthy meal, the turmoil launches jets of fast-moving material. Those jets emit both radio waves, which are the lowest-energy type of light and appear yellow-orange here, and gamma rays, the highest-energy radiation and appear purple here.
Photograph by NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration, Capella Observatory, and Ilana Feain, Tim Cornwell, and Ron Ekers (CSIRO/ATNF), R. Morganti (ASTRON), and N. Junkes (MPIfR)

In the summers of my childhood, I spent time in upstate New York at my grandparents’ lakeside home, far from the polluting light of big cities. At night, I would pull a blanket from my bed and drag it down the pine needle–covered path from the house to the boat dock. Stretched out there, I would gaze at the star-filled sky for as long as the grown-ups allowed. I didn’t have words for what I was feeling: the pull of the cosmos, beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Fast-forward more than a decade to summer 2002, when I first learned of astronomy in the extreme, energetic and exciting. I was a summer intern at the University of Chicago, an institution known for its physics pioneers. Among them: Enrico Fermi, who spent the last years of his life and career there.

At UChicago, I rehabbed equipment designed to detect cosmic rays, the high-energy protons and other nuclei that bombard us from space. I learned of gamma rays—the most energetic form of light—and how detecting them takes creativity, innovation, and observatories lofted into space. I was hooked. Six years later, just such an observatory launched from Florida atop a Delta II rocket and into orbit around Earth. Named for Fermi, it’s become my favorite spacecraft.

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