Huntsville NASA scientist wins top astronomy prize

FERMI telescope
The Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, formerly Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, a major NASA mission dedicated to observations of high-energy gamma ray. [Photo courtesy of NASA]

Huntsville, Ala. native and NASA astrophysicist Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge and the Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team have been awarded the 2018 Bruno Rossi Prize, the top prize in high-energy astronomy.

Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge
Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge [Photo courtesy of NASA]

In August of 2017, the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor on NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected something that scientists have suspected for decades; that a collision of two neutron stars would produce gravitational waves and create “short” gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the cosmos, and this particular burst was quiet abnormal. Wilson-Hodge and her team have the given the world the first ever detection of light from the same source as gravitational waves, which according to NASA are “ripples in space and time.”

“When we built GBM and launched it on Fermi in 2008, we designed it to detect gamma-ray bursts well,” Wilson-Hodge told NASA. “Back then, it was only slated to fly for five years. Today, GBM is at the forefront of an entirely new type of science, ushering in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy.”

Tyson Littenberg, a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the team that helped GBM realize the significance of their discovery, explains the encounter this way; “This new way of learning about the universe is kind of like gaining a new sense. It’s as if we’ve been watching the news for all of human history, but the T.V.has been on mute, now with gravitational wave detectors, we’re finally able to turn on the sound.”

“Discovering the first unambiguous gamma-ray burst associated with a gravitational wave has been an extremely exciting discovery,” said Wilson-Hodge. “It would not have been possible without the incredible dedication and amazing scientific contributions of the entire Fermi GBM team.”

Wilson-Hodge earned her Ph.D in Astrophysics from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, her love for the cosmos began in Elementary school, and only grew from there.

In college she became a NASA co-op student, and met Jerry Fisher, he was working on the Burst and Transient Source Experiment at the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory at the time. His excitement for the project and for gamma-ray bursts were “infectious” to Wilson-Hodge, “this was something that was discovered almost within my lifetime, and I was just really excited and wanted to be a part of that.” she said in an interview with UAH.

Wilson-Hodge has been on the forefront of many new discoveries in the cosmos, in 1999 she discovered two new kinds of pulsar called an X-ray pulsars, and in 2012 she discovered unexpected changes in X-ray emissions from the Crab Nebula.