Bizarre cosmic ray mystery deepens (+video)
Humongous space explosions known as gamma ray bursts have been ruled out as a source of the universe's most intense cosmic rays, a new study has found.
The mystery of the origin of the strongest cosmic rays has deepened as new clues into key suspects, the most powerful explosions in the universe, suggest they are likely not potential culprits, researchers say.Skip to next paragraph
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Cosmic rays are charged subatomic particles that streak to Earth from deep in outer space. A few rare cosmic rays are extraordinarily powerful, with energies up to 100 million times greater than any attained by human-made particle colliders, such as CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The sources of these cosmic rays are a mystery.
"Nature is capable of accelerating elementary particles to macroscopic energies," said study co-author Francis Halzen at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, principal investigator at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a massive telescope designed to find the tiny subatomic particles. "There are basically only two ideas on how she does this — in gravitationally driven particle flows near the supermassive black holes at the centers of active galaxies, and in the collapse of stars to a black hole, seen by astronomers as gamma-ray bursts."
The prime suspect
Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe. They can emit as much energy as our sun during its entire 10-billion-year lifetime in anywhere from milliseconds to minutes.
"Some gamma-ray bursts are thought to be collapses of supermassive stars — hypernovas — while others are thought to be collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars," said study co-author Spencer Klein of the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Both types produce brief but intense blasts of radiation."
New evidence may now rule out gamma-ray bursts as sources of these ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.
Researchers employed the IceCube neutrino detector, an array of thousands of detectors encompassing a cubic kilometer of clear Antarctic ice at the South Pole. Neutrinos are ghostly particles that often pass right through matter, only rarely striking atoms.
"This is a coming-of-age for neutrino astronomy — the first time we're able to use neutrino data as a new way of looking at astrophysical objects and say something substantive about them," said study co-author Nathan Whitehorn, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the recent gamma-ray burst research with Peter Redl of the University of Maryland.