Nearly 100 years ago, scientists detected the first signs of cosmic rays — subatomic particles (mostly protons) that zip through space at nearly the speed of light. The most energetic cosmic rays hit with the punch of a 98-mph fastball, even though they are smaller than an atom. Astronomers questioned what natural force could accelerate particles to such a speed. New evidence from the VERITAS telescope array shows that cosmic rays likely are powered by exploding stars and stellar “winds.”
These findings were published in the Nov. 1 online issue of the journal Nature, and are being featured today in a press conference at the Fermi Science Symposium in Washington, DC.
The rarest cosmic rays carry over 100 billion times as much energy as generated by any particle accelerator on Earth. (“Cosmic ray” is a historical misnomer, since they are individual particles, not a ray or beam.) Astronomers have devised ingenious methods for detecting cosmic rays that hit Earth’s atmosphere. However, detecting cosmic rays from a distance requires much more effort.
VERITAS has found new evidence for cosmic rays in the “Cigar Galaxy,” also known as Messier 82 (M82), which is located 12 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major.
“This discovery has been predicted for almost 20 years, but until now no instrument was sensitive enough to see it,” said Wystan Benbow, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Benbow coordinated this project for the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) collaboration.
The VERITAS observations strongly support the long-held theory that supernovae and stellar winds from massive stars are the dominant accelerators of cosmic-ray particles. Galaxies with high levels of star formation like M82, also known as “starburst” galaxies, have large numbers of supernovae and massive stars. If the theory holds, then starburst galaxies should contain more cosmic rays than normal galaxies. The VERITAS discovery confirms that expectation, indicating that the cosmic-ray density in M82 is approximately 500 times the average density in our Galaxy, the Milky Way.
“This discovery provides fundamental insight into the origin of cosmic rays,” said Rene Ong, a professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the spokesperson for the VERITAS collaboration. …
Here is how to make your own cosmic ray detector. I haven’t tried it. This is even more interesting to me: The Kosmophone makes music with Cosmic Rays. Hear a sample here. “The Kosmophone is a gamma-ray spectrometer operating in the range of about 3 to 7 million electron-volts (MeV) controlling a MIDI music synthesizer”, in this case a Roland JX-305 synthesizer.