Science

The highest-energy photons ever seen hail from the Crab Nebula

Physicists have spotted the highest-energy light ever seen. It emanated from the roiling remains left behind when a star exploded.

This light made its way to Earth from the Crab Nebula, a remnant of a stellar explosion, or supernova, about 6,500 light-years away in the Milky Way. The Tibet AS-gamma experiment caught multiple particles of light — or photons — from the nebula with energies higher than 100 trillion electron volts, researchers report in a study accepted in Physical Review Letters. Visible light, for comparison, has just a few electron volts of energy.

“This energy regime has not been accessible before,” says astrophysicist Petra Huentemeyer of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, who was not involved with the research. For physicists who study this high-energy light, known as gamma rays, “its an exciting time,” she says.

In space, supernova remnants and other cosmic accelerators can boost subatomic particles such as electrons, photons and protons to extreme energies, much higher than those achieved in the most powerful earthly particle accelerators (SN: 10/1/05, p. 213). Protons in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, for example, reach a comparatively wimpy 6.5 trillion electron volts. Somehow, the cosmic accelerators vastly outperform humankinds most advanced machines.

“The question is: How does nature do it?” says physicist David Hanna of McGill University in Montreal.

In the Crab Nebula, the initial explosion set up the conditions for acceleration, with magnetic fields and shock waves plowing through space, giving an energy boost to charged particles such as electrons. Low-energy photons in the vicinity get kicked to high energies when they collide with the speedy electrons, and ultimately, some of those photons make their way to Earth.

When a high-energy photon hits Earths atmosphere, it creates a shower of other subatomic particles that can be detected on the ground. To capture that resulting deluge, Tibet AS-gamma uses nearly 600 particle detectors spread across an area of more than 65,000 square meters in Tibet. From the information recorded by the detectors, researchers can calculate the energy of the initial photon.

But other kinds of spacefaring particles known as cosmic rays create particle showers that are much more plentiful. To select photons, cosmic rays, which are mainly composed of protons and atomic nuclei, need to be weeded out. So the researchers used underground detectors to looRead More – Source

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