Fun Times with Cosmic RaysWho would have thought cosmic rays could be so hip? Although discovered 90 years ago on death-defying manned balloon flights hip even by twenty-first-century extremesport standards cosmic rays quickly lost popularity as way-cool telescopes were finding way-too-cool phenomena across the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet cosmic rays are back in vogue, boasting their own set of superlatives. Scientists are tracking them down with new resolve from the Arctic to Antarctica and even on the high western plains of Argentina. Theorists, too, now see cosmic rays as harbingers of funky physics. Cosmic rays are atomic and subatomic particles - the fastest moving bits of matter in the universe and the only sample of matter we have from outside the solar system (with the exception of interstellar dust grains). Lower-energy cosmic rays come from the Sun. Mid-energy particles come from stellar explosions - either spewed directly from the star like shrapnel, or perhaps accelerated to nearly the speed of light by shock waves. The highest-energy cosmic rays, whose unequivocal existence remains one of astronomy's greatest mysteries, clock in at a staggering 10(exp 19) to 10(exp 22) electron volts. This is the energy carried in a baseball pitch; seeing as how there are as many atomic particles in a baseball as there are baseballs in the Moon, that s one powerful toss. No simple stellar explosion could produce them. At a recent conference in Albuquerque, scientists presented the first observational evidence of a possible origin for the highest-energy variety. A team led by Elihu Boldt at NASA s Goddard Space Flight Center found that five of these very rare cosmic rays (there are only a few dozen confirmed events) come from the direction of four 'retired' quasar host galaxies just above the arm of the Big Dipper, all visible with backyard telescopes: NGC 3610, NGC 3613, NGC 4589, and NGC 5322. These galaxies are billions of years past their glory days as the brightest beacons in the universe. Yet they still harbor central, supermassive black holes, which could generate energetic particles if they are spinning.
Wanjek, Christopher (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt, MD, United States)
August 21, 2013
January 1, 2003
Publication: Space Science Reference Guide, 2nd Edition