Tonight's Sky
Sun
Sun
Moon
Moon
Mercury
Mercury
Venus
Venus
Mars
Mars
Jupiter
Jupiter
Saturn
Saturn

Tonight's Sky — Change location

OR

Searching...

Tonight's Sky — Select location

Tonight's Sky — Enter coordinates

° '
° '

Cosmic particle accelerators get things going

Cluster has shown that narrow shocks may be vital to kick-starting the acceleration process in exploding stars, young stars, black holes, and whole galaxies.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cluster satellites have discovered that cosmic particle accelerators are more efficient than previously thought. The discovery has revealed the initial stages of acceleration for the first time, a process that could apply across the universe.

All particle accelerators need some way to begin the acceleration process. For example, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN employs a series of small accelerators to get its particles up to speed before injecting them into the main 17-mile-circumference (27 kilometers) ring for further acceleration.

In space, large magnetic fields guide particles known as cosmic rays across the universe at almost the speed of light, but are notoriously bad at getting them moving in the first place.

Now ESA’s Cluster mission has shown that something similar to the “staging” process used at CERN is happening above our heads in the natural particle accelerators of space.

On January 9, 2005, Cluster’s four satellites passed through a magnetic shock high above Earth. The spinning craft were aligned almost perfectly with the magnetic field, allowing them to sample what was happening to electrons on short timescales of 0.25 second (250 milliseconds) or less.

The measurements showed that the electrons rose sharply in temperature, which established conditions favorable to larger scale acceleration.

It had long been suspected that shocks could do this, but the size of the shock layers and the details of the process had proved difficult to pin down. Not any more.

Steven J. Schwartz from Imperial College London and colleagues used the Cluster data to estimate the thickness of the shock layer. This is important because the thinner a shock is, the more easily it can accelerate particles. “With these observations, we found that the shock layer is about as thin as it can possibly be,” said Schwartz.

Thin in this case corresponds to about 11 miles (17km). Previous estimates had only been able to tie down the width of the shock layers above Earth at no more than 60 miles (100km).

This is the first time anyone has seen such details of the initial acceleration region.

The knowledge is important because shocks are everywhere in the universe. They are created wherever a fast-flowing medium hits an obstacle or another flow.

For example, a supersonic airplane collides continuously with the atmosphere before the air has a chance to get out of the way, piling it up into a shock in front of the aircraft that we hear as a sonic boom.

In the solar system, the Sun gives out a fast-moving, electrically charged wind. As it encounters the magnetic field of Earth, a permanent shock wave is created in front of our planet.

Cluster has been instrumental in studying this phenomenon, and the new results in this local environment may be applicable on large scales. Shocks are also found around exploding stars, young stars, black holes, and whole galaxies. Space scientists suspect that these may be the origin of the high-energy cosmic rays that fill the universe.

Cluster has shown that narrow shocks may be vital to kick-starting the acceleration process in those locations. It may not be the only way of starting things off, but it is definitely one way of doing it.

“This new result reveals the size of the proverbial ‘black box,’ constraining the possible mechanisms within it involved in accelerating particles,” said Matt Taylor from ESA. “Yet again, Cluster has provided us with a clear insight into a physical process that occurs throughout the universe.”

astrophysical shocks
Astrophysical shocks are a diverse collection. NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA (LL Ori); ESA & Garrelt Mellema, Leiden University, the Netherlands (Red Spider Nebula); CEA/DSM/DAPNIA/SAp and ESA/XMM-Newton (SN 1006); ESA & Lotfi Ben Jaffel, Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris-CNRS-INSU, Martin Kornmesser & Lars Lindberg Christensen (Solar System); ESA/AOES Medialab (Earth's bow shock); ESO (NGC 6744); NRAO/AUI (Cygnus A); NASA/CXC/CfA/M.Markevitch et al. (Bullet Cluster).
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cluster satellites have discovered that cosmic particle accelerators are more efficient than previously thought. The discovery has revealed the initial stages of acceleration for the first time, a process that could apply across the universe.

All particle accelerators need some way to begin the acceleration process. For example, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN employs a series of small accelerators to get its particles up to speed before injecting them into the main 17-mile-circumference (27 kilometers) ring for further acceleration.

In space, large magnetic fields guide particles known as cosmic rays across the universe at almost the speed of light, but are notoriously bad at getting them moving in the first place.

Now ESA’s Cluster mission has shown that something similar to the “staging” process used at CERN is happening above our heads in the natural particle accelerators of space.

On January 9, 2005, Cluster’s four satellites passed through a magnetic shock high above Earth. The spinning craft were aligned almost perfectly with the magnetic field, allowing them to sample what was happening to electrons on short timescales of 0.25 second (250 milliseconds) or less.

The measurements showed that the electrons rose sharply in temperature, which established conditions favorable to larger scale acceleration.

It had long been suspected that shocks could do this, but the size of the shock layers and the details of the process had proved difficult to pin down. Not any more.

Steven J. Schwartz from Imperial College London and colleagues used the Cluster data to estimate the thickness of the shock layer. This is important because the thinner a shock is, the more easily it can accelerate particles. “With these observations, we found that the shock layer is about as thin as it can possibly be,” said Schwartz.

Thin in this case corresponds to about 11 miles (17km). Previous estimates had only been able to tie down the width of the shock layers above Earth at no more than 60 miles (100km).

This is the first time anyone has seen such details of the initial acceleration region.

The knowledge is important because shocks are everywhere in the universe. They are created wherever a fast-flowing medium hits an obstacle or another flow.

For example, a supersonic airplane collides continuously with the atmosphere before the air has a chance to get out of the way, piling it up into a shock in front of the aircraft that we hear as a sonic boom.

In the solar system, the Sun gives out a fast-moving, electrically charged wind. As it encounters the magnetic field of Earth, a permanent shock wave is created in front of our planet.

Cluster has been instrumental in studying this phenomenon, and the new results in this local environment may be applicable on large scales. Shocks are also found around exploding stars, young stars, black holes, and whole galaxies. Space scientists suspect that these may be the origin of the high-energy cosmic rays that fill the universe.

Cluster has shown that narrow shocks may be vital to kick-starting the acceleration process in those locations. It may not be the only way of starting things off, but it is definitely one way of doing it.

“This new result reveals the size of the proverbial ‘black box,’ constraining the possible mechanisms within it involved in accelerating particles,” said Matt Taylor from ESA. “Yet again, Cluster has provided us with a clear insight into a physical process that occurs throughout the universe.”

0

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Read and share your comments on this article
Comment on this article
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of Astronomy.com are allowed to comment on this article. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
0 comments
ADVERTISEMENT

FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
BoxProductcovernov

Click here to receive a FREE e-Guide exclusively from Astronomy magazine.

Find us on Facebook

Loading...