Milky Way’s super-efficient particle accelerators caught in the act

Scientists confirm that the expanding envelopes created by exploded stars are the super-accelerators that produce cosmic rays in the Milky Way.Provided by ESO, Garching, Germany
By | Published: June 25, 2009 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
RCW 86
The rim of RCW 86.
June 25, 2009
Thanks to a unique “ballistic study” that combines data from European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have now solved a long-standing mystery of the Milky Way’s particle accelerators. They show that cosmic rays from our galaxy are very efficiently accelerated in the remnants of exploded stars.

During the Apollo flights, astronauts reported seeing odd flashes of light, visible even with their eyes closed. We have since learned that the cause was cosmic rays — extremely energetic particles from outside the solar system arriving at Earth and constantly bombarding its atmosphere. Once they reach Earth, they still have sufficient energy to cause glitches in electronic components.

Galactic cosmic rays come from sources inside our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and consist mostly of protons moving at close to the speed of light. These protons have been accelerated to energies exceeding the energies that even the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Large Hadron Collider will be able to achieve.

“It has long been thought that the super-accelerators that produce these cosmic rays in the Milky Way are the expanding envelopes created by exploded stars, but our observations reveal the smoking gun that proves it,” said Eveline Helder from the Astronomical Institute Utrecht of Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

“You could even say that we have now confirmed the caliber of the gun used to accelerate cosmic rays to their tremendous energies,” said Jacco Vink, also from the Astronomical Institute Utrecht.

For the first time, Helder, Vink, and colleagues have come up with a measurement that solves the long-standing astronomical quandary of whether or not stellar explosions produce enough accelerated particles to explain the number of cosmic rays that hit Earth’s atmosphere. The team’s study indicates that they indeed do and directly tells us how much energy is removed from the shocked gas in the stellar explosion and used to accelerate particles.

“When a star explodes, a large part of the explosion energy is used for accelerating some particles up to extremely high energies,” said Helder. “The energy that is used for particle acceleration is at the expense of heating the gas, which is much colder than theory predicts.”

The researchers looked at the remnant of a star that exploded in AD 185, as recorded by Chinese astronomers. The remnant, called RCW 86, is located about 8,200 light-years away towards the constellation Circinus the Drawing Compass. It is probably the oldest record of the explosion of a star.

Using ESO’s VLT, the team measured the temperature of the gas right behind the shock wave created by the stellar explosion. They measured the speed of the shock wave as well, using images taken with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory 3 years apart. They found it to be moving at between 6 million and 19 million miles (10 and 30 million kilometers) per hour, between 1 and 3 percent the speed of light.

The temperature of the gas turned out to be 54 million degrees Fahrenheit (30 million degrees Celsius). This is quite hot compared to everyday standards, but much lower than expected, given the measured shock wave’s velocity. This should have heated the gas up to at least half a billion degrees.

“The missing energy is what drives the cosmic rays”, said Vink.