Public Release: 

Possible origin of cosmic rays revealed with gamma rays

Science and Technology Facilities Council

An international team of astronomers has produced the first ever image of an astronomical object using high energy gamma rays, helping to solve a 100 year old mystery - an origin of cosmic rays. Their research, published in the Journal Nature on November 4th, was carried out using the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), an array of four telescopes, in Namibia, South-West Africa.

The astronomers studied the remnant of a supernova that exploded some 1,000 years ago, leaving behind an expanding shell of debris which, seen from the Earth, is twice the diameter of the Moon. The resulting image helps to solve a mystery that has been puzzling scientists for almost 100 years - the origin of cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles that continually bombard the Earth, thousands of them passing through our bodies every day. The production of gamma rays in this supernova shock wave tells us that it is acting like a giant particle accelerator in space, and thus a likely source of the cosmic rays in our galaxy.

Dr Paula Chadwick of the University of Durham said "This picture really is a big step forward for gamma-ray astronomy and the supernova remnant is a fascinating object. If you had gamma-ray eyes and were in the Southern Hemisphere, you could see a large, brightly glowing ring in the sky every night."

Professor Ian Halliday, CEO of PPARC which funds UK participation in H.E.S.S. said "These results provide the first unequivocal proof that supernovae are capable of producing large quantities of galactic cosmic rays - something we have long suspected, but never been able to confirm."

Gamma rays are the most penetrating form of radiation we know, around a billion times more energetic than the X-rays produced by a hospital X-ray machine. This makes it very difficult to use them to create an image - they just pass straight through any surface which we might use to reflect them, for instance. However, luckily for life on Earth, gamma rays from objects in outer space are stopped by the atmosphere; when this happens, a faint flash of blue light is produced, lasting for a few billionths of a second. The astronomers used images of these flashes of light, called Cherenkov radiation, to make a gamma ray 'image' for the first time.


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