"We were dumbfounded," said Roger Blandford, who directs the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, jointly located at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University. "It's an emblematic object," he said. The Crab Nebula, also known as M1, was the first astronomical object catalogued in 1771 by Charles Messier. "It's a big deal historically," Blandford continued, "and we're making an amazing discovery about it."
Blandford was part of a KIPAC team led by scientists Rolf Buehler and Stefan Funk that used observations from the Large Area Telescope, one of two primary instruments aboard NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, to confirm one flare and discover another. Their report was posted online today in Science Express alongside a report from the Italian orbiting telescope Astro-rivelatore Gamma a Immagini LEggero, or AGILE, which also detected gamma-ray flares in the Crab Nebula.
The Crab Nebula, and the rapidly spinning neutron star that powers it, are the remnants of a supernova explosion documented by Chinese and Middle Eastern astronomers in 1054. After shedding much of its outer gases and dust, the dying star collapsed into a pulsar, a super-dense, rapidly spinning ball of neutrons. The Crab Nebula's pulsar emits a pulse of radiation every 33 milliseconds, like clockwork.
Though it's only 10 miles across, the amount of energy the pulsar releases is enormous, lighting up the Crab Nebula until it shines 75,000 times more brightly than the sun. Most of this energy is contained in a particle wind of energetic electrons and positrons traveling close to the speed of light. These electrons and positrons interact with magnetic fields and low-energy photons to produce the famous glowing tendrils of dust and gas Messier mistook for a comet over 200 years ago.
The particles are even forceful enough to produce the gamma rays the LAT normally observes during its regular surveys of the sky. But those particles did not cause the dramatic flares.
Each of the two flares the LAT observed lasted a few days before the Crab Nebula's gamma-ray output returned to more normal levels. According to Funk, the short duration of the flares points to synchrotron radiation, or radiation emitted by electrons accelerating in the magnetic field of the nebula, as the cause. And not just any accelerated electrons: the flares were caused by super-charged electrons of up to 1015 electron volts, or 10 quadrillion electron volts, approximately 1,000 times more energetic than the protons accelerated by the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the world's most powerful man-made particle accelerator, and more than 15 orders of magnitude greater than photons of visible light.
"The strength of the gamma-ray flares shows us they were emitted by the highest-energy particles we can associate with any discrete astrophysical object," Funk said.
Not only are the electrons surprisingly energetic, added Buehler, but, "the fact that the intensity is varying so rapidly means the acceleration has to happen extremely fast." This challenges current theories about the way cosmic particles are accelerated. These theories cannot easily account for the extreme energies of the electrons or the speed with which they're accelerated.
The discovery of the Crab Nebula's gamma-ray flares raises one obvious question: how can the nebula do that? Obvious question, but no obvious answers. The KIPAC scientists all agree they need a closer look at higher resolutions and in a variety of wavelengths before they can make any definitive statements. The next time the Crab Nebula flares, the Fermi LAT team will not be the only team gathering data. They'll need all the help they can get to decipher the mysteries of the Crab Nebula
"We thought we knew the essential ingredients of the Crab Nebula," Funk said, "but that's no longer true. It's still surprising us."
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was constructed through an astrophysics and particle physics partnership developed by NASA in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory managed construction of the LAT and now plays the central role in science operations, data processing and making scientific data available to collaborators for analysis.
SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.
Melinda Lee | EurekAlert!
Astronomers find unexpected, dust-obscured star formation in distant galaxy
24.03.2017 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Gravitational wave kicks monster black hole out of galactic core
24.03.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
24.03.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy