Scientists from Michigan Technological University have discovered a new source of the highest-energy photons in the cosmos, shooting from a microquasar 15,000 light years from Earth.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, the researchers say that the discovery could shed light on some of the biggest phenomena in the known universe.
They found that the gamma rays beaming from the microquasar, known as SS 433, are among the brawniest photons ever observed - about 25 trillion times more energetic than visible light. They were detected at the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray (HAWC) Observatory, in Mexico.
The HAWC Observatory is the most sensitive instrument for photons at these very high energies
The scientists claimed it is a special find because such photons are typically born only in the most extreme environments, including quasars, the massive black holes at the centres of galaxies billions of light years away.
Microquasars behave like quasars, but in miniature. Quasars suck up dust and gas, while astronomers believe that SS 433 contains a black hole that sucks up stuff from a nearby companion star. They both blast out powerful jets of material in opposite directions.
SS 433's jets extend over 130 light years into space. To put that into perspective, our entire solar system is not quite two light years across.
Scientists have been studying SS 433 since the 1980s and have already detected electromagnetic radiation in the form of X-rays and radio waves coming from the ends of its jets. But they had not found any high-energy gamma rays until now and HAWC's technology made it possible.
"The HAWC Observatory is the most sensitive instrument for photons at these very high energies, and it did not begin collecting data until 2015," said Petra Huentemeyer, a professor of physics and co-author of the paper.
The new evidence strongly suggests that the powerful gamma rays were produced at the ends of the jets and not another source nearby.
"SS 433 is located in the same region of the sky as other bright sources that also emit gamma rays," added another co-author, Hao Zhou.
"With its wide field of view, HAWC is uniquely capable of separating the gamma-ray emission due to SS 433 from other background photons."
Scientists hope that studying emissions from this microquasar may offer a glimpse into the secrets of their larger cousins, Quasars, which can be millions of times bigger than the sun and the brightest known objects in the universe.
"The new findings improve our understanding of particle acceleration in the jets of microquasars," added Zhou. "They may also shed light on the physics underlying the much larger and more powerful extragalactic jets in quasars."
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