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NASA Telescope Discovers the Origin of Cosmic Rays

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Published on Feb 21, 2013

From NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio. A new study using observations from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence that the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe. This discovery is a major step toward meeting one of Fermi's primary mission goals.

Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at nearly the speed of light. About 90 percent of them are protons, with the remainder consisting of electrons and atomic nuclei. In their journey across the galaxy, the electrically charged particles become deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace their origins directly.

Through a variety of mechanisms, these speedy particles can lead to the emission of gamma rays, the most powerful form of light and a signal that travels to us directly from its sources. Two supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas. This material emits gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants.

Scientists have been unable to ascertain which particle is responsible for this emission because cosmic-ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. Now, after analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a gamma-ray feature from both remnants that, like a fingerprint, proves the culprits are protons.

When cosmic-ray protons smash into normal protons, they produce a short-lived particle called a neutral pion. The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays. This emission falls within a specific band of energies associated with the rest mass of the neutral pion, and it declines steeply toward lower energies. Detecting this low-end cutoff is clear proof that the gamma rays arise from decaying pions formed by protons accelerated within the supernova remnants.

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