Scientists have detected a dramatic excess of gamma rays from the Sun, which represent the most energetic light emissions ever detected by Earth’s star.
“The sun is more surprising than we knew,” said postdoctoral research associate Mehr Un Nisa of Michigan State University, who worked on the new study published in the journal Physical Review Letters. “We thought we had discovered this star, but we haven’t.”
The unexpected discovery was made by scientists sifting through six years of observations captured by the Cherenkov High Altitude Water Observatory, also known as HAWC, which vigilantly monitors gamma ray emissions from its completion in March 2015.
The HAWC data revealed that our Sun is capable of creating a dramatic excess of super energetic gamma rays that extends beyond what current models of our Sun’s behavior can explain. For context, the visible light emitted by our Sun as a result of the nuclear fusion reaction raging at its core carries energy equivalent to one electron-volt.
However, the gamma rays detected by HAWC recorded as carrying between one trillion and nearly 10 trillion electron chests. According to the Michigan State University release, this makes gamma rays “the most energetic light ever observed from the sun.”
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“After looking at six years of data, this excess of gamma rays stood out,” Nisa explained. “When we first saw it, we were like, ‘We’ve definitely screwed up. The sun cannot be as bright at these energies. ”
A significant amount of gamma rays produced by the Sun are created when our star’s atmosphere is hit by charged particles called cosmic rays.. These high-energy particles are themselves created during cataclysmic events that play out far beyond the borders of our solar system, such as the death of a star in a dramatic supernova, or as a byproduct of a hole. black party.
After being bounced back into space by the Sun’s magnetic field, cosmic rays interact with gases in the stellar atmosphere, triggering the creation of solar gamma rays, some of which are absorbed by Earth’s dense atmosphere.
In 2011, NASA’s Fermi Telescope revealed that the Sun was capable of producing extremely energetic gamma rays and that the star was creating about seven times more of them than expected based on previous estimates. However, according to Michigan State University, the Fermi telescope’s detections were limited by the capabilities of its gamma-ray detector, which could only track particles with energies up to 200 billion electron-volts. .
HAWC, however, has no such limitations and is able to detect gamma rays carrying the energy of trillions of electron volts. Located 13,000 feet above sea level, nestled between the peaks of two dormant volcanoes near Puebla, Mexico, HAWC is about as far from a conventional telescope, aesthetically speaking, as possible.
It doesn’t have the cylindrical design of the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, nor the gold mirrors and reflectors of NASA’s origami-like James Webb Space Telescope. Instead, HAWC is made up of a collection of 300 water tanks filled with approximately 60,000 metric tons of purified water..
When gamma rays strike the Earth’s atmosphere, they break up into fragments of light, low-energy particles known collectively as “air showers”. Upon coming into contact with the water reservoirs, the particles create light in the form of Cherenkov radiation, which is then detected by HAWC instruments.
Along with collecting readings about the incredibly energetic nature of gamma rays, the HAWC data also revealed that they tend to occur when the Sun is in a relatively dormant phase of its 11-year activity cycle. In the future, scientists will seek to answer the question of how the Sun’s magnetic field shapes interactions with cosmic rays, giving rise to high-energy gamma rays.
“This shows that HAWC enriches our knowledge of our galaxy at the highest energies and raises questions about our own sun,” said Nisa, one of about 100 scientists who contributed to the paper. “It makes us see things in a different light. Literally.”
Image Credit: NASA/SDO
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering groundbreaking developments in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
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