NASA's Fermi telescope proves supernova remnants produce cosmic rays
A new study using observations from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe, U.S. space agency NASA announced Friday.
This discovery is a major step toward understanding the origin of cosmic rays, one of Fermi's primary mission goals, NASA said in a statement.
Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at almost 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 are 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.
Since its launch in 2008, Fermi's Large Area Telescope has mapped million- to billion-electron-volt gamma-rays from supernova remnants. The energy of visible light is between two and three electron volts.
The new Fermi results concern two particular supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, which scientists studied to prove supernova remnants produce cosmic rays. IC 443 and W44 are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas. These clouds emit gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants.
Scientists previously could not determine which atomic particles are responsible for emissions from the interstellar gas clouds because cosmic ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. After analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a distinguishable feature in the gamma-ray emission of both remnants.
The feature is caused by a short-lived particle called a neutral pion, which is produced when cosmic ray protons smash into normal protons.
The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays, emission that exhibits a swift and characteristic decline at lower energies. The low-end cutoff acts as a fingerprint, providing clear proof that the culprits in IC 443 and W44 are protons.
The findings will appear in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
"The discovery is the smoking gun that these two supernova remnants are producing accelerated protons," said lead researcher Stefan Funk, an astrophysicist at Stanford University. "Now we can work to better understand how they manage this feat and determine if the process is common to all remnants where we see gamma-ray emission."