Science

A massive “barrier” separates the center of the Milky Way from external cosmic radiation

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The Milky Way, our galaxy, consists of 100 to 400 billion stars and up to 300 billion planets. The space between these stars, which merges into the intergalactic medium, is the “interstellar medium”: a mixture of gases, dust, and cosmic rays. These radiations come from the Sun, from the interior or the exterior of our galaxy, as the case may be. Yet even as the galactic center throws a constant storm of high-energy radiation into space, the sea of ​​cosmic rays, something near the core of the Milky Way is preventing much of the cosmic rays from other parts of the world from entering. the Universe, according to a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing.

Cosmic radiation is composed mainly of charged particles (protons, helium nuclei, antiprotons, electrons) and neutral particles (gamma rays, neutrinos and neutrons). In a new study, a team of Chinese researchers examined a map of radioactive gamma rays that exploded in and around the center of our galaxy. It is the most energetic form of light in the Universe, which appears when cosmic rays, extremely fast particles, collide with ordinary matter.

Xiaoyuan Huang (from the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and his colleagues found that while the density of cosmic rays was relatively constant in areas outside the center of the galaxy, it dropped considerably in the central molecular area, the area closest to the center. of the galaxy. Milky Way. Therefore, something prevents the sea of ​​cosmic rays from entering the interior of the galaxy. “If there is no barrier, the cosmic ray sea component should also be present in the central molecular zone,” Huang told New Scientist. “However, the data indicates that the opposite is true and that there must be a barrier.” Therefore, cosmic rays can leave the galactic center, but have difficulty entering it.

Sagittarius A *, giant particle accelerator

The center of our galaxy is approximately 26,000 light years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius. This dense and dusty place contains more than a million times more stars per light year than the entire solar system, with a supermassive black hole at its center.

Scientists have long suspected that this black hole, called Sagittarius A *, or perhaps another object at the galactic center, is accelerating protons and electrons to near the speed of light. This in turn produces cosmic rays that propagate throughout our galaxy through magnetic fields, creating an ocean of high-energy particles whose density is roughly uniform throughout the Milky Way.

Sagittarius A * would be the ideal culprit because, in theory, black holes could project certain particles very far into space. “There may be magnetized winds, driven by the activity of the central supermassive black hole Sagittarius A *, that help prevent particles from entering the central molecular zone,” Huang told New Scientist.

A phenomenon to clarify

Since most cosmic rays are charged particles, a strong enough magnetic field could change their trajectory. “It is likely that there are stronger magnetic fields in the central molecular zone [de la Voie lactée] outside, which can prevent cosmic rays from entering this area ”, adds the Chinese researcher. This tangle of magnetic fields near the core would partly explain this strange manifestation.

Why does this cosmic barrier exist? How does it work? This remains a mystery… According to the researchers, this phenomenon could also occur on even larger scales, which could affect extragalactic cosmic rays trying to penetrate the Milky Way.

Nature Communication

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