Science

Astronomers discover a huge ‘barrier’ separating the center of the Milky Way from the sea of ​​cosmic rays

The center of the Milky Way may be even weirder than astronomers thought, according to a new study.

For the study, a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing investigated a map of radioactive gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light in the universe, which can arise when extremely high-speed particles called cosmic rays collide with matter. ordinary: explosions in and around the center of our galaxy.

The map revealed that something near the center of the galaxy appears to be accelerating particles to mind-blowing speeds, very close to the speed of light, and creating an abundance of cosmic rays and gamma rays just outside the galactic center. However, even as the galactic center hurls a constant storm of high-energy radiation into space, something near the core of the Milky Way prevents much of the cosmic rays from other parts of the universe from entering, the team reported on May 9. November in the magazine. Communications of nature.

The researchers described the effect as an invisible “barrier” that envelops the galactic center and keeps the density of cosmic rays there significantly lower than the baseline level seen in the rest of our galaxy. In other words: cosmic rays can leave the galactic center, but have a difficult time entering.

How this cosmic barrier works, or why it exists, remains a mystery.

Monster in the middle

The center of our galaxy is located about 26,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius. It is a dense and dusty place, containing more than 1 million times more stars per light year than the entire solar system, all wrapped around a supermassive black hole approximately 4 million times the mass of the sun.

Scientists have long suspected that this black hole, called Sagittarius A *, or perhaps some other object in the galactic center, is accelerating protons and electrons to almost the speed of light, creating cosmic rays that are emitted through our galaxy and into intergalactic space. These rays propagate through the magnetic fields of our galaxy, creating an ocean of high-energy particles that has an approximately uniform density throughout the Milky Way. This constant soup of particles is called a sea of ​​cosmic rays.

In their new study, the researchers compared the density of cosmic rays in this sea with the density of cosmic rays within the galactic center. Cosmic rays cannot be seen directly, but scientists can find them on gamma ray maps of space, which effectively show where cosmic rays have collided with other types of matter.

Using data from the Fermi Large Area Telescope, the team confirmed that something in the galactic center is acting like a giant particle accelerator, shooting cosmic rays into the galaxy. Possible culprits include Sagittarius A *, as black holes could theoretically shoot certain particles into space even as they devour everything else around them, Live Science previously reported; the remains of ancient supernovae; or even strong stellar winds from the many stars huddled in the galactic center.

But the map also revealed the mysterious “barrier,” a clear point where the density of cosmic rays drops significantly at the edge of the galactic center. The source of this phenomenon is more difficult to identify, the researchers said, but it may involve the confusion of magnetic fields near the dense core of our galaxy.

For example, dense clouds of dust and gas near the galactic center could collapse in on themselves, compressing the magnetic fields there and creating a cosmic-ray-proof barrier, the team suggested in their paper. Or perhaps the stellar winds from the myriad stars in the galactic center are pushing against the sea of ​​cosmic rays, just like the solar wind does.

More research is required to find out exactly what is happening in the strange depths of our galaxy.

Originally posted on Live Science.

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