What sort of particles are these? On the ground one rarely encounters
the "primary" cosmic rays, because they generally collide high in the atmosphere
and all we get below is a shower of very fast fragments. However, sensitive
photographic plates have been lifted by balloons to the top of the atmosphere,
and have recorded there the passage of "primary" cosmic ray particles.
The plates were developed, the tracks were scanned through microscopes, and
by the thickness of those tracks, the particles which had caused them were
identified. This method showed cosmic ray particles to be ions of a familiar
sort--mostly hydrogen, some helium, diminishing amounts of carbon, oxygen
etc. and even a few atoms of iron and of heavier elements, to all intents
proportions similar to those found on the Sun. The conclusion seems to be that
here is ordinary matter, which had undergone some extraordinary process
to gain huge energies.
Those energies are indeed huge. The atmosphere shields us from cosmic
rays about as effectively as a 13-foot layer of concrete, yet a large proportion
of cosmic ray particles manages to send fragments all the way through it.
Some have much, much higher energies, though as one goes up in energy, the
numbers drop drastically. Cosmic ray ions at the top of the energy range
produce in the atmosphere showers of many millions of fragments, covering many acres, and their more energetic fragments register
even in deep mines, a mile underground. Relatively few of the particles are so
energetic--an experiment might register them once a week--but their
existence is a real riddle. How can a single atomic nucleus gain such extreme
To all intents, cosmic rays arrive evenly from all directions in the sky, but
this does not necessarily mean their sources are evenly spread around us.
More likely, they are constantly deflected and scattered by magnetic fields in the galaxy,
until any trace of their original motion is lost. In a similar way, sunlight on a
heavily overcast day seems to arrive evenly from the entire sky, and we have
no idea where the Sun actually is, because its light is thoroughly diffused by water droplets in the clouds.
Where direct evidence is lacking, one can only guess, using physics and
whatever else is known about the universe. The consensus these days is that
cosmic ray ions are energized by shock waves which expand from
Sooner or later, a star must run out of its "nuclear fuel" of light
elements (especially hydrogen). Its "nuclear burning" gradually converts
light elements into heavier ones, and the heat produced keeps the star puffed
up, resisting the pull of gravity which draws it together. When it can no
longer produce nuclear heat, it collapses; gravitational energy can keep
it hot for a while, but not for long. If it is of the size of our sun, it
may end up as a dim dwarf star.
| Supernova in the Crab nebula |
seen in X-rays by the Chandra spacecraft
However, if the star is much bigger than the Sun (say,
10 times more massive), the collapse can be catastrophic and rapid. It then
quickly releases an enormous amount of gravitational energy. Nuclear processes
quickly consume part of that energy, but another part is then spent in a
grand explosion, blowing the star's outer layers out to space and creating
a huge expanding shock front. By good fortune, such an explosion was
observed in 1987 in a nearby galaxy, and its shock wave (inner brightness,
picture below) has recently been observed, together with some earlier emissions
(large circles) which still puzzle astronomers:
Note: A much more detailed discussion of the way energy is released in stars and of their final collapse can be found in section (S-7) The Energy of the Sun of "From Stargazers to Starships"; see http://www-spof.gsfc.nasa.gov/stargaze/Sun7enrg.htm.
| Remnant of |
Added December 2004
As noted under Supernovas
above, cosmic rays are scattered from their original directions by magnetic
fields in space. The magnetic force is weak, but acting over distances on
the interstellar scale, it thoroughly mixes the directions of cosmic ray
particles and makes them arrive evenly from all directions.
Presumably, however, cosmic ray ions start from matter
denser than the interstellar medium, and may collide with it on their way
out. Nuclear collisions produce gamma rays (after some intermediate steps)
which, like light, move in straight lines, If only we could detect ultra-energetic
gamma rays from the sky, we might pin-point sources of cosmic rays.
At long last, gamma rays of energies of the order of 800 Gev have been detected and tracked. (For comparison, the rest energy E = mc2 of a proton is a little below 1 GeV). Such gamma rays interact strongly with the atmosphere, to produce pairs of very fast electrons and positrons (positive counterparts of electrons), which quickly produce gamma rays, each of which again produces a pair of lower energy,
each of which... and so on, ending with an "air shower" of thousands of electrons,
positrons and gamma rays, all still moving at close to the original direction.
In a vacuum, no particle can move faster than light. The atmosphere however slows down light by a slight amount (related to the refraction of light by air), and therefore in air
electrons can outrun light, if they are fast enough. When that happens, they
emit a sort of "shock front" of light, like the sonic shock ahead of a wing
moving at supersonic speed. This light is known, after its Russian discoverer,
as "Cherenkov light" (Ch as in Church); if you have seen the glow
coming from a nuclear research reactor operating inside a pool of water--that
is one example.
Flashes of Cherenkov light from air showers has been studied
for many years. They clearly indicate the presence of high-energy gamma rays,
but for a long time there was no way of telling if those rays originated
in distant space or (more likely) in nuclear collisions of cosmic ray ions
in our own atmosphere. Recent studies, however, have not just detected flashes,
they also used giant telescopes to focus the light
and observe an image of its sources. It turns out, gamma rays from distant
space give a different signature, and are readily distinguished.
Several such telescopes exist, and more are being added. As
early as in 1989, a gamma ray shower was observed to come from the Crab Nebula,
the remnant of a recent supernova explosion; this was accomplished by the
Whipple telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona. Now an array of 4 giant mirror-telescopes
has joined the search, each measuring 13 meters across (for the scale, note
small truck in front of the nearest telescope); the optical quality is not
even close to that of astronomical telescopes, and the ability to resolve
a location in the sky is only like that of the unaided human eye. The huge
size is however needed to capture a sufficient intensity of the weak Cherenkov
light emission. (Science, vol 305, p. 1392-3, 3 September 2004; also Physics Today, vol 58, p. 19-21, January 2005)
This is the HESS telescope array--its name standing
for High Energy Spectroscopic System, and also honoring Victor Hess, who
discovered cosmic rays in 1912. Rising in a balloon in what is now the Czech
Republic (then part of Austria), Hess measured the "background rate" of nuclear
radiation, finding it actually increased with height. For that he was awarded
the Nobel Prize in 1936.
Located in Namibia, in southern Africa, HESS quickly discovered in the
southern skies a ring-like source of very high-energy gamma rays, about 1
degree across. It is centered at the remnant of supernova RX J1713.7-3946,
believed to be about 1000 years old ("High-energy particle acceleration in the shell of a supernova remnant," [a collaboration by about 100 co-authors], Nature, 432,
p. 75-7, 4 November 2004). The picture on the right gives the result: colors
indicate gamma-ray intensity, while black lines are contours of previously
observed X-ray emission from the same supernova remnant. As Paula Chadwick
of the University of Durham said, "If you had gamma-ray eyes and were in
the southern hemisphere, you could see a large, brightly glowing ring in
the sky every night." (Or at least you could, if you were able to collect
all the gamma-ray signal of 26 hours into a single bright display, as HESS
Though these results were reported recently, the observations
date to the middle of 2003. More data should already be available, and other
Cherenkov telescopes are operating, too. We should soon know a lot more about
supernova origin of cosmic radiation!
Cosmic Rays and the Magnetosphere
Where does the magnetosphere enter all this? Neither acceleration by
collision-free shocks nor other particle acceleration processes observed or
proposed in space can be duplicated in the laboratory. We have no way of
reproducing the large distances and low densities of space, and the
phenomena cannot be scaled down properly to laboratory dimensions.
In trying to understand the physics of such phenomena, the Earth's space
environment is our best laboratory, and satellites are the probes which can
provide us with relevant information. For instance, the Earth's bow shock
(a relatively mild shock wave) can be studied for varying solar wind speeds and
magnetic field angles, and some acceleration processes indeed seem to occur
Shock acceleration can also take place inside the magnetosphere (click here for the story of one such event,
in March 1991). Yet other acceleration modes exist too, in substorms and
auroral beams, and similar processes may also occur in the distant universe
and on the Sun. In the long run, the most important reason for studying
the magnetosphere might well be that here is our own "cosmic laboratory,"
replicating the processes which affect the distant universe.
Questions from Users:
*** Cosmic ray research using balloons