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The second most powerful energy particle in history hit the Earth: no one knows where it came from

Dmytro IvancheskulNews
Powerful beam detected by sensors on Earth. Source: Osaka Metropolitan University/L-INSIGHT, Kyoto University/Ryuunosuke Takeshige/collage by OBOZ.UA

Astronomers have detected the second most powerful cosmic ray ever recorded. It appears to have come from an empty area of the Universe known as the cosmic void, where there is nothing obvious to suggest where it could have come from.

This is stated in a study published in the journal Science. High-energy streams of subatomic particles of cosmic rays travel through the Universe at almost the speed of light. They are made up of about 89% protons (hydrogen nuclei), 10% helium nuclei, and the remaining 1% heavier nuclei.

When these fast nuclei collide with atoms in the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere, new particles are formed and "fall" to Earth.

In fact, cosmic rays hit every square centimeter of the Earth every minute. Some of them may come from supernovae, the super-powerful explosions that result from the death of massive stars.

Sometimes cosmic rays are made up of particles of such high energy that they stump physicists.

The recently discovered mysterious cosmic ray, which is probably the nucleus of a charged particle such as carbon or oxygen, was named Amaterasu in honor of the Japanese sun goddess.

"When I first saw the result, I thought it was some kind of mistake, because it was much more energetic than I expected. At first, I thought I was a little unlucky because it had no source, but I was actually lucky because we found a new secret," said Toshihiro Fujii of Osaka Metropolitan University in Japan.

The beam was spotted thanks to a telescope in Utah, which is equipped with 500 sensors. It can detect showers of particles that fall out of collisions of extremely energetic particles with the Earth's atmosphere.

The data from the sensors, as well as knowledge of particle physics, allow researchers to reconstruct the energy and direction of movement of particles entering the atmosphere.

On May 27, 2021, a group of sensors recorded that a particle with an energy of about 244 exoelectron volts (244 eV; 244 with 18 zeros) exploded above them. This is equivalent to the energy of a tennis ball traveling at nearly 100 kilometers per hour, but squeezed into an atomic-sized object.

According to New Scientist, such powerful events are extremely rare. In the entire history of observations, only four particles with an energy of more than 200 eV have been recorded. The most energetic of them, with an energy of 320 GeV, called the "Oh, my God particle," still has no full explanation.

Scientists believe that such particles are formed in exotic astrophysical phenomena such as supermassive black holes or gamma-ray bursts. But the Amaterasu particle came from a part of the sky where there is no obvious source.

The researchers assume that the source of the beam is elsewhere, and the particle's motion was altered by the magnetic field of some object.

"But because the particle still had such high energy when it arrived, this change in direction could only be minimal, unless our models of extragalactic magnetic fields are wrong," Fujii said.

Particles with higher energies lose it when they interact with the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the background radiation left over from the Big Bang. This limits the distance that these ultra-energetic rays can travel, but if the charged particle is a more exotic phenomenon that does not interact with the CMB, then it could have come from more distant galaxies that we cannot detect.

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