Saturday, March 4, 2017

"We still don’t know where cosmic rays are coming from"

From Ars Technica:
High energy cosmic rays are something of a conundrum wrapped in an enigma. Essentially, they can't come from very far away and still have the energy they possess. To that end, cosmic rays should originate from within the Milky Way. Yet, they seem to be coming from every direction: no matter where you look in space, you have the same probability of seeing a high energy cosmic ray. A new paper has, to the disappointment of the 90 plus authors, confirmed this uniformity to a rather high degree.

Living in a frosted fish bowl
Let's start this with an analogy. Imagine that you are inside a frosted glass bulb. When the Sun comes up, you can see light, but it seems to come from every direction evenly. There is no way to tell that the light actually comes from a single source, shining from a single direction unless the light is sufficiently bright or the frosting on the window is not too dense. Then, even though you still see light from every direction, the slight brightness increase in one direction tells you that there is a light source in that direction.

Cosmic rays with energies up to 2TeV are thought to originate from dying supernovae in our own galaxy. Observations from the Fermi satellite have confirmed that some cosmic rays do originate in supernovae, but these observations don't seem to account for the full total of cosmic rays. (Note that there are cosmic rays at much higher energies, but these certainly do not originate within our galaxy.)

Why don't we see this as a collection of point sources? Cosmic rays consist of charged particles, which scatter like crazy on stray magnetic fields. So, even though there might be only a few sources, we see cosmic rays coming from every direction. To make the story even more complex, when charged particles change direction, they radiate light and lose energy. The reverse can happen, too: charged particles can scatter off of light to produce the same effect.

Cosmic rays come from everywhere 
Combined, all of this smears out the individual sources of these particles and slows them down over time. The result is not just that it looks like we are observing cosmic rays through frosted glass, but that the sources of high energy cosmic rays cannot be too far away. From our perspective, distant sources would only be observed as low energy cosmic rays because of all the energy that the ray loses between its source and us.

Scientists thus find themselves in an awkward position: apparently, the sources of high energy cosmic rays should be close—think of distances on the order of 5,000 light years, which is just a tiny fraction of the diameter of the galaxy (100,000 to 200,000 light years). But, if they are that close, we should be able to make out bright and dark spots in the sky through careful observation....MORE 
"Alien particles from outer space are wreaking low-grade havoc on personal electronic devices"