More Hints of Exotic Cosmic-Ray Origin

Observing the constant rain of cosmic rays hitting Earth can provide information on the “magnetic weather” in other parts of the Galaxy. A new high-precision measurement of two cosmic-ray elements, boron and carbon, supports a specific model of the magnetic turbulence that deflects cosmic rays on their journey through the Galaxy.

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The data, which come from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) aboard the International Space Station, appear to rule out alternative models for cosmic-ray propagation. By ruling out these models, the AMS results support the alternative explanation – a new primary cosmic ray source that emits positrons. Candidates include pulsars and dark matter, but a lot of mystery still surrounds the unexplained positron data.

The majority of cosmic rays are particles or nuclei produced in supernovae or other astrophysical sources. However, as these so-called primary cosmic rays travel through the Galaxy to Earth, they collide with gas atoms in the interstellar medium. The collisions produce a secondary class of cosmic rays with masses and energies that differ from primary cosmic rays.

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To investigate the relationship of the two classes, astrophysicists often look at the ratio of the number of detection’s of two nuclei, such as boron and carbon. For the most part, carbon cosmic rays have a primary origin, whereas boron is almost exclusively created in secondary processes. A relatively high boron-to-carbon (B/C) ratio in a certain energy range implies that the relevant cosmic rays are traversing a lot of gas before reaching us. “The B/C ratio tells you how cosmic rays propagate through space,” says AMS principal investigator Samuel Ting of MIT.

Previous measurements of the B/C ratio have had large errors of 15% or more, especially at high energy, mainly because of the brief data collection time available for balloon-based detectors. But the AMS has been operating on the Space Station for five years, and over this time it has collected more than 80 billion cosmic rays. The AMS detectors measure the charges of these cosmic rays, allowing the elements to be identified. The collaboration has detected over ten million carbon and boron nuclei, with energies per nucleon ranging from a few hundred MeV up to a few TeV.

The B/C ratio decreases with energy because higher-energy cosmic rays tend to take a more direct path to us (and therefore experience fewer collisions producing boron). By contrast, lower-energy cosmic rays are diverted more strongly by magnetic fields, so they bounce around like pinballs among magnetic turbulence regions in the Galaxy. Several theories have been proposed to describe the size and spacing of these turbulent regions, and these theories lead to predictions for the energy dependence of the B/C ratio. However, previous B/C observations have not been precise enough to favor one theory over another. The AMS data show very clearly that the B/C ratio is proportional to the energy raised to the -1/3 power. This result matches a prediction based on a theory of magnetohydrodynamics developed in 1941 by the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov.

These results conflict with models that predict that the B/C ratio should exhibit some more complex energy dependence, such as kinks in the B/C spectrum at specific energies. Theorists proposed these models to explain anomalous observations – by AMS and other experiments – that showed an increase in the number of positrons (anti-electrons) reaching Earth relative to electrons at high energy. The idea was that these “excess” positrons are – like boron – produced in collisions between cosmic rays and interstellar gas. But such a scenario would require that cosmic rays encounter additional scattering sites, not just magnetically turbulent regions. By ruling out these models, the AMS results support the alternative explanation – a new primary cosmic ray source that emits positrons. Candidates include pulsars and dark matter, but a lot of mystery still surrounds the unexplained positron data.

Igor Moskalenko from Stanford University is very surprised at the close match between the data and the Kolmogorov model. He expected that the ratio would deviate from a single power law in a way that might provide clues to the origin of the excess positrons. “This is a dramatic result that should lead to much better understanding of interstellar magnetohydrodynamic turbulence and propagation of cosmic rays,” he says. “On the other hand, it is very much unexpected in that it makes recent discoveries in astrophysics of cosmic rays even more puzzling.”

Powerful Punch of Gamma Rays Found in Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts

Penn State University astronomers have discovered that the mysterious “cosmic whistles” known as fast radio bursts can pack a serious punch, in some cases releasing a billion times more energy in gamma-rays than they do in radio waves and rivaling the stellar cataclysms known as supernovae in their explosive power. The discovery, the first-ever finding of non-radio emission from any fast radio burst, drastically raises the stakes for models of fast radio bursts and is expected to further energize efforts by astronomers to chase down and identify long-lived counterparts to fast radio bursts using X-ray, optical, and radio telescopes.

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Fast radio bursts, which astronomers refer to as FRBs, were first discovered in 2007, and in the years since radio astronomers have detected a few dozen of these events. Although they last mere milliseconds at any single frequency, their great distances from Earth — and large quantities of intervening plasma — delay their arrival at lower frequencies, spreading the signal out over a second or more and yielding a distinctive downward-swooping “whistle” across the typical radio receiver band.

“This discovery revolutionizes our picture of FRBs, some of which apparently manifest as both a whistle and a bang,” said coauthor Derek Fox, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics. The radio whistle can be detected by ground-based radio telescopes, while the gamma-ray bang can be picked up by high-energy satellites like NASA’s Swift mission. “Rate and distance estimates for FRBs suggest that, whatever they are, they are a relatively common phenomenon, occurring somewhere in the universe more than 2,000 times a day.”

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Efforts to identify FRB counterparts began soon after their discovery but have all come up empty until now. In a paper recently published in Astrophysical Journal Letters the Penn State team, led by physics graduate student James DeLaunay, reports bright gamma-ray emission from the fast radio burst FRB 131104, named after the date it occurred, 4 November 2013. “I started this search for FRB counterparts without expecting to find anything,” said DeLaunay. “This burst was the first that even had useful data to analyse. When I saw that it showed a possible gamma-ray counterpart, I couldn’t believe my luck!”

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Discovery of the gamma-ray “bang” from FRB 131104, the first non-radio counterpart to any FRB, was made possible by NASA’s Earth-orbiting Swift satellite, which was observing the exact part of the sky where FRB 131104 occurred as the burst was detected by the Parkes Observatory radio telescope in Parkes, Australia. “Swift is always watching the sky for bursts of X-rays and gamma-rays,” said Neil Gehrels, the mission’s principal investigator and chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “What a delight it was to catch this flash from one of the mysterious fast radio bursts.”

“Although theorists had anticipated that FRBs might be accompanied by gamma rays, the gamma-ray emission we see from FRB 131104 is surprisingly long-lasting and bright,” Fox said. The duration of the gamma-ray emission, at two to six minutes, is many times the millisecond duration of the radio emission. And the gamma-ray emission from FRB 131104 outshines its radio emissions by more than a billion times, dramatically raising estimates of the burst’s energy requirements and suggesting severe consequences for the burst’s surroundings and host galaxy.

Two common models for gamma-ray emission from FRBs exist: one invoking magnetic flare events from magnetars — highly magnetized neutron stars that are the dense remnants of collapsed stars — and another invoking the catastrophic merger of two neutron stars, colliding to form a black hole. According to coauthor Kohta Murase, a Penn State professor and theorist, “The energy release we see is challenging for the magnetar model unless the burst is relatively nearby. The long timescale of the gamma-ray emission, while unexpected in both models, might be possible in a merger event if we observe the merger from the side, in an off-axis scenario.”

“In fact, the energy and timescale of the gamma-ray emission is a better match to some types of supernovae, or to some of the supermassive black hole accretion events that Swift has seen,” Fox said. “The problem is that no existing models predict that we would see an FRB in these cases.”

The bright gamma-ray emission from FRB 131104 suggests that the burst, and others like it, might be accompanied by long-lived X-ray, optical, or radio emissions. Such counterparts are dependably seen in the wake of comparably energetic cosmic explosions, including both stellar-scale cataclysms — supernovae, magnetar flares, and gamma-ray bursts — and episodic or continuous accretion activity of the supermassive black holes that commonly lurk in the centers of galaxies.

In fact, Swift X-ray and optical observations were carried out two days after FRB 131104, thanks to prompt analysis by radio astronomers (who were not aware of the gamma-ray counterpart) and a nimble response from the Swift mission operations team, headquartered at Penn State. In spite of this relatively well-coordinated response, no long-lived X-ray, ultraviolet, or optical counterpart was seen.

The authors hope to participate in future campaigns aimed at discovering more FRB counterparts, and in this way, finally revealing the sources responsible for these ubiquitous and mysterious events. “Ideally, these campaigns would begin soon after the burst and would continue for several weeks afterward to make sure nothing gets missed. Maybe we’ll get even luckier next time,” DeLaunay said.

New Theory of Gravity Might Explain Dark Matter

A new theory of gravity might explain the curious motions of stars in galaxies. Emergent gravity, as the new theory is called, predicts the exact same deviation of motions that is usually explained by invoking dark matter. Prof. Erik Verlinde, renowned expert in string theory at the University of Amsterdam and the Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics, published a new research paper today in which he expands his groundbreaking views on the nature of gravity.

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In 2010, Erik Verlinde surprised the world with a completely new theory of gravity. According to Verlinde, gravity is not a fundamental force of nature, but an emergent phenomenon. In the same way that temperature arises from the movement of microscopic particles, gravity emerges from the changes of fundamental bits of information, stored in the very structure of spacetime.

Newton’s law from information

In his 2010 article (On the origin of gravity and the laws of Newton), Verlinde showed how Newton’s famous second law, which describes how apples fall from trees and satellites stay in orbit, can be derived from these underlying microscopic building blocks. Extending his previous work and work done by others, Verlinde now shows how to understand the curious behaviour of stars in galaxies without adding the puzzling dark matter.

The outer regions of galaxies, like our own Milky Way, rotate much faster around the centre than can be accounted for by the quantity of ordinary matter like stars, planets and interstellar gasses. Something else has to produce the required amount of gravitational force, so physicists proposed the existence of dark matter. Dark matter seems to dominate our universe, comprising more than 80 percent of all matter. Hitherto, the alleged dark matter particles have never been observed, despite many efforts to detect them.

No need for dark matter

According to Erik Verlinde, there is no need to add a mysterious dark matter particle to the theory. In a new paper, which appeared today on the ArXiv preprint server, Verlinde shows how his theory of gravity accurately predicts the velocities by which the stars rotate around the center of the Milky Way, as well as the motion of stars inside other galaxies.

“We have evidence that this new view of gravity actually agrees with the observations, ” says Verlinde. “At large scales, it seems, gravity just doesn’t behave the way Einstein’s theory predicts.”

At first glance, Verlinde’s theory presents features similar to modified theories of gravity like MOND (modified Newtonian Dynamics, Mordehai Milgrom (1983)). However, where MOND tunes the theory to match the observations, Verlinde’s theory starts from first principles. “A totally different starting point,” according to Verlinde.

Adapting the holographic principle

One of the ingredients in Verlinde’s theory is an adaptation of the holographic principle, introduced by his tutor Gerard ‘t Hooft (Nobel Prize 1999, Utrecht University) and Leonard Susskind (Stanford University). According to the holographic principle, all the information in the entire universe can be described on a giant imaginary sphere around it. Verlinde now shows that this idea is not quite correct – part of the information in our universe is contained in space itself.

This extra information is required to describe that other dark component of the universe: Dark energy, which is believed to be responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe. Investigating the effects of this additional information on ordinary matter, Verlinde comes to a stunning conclusion. Whereas ordinary gravity can be encoded using the information on the imaginary sphere around the universe, as he showed in his 2010 work, the result of the additional information in the bulk of space is a force that nicely matches that attributed to dark matter.

On the brink of a scientific revolution

Gravity is in dire need of new approaches like the one by Verlinde, since it doesn’t combine well with quantum physics. Both theories, crown jewels of 20th century physics, cannot be true at the same time. The problems arise in extreme conditions: near black holes, or during the Big Bang. Verlinde says, “Many theoretical physicists like me are working on a revision of the theory, and some major advancements have been made. We might be standing on the brink of a new scientific revolution that will radically change our views on the very nature of space, time and gravity.”

Detour Via Gravitational Lens Makes Distant Galaxy Visible

Never before have astrophysicists measured light of such high energy from a celestial object so far away. Around 7 billion years ago, a huge explosion occurred at the black hole in the center of a galaxy. This was followed by a burst of high-intensity gamma rays. A number of telescopes, MAGIC included, have succeeded in capturing this light. An added bonus: it was thus possible to reconfirm Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, as the light rays encountered a less distant galaxy en route to Earth — and were deflected by this so-called gravitational lens.

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The object QSO B0218+357 is a blazar, a specific type of black hole. Researchers now assume that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of every galaxy. Black holes, into which matter is currently plunging are called active black holes. They emit extremely bright jets. If these bursts point towards Earth, the term blazar is used.

Full moon prevents the first MAGIC observation

The event now described in “Astronomy & Astrophysics” took place 7 billion years ago, when the universe was not even half its present age. “The blazar was discovered initially on 14 July 2014 by the Large Area Telescope (LAT) of the Fermi satellite,” explains Razmik Mirzoyan, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Physics and spokesperson for the MAGIC collaboration. “The gamma ray telescopes on Earth immediately fixed their sights on the blazer in order to learn more about this object.”

One of these telescopes was MAGIC, on the Canary Island of La Palma, specialized in high-energy gamma rays. It can capture photons — light particles — whose energy is 100 billion times higher than the photons emitted by our Sun and a thousand times higher than those measured by Fermi-LAT. The MAGIC scientists were initially out of luck, however: A full moon meant the telescope was not able to operate during the time in question.

Gravitational lens deflects ultra-high-energy photons

Eleven days later, MAGIC got a second chance, as the gamma rays emitted by QSO B0218+357 did not take the direct route to Earth: One billion years after setting off on their journey, they reached the galaxy B0218+357G. This is where Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity came into play.

This states that a large mass in the universe, a galaxy, for example, deflects light of an object behind it. In addition, the light is focused as if by a gigantic optical lens — to a distant observer, the object appears to be much brighter, but also distorted. The light beams also need different lengths of time to pass through the lens, depending on the angle of observation.

This gravitational lens was the reason that MAGIC was able, after all, to measure QSO B0218+357 — and thus the most distant object in the high-energy gamma ray spectrum. “We knew from observations undertaken by the Fermi space telescope and radio telescopes in 2012 that the photons that took the longer route would arrive 11 days later,” says Julian Sitarek (University of ?ódz, Poland), who led this study. “This was the first time we were able to observe that high-energy photons were deflected by a gravitational lens.”

Doubling the size of the gamma-ray universe

The fact that gamma rays of such high energy from a distant celestial body reach Earth’s atmosphere is anything but obvious. “Many gamma rays are lost when they interact with photons which originate from galaxies or stars and have a lower energy,” says Mirzoyan. “With the MAGIC observation, the part of the universe that we can observe via gamma rays has doubled.”

The fact that the light arrived on Earth at the time calculated could rattle a few theories on the structure of the vacuum — further investigations, however, are required to confirm this. “The observation currently points to new possibilities for high-energy gamma ray observatories — and provides a pointer for the next generation of telescopes in the CTA project,” says Mirzoyan, summing up the situation.

Tsunami Of Stars And Gas Produces Dazzling Eye-Shaped Feature In Galaxy

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered a tsunami of stars and gas that is crashing midway through the disk of a spiral galaxy known as IC 2163. This colossal wave of material — which was triggered when IC 2163 recently sideswiped another spiral galaxy dubbed NGC 2207 — produced dazzling arcs of intense star formation that resemble a pair of eyelids.

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“Although galaxy collisions of this type are not uncommon, only a few galaxies with eye-like, or ocular, structures are known to exist,” said Michele Kaufman, an astronomer formerly with The Ohio State University in Columbus and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Kaufman and her colleagues note that the paucity of similar features in the observable universe is likely due to their ephemeral nature. “Galactic eyelids last only a few tens of millions of years, which is incredibly brief in the lifespan of a galaxy. Finding one in such a newly formed state gives us an exceptional opportunity to study what happens when one galaxy grazes another,” said Kaufman.

The interacting pair of galaxies resides approximately 114 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Canis Major. These galaxies brushed past each other — scraping the edges of their outer spiral arms — in what is likely the first encounter of an eventual merger.

Using ALMA’s remarkable sensitivity and resolution, the astronomers made the most detailed measurements ever of the motion of carbon monoxide gas in the galaxy’s narrow eyelid features. Carbon monoxide is a tracer of molecular gas, which is the fuel for star formation.

The data reveal that the gas in the outer portion of IC 2163’s eyelids is racing inward at speeds in excess of 100 kilometers a second. This gas, however, quickly decelerates and its motion becomes more chaotic, eventually changing trajectory and aligning itself with the rotation of the galaxy rather than continuing its pell-mell rush toward the center.

“What we observe in this galaxy is very much like a massive ocean wave barreling toward shore until it interacts with the shallows, causing it to lose momentum and dump all of its water and sand on the beach,” said Bruce Elmegreen, a scientist with IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, and co-author on the paper.

“Not only do we find a rapid deceleration of the gas as it moves from the outer to the inner edge of the eyelids, but we also measure that the more rapidly it decelerates, the denser the molecular gas becomes,” said Kaufman. “This direct measurement of compression shows how the encounter between the two galaxies drives gas to pile up, spawn new star clusters and form these dazzling eyelid features.”

Computer models predict that such eyelid-like features could evolve if galaxies interacted in a very specific manner. “This evidence for a strong shock in the eyelids is terrific. It’s all very well to have a theory and simulations suggesting it should be true, but real observational evidence is great,” said Curtis Struck, a professor of astrophysics at Iowa State University in Ames and co-author on the paper.

“ALMA showed us that the velocities of the molecular gas in the eyelids are on the right track with the predictions we get from computer models,” said Kaufman. “This critical test of encounter simulations was not possible before.”

Astronomers believe that such collisions between galaxies were common in the early universe when galaxies were closer together. At that time, however, galactic disks were generally clumpy and irregular, so other processes likely overwhelmed the formation of similar eyelid features.

The authors continue to study this galaxy pair and currently are comparing the properties (e.g., locations, ages, and masses) of the star clusters previously observed with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope with the properties of the molecular clouds observed with ALMA. They hope to better understand the differences between molecular clouds and star clusters in the eyelids and those elsewhere in the galaxy pair.

Pillars Of Cosmic Destruction: Colorful Carina Nebula Blasted By Brilliant Nearby Stars

Spectacular new observations of vast pillar-like structures within the Carina Nebula have been made using the M– USE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The different pillars analysed by an international team seem to be pillars of destruction — in contrast to the name of the iconic Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, which are of similar nature.The spires and pillars in the new images of the Carina Nebula are vast clouds of dust and gas within a hub of star formation about 7500 light-years away. The pillars in the nebula were observed by a team led by Anna McLeod, a PhD student at ESO, using the M– USE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

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The great power of M– USE is that it creates thousands of images of the nebula at the same time, each at a different wavelength of light. This allows astronomers to map out the chemical and physical properties of the material at different points in the nebula.

Images of similar structures, the famous Pillars of Creation* in the Eagle Nebula and formations in NGC 3603, were combined with the ones displayed here. In total ten pillars have been observed, and in so doing a clear link was observed between the radiation emitted by nearby massive stars and the features of the pillars themselves.

In an ironic twist, one of the first consequences of the formation of a massive star is that it starts to destroy the cloud from which it was born. The idea that massive stars will have a considerable effect on their surroundings is not new: such stars are known to blast out vast quantities of powerful, ionising radiation — emission with enough energy to strip atoms of their orbiting electrons. However, it is very difficult to obtain observational evidence of the interplay between such stars and their surroundings.

The team analysed the effect of this energetic radiation on the pillars: a process known as photoevaporation, when gas is ionised and then disperses away. By observing the results of photoevaporation — which included the loss of mass from the pillars — they were able to deduce the culprits. There was a clear correlation between the amount of ionising radiation being emitted by nearby stars, and the dissipation of the pillars.

This might seem like a cosmic calamity, with massive stars turning on their own creators. However the complexities of the feedback mechanisms between the stars and the pillars are poorly understood. These pillars might look dense, but the clouds of dust and gas which make up nebulae are actually very diffuse. It is possible that the radiation and stellar winds from massive stars actually help create denser spots within the pillars, which can then form stars.

These breathtaking celestial structures have more to tell us, and M– USE is an ideal instrument to probe them with.

Unusual Martian Region Leaves Clues To Planet’s Past

Researcher Don Hood from LSU and colleagues from collaborating universities studied an unusual region on Mars — an area with high elevation called Thaumasia Planum. They analyzed the geography and mineralogy of this area they termed Greater Thaumasia, which is about the size of North America. They also studied the chemistry of this area based on Gamma Ray Spectrometer data collected by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, which was launched in 2001. What they found was the mountain ridge that outlines Greater Thaumasia was most likely created by a chain of volcanoes. The results were published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.

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“The chemical changes we see moving northwestward through the region is consistent with the mantle evolving on Mars. Our research supports that this whole area was built as a volcanic construct,” said Don Hood, LSU Department of Geology and Geophysics doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper.

The chemical composition changes throughout the region. Silica and H20 increase and potassium decreases from southeast to northwest.

“The chemical composition shifting is the key progression that tells us that this environment was most likely shaped by a series of volcanic events that continually erupted from a changing mantle composition,” Hood said.

Hood and colleagues from Stony Brook University, University of Tokyo and Lehigh University ruled out another hypothesis that the abundance of H20 and potassium was caused by water interacting in rock.

“We looked for evidence of aqueous alteration through other geochemical means and didn’t find it,” he said.

The geography of the region has many shield volcanoes that are similar to the ones found in Hawaii. However from geochemical analyses, the researchers found that the sulfur that is present was most likely deposited as a volcanic ash. Volcanic ash from various areas could be evidence of explosive volcanism on Mars, which would be an important clue for piecing together the history of Mars. It is significant because explosive eruptions emit a lot of gas that can stay in the atmosphere and can cause global cooling and warming events.

“Whether there was explosive volcanism on Mars and how much of it there was is an important question in terms of finding out what the past climate was like,” Hood said.