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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Crab Pulsar emits highest-energy gamma rays ever observed

A group of international astronomers and physicists has detected the highest-energy gamma rays ever observed from a pulsar. This new and surprising data could provide insight into unknown phenomenon occurring in space.

Published on Oct. 6 in the journal Science, the results show that photons were observed from a pulsar system with energies that exceed 100 billion electron volts. To put this in perspective, this is more than 50 billion times higher than visible light from the sun.

This is the first time energies of this magnitude have been observed, surprising many of the scientists working on the project.

“The general feeling was that pulsars would not do what we saw. It was a complete surprise and everyone was pretty amazed,” said Rene Ong, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy and spokesperson for the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS), the collaboration in charge of the experiment.

A pulsar is a highly magnetized and rapidly spinning neutron star. The data collected in this experiment came from the Crab Pulsar – one of the most well-studied and, until now, among the best understood astronomical objects in the universe. But this new data shows that there is still much to learn about this object as well as the physics that govern our galaxy.

“Right now there is no preferred mechanism or obvious answer to what accounts for this, so it is going to require a lot of work from both theorists and experimentalists over the next few years to really understand what is going on here,” Ong said.

The study is a collaborative effort from over 95 scientists from 23 institutions in five countries. Within the United States, UCLA and UCSC have scientists working on this project.

VERITAS includes a ground-based gamma ray observatory and part of southern Arizona’s Whipple Observatory. VERITAS utilizes a network of four telescopes, each 12 meters in diameter to look for radiation emanating from celestial objects such as pulsars, active galaxies, the center of the Milky Way and supermassive black holes.

“VERITAS is the premier instrument in the world to do this type of ground-based gamma ray astronomy. We have been operating since 2007 and we are right in the middle of an upgrade which will allow us to become state-of-the-art,” Ong said.

Ong finds it interesting that even now, decades after research into gamma ray research began, we still do not understand many of their mechanisms.

“It is really incredible that it can do this process that we don’t understand yet. To emit light at these unfathomable energies to us is just amazing,” Ong said.

Ong believes this research may shed some light on the complexity of mechanisms that govern our universe.

“The ultimate purpose is to understand the history of the universe, where we came from and where we are going,” Ong said.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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