Suzaku explains cosmic powerhouses

December 20, 2007

GREENBELT, Md. - By working in synergy with a ground-based telescope array, the joint Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)/NASA Suzaku X-ray observatory is shedding new light on some of the most energetic objects in our galaxy, but objects that remain shrouded in mystery.

These cosmic powerhouses pour out vast amounts of energy, and they accelerate particles to almost the speed of light. But very little is known about these sources because they were discovered only recently. "Understanding these objects is one of the most intriguing problems in astrophysics," says Takayasu Anada of the Institute for Space and Astronautical Science in Kanagawa, Japan. Anada is lead author of a paper presented last week at a Suzaku science conference in San Diego, Calif.

These mysterious objects have been discovered in just the last few years by an array of four European-built telescopes named the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), located in the African nation of Namibia. H.E.S.S. indirectly detects very-high-energy gamma rays from outer space. These gamma rays are the highest-energy form of light ever detected from beyond Earth, so H.E.S.S. and other similar arrays have opened up a new branch of astronomy.

The gamma rays themselves are absorbed by gases high up in Earth's atmosphere. But as the gamma rays interact with air molecules, they produce subatomic particles that radiate a blue-colored light known as Cherenkov radiation. H.E.S.S. detects this blue light, whose intensity and direction reveals the energy and position of the gamma-ray source.

The H.E.S.S. observations were groundbreaking, but the array's images aren't sharp enough to reveal the exact location where particles are being accelerated or how the particles are being accelerated. To solve this problem, several teams aimed Suzaku in the direction of some of these H.E.S.S. sources. Any object capable of emitting high-energy gamma rays will also produce X-rays, and Suzaku is particularly sensitive to high-energy (hard) X-rays.

When Anada and his colleagues pointed Suzaku at a source known as HESS J1837-069 (the numerals express the object's sky coordinates), the X-ray spectrum closely resembled X-ray spectra of pulsar wind nebulae -- gaseous clouds that are sculpted by winds blown off by collapsed stars known as pulsars. Pulsar wind nebulae emit hard X-rays, and their X-ray output remains relatively constant over long timescales. "The origin of the gamma-ray emission from HESS J1837-069 remains unclear, but we suspect that this source is a pulsar wind nebula from the Suzaku observation," says Anada.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory have revealed that other H.E.S.S. sources are also pulsar wind nebulae. These combined gamma-ray and X-ray observations are revealing that pulsar wind nebulae are more common and more energetic than astronomers had expected.

Another group, led by Hironori Matsumoto of the University of Kyoto in Japan, targeted Suzaku on HESS J1614-518. This source belongs to a class of objects known as "dark particle accelerators" because their ultrahigh energies suggest they are accelerating particles to near-light speed, turning them into cosmic rays. But what are these objects, and what kinds of particles are being accelerated"

Although the nature of these objects remains a mystery, Suzaku's observations do reveal the identity of the particles. When electrons are accelerated to high speeds, they spiral around magnetic field lines that permeate space, generating copious X-rays. But since protons are 2,000 times more massive than electrons, they emit few X-rays. Matsumoto and his colleagues reported at the conference that HESS J1614-518 is a very weak X-ray emitter. "This result strongly suggests that high-energy protons are being produced in this object," says Matsumoto.

Suzaku also observed two other H.E.S.S. dark particle accelerators, but found no obvious X-ray counterparts at the H.E.S.S. positions. These sources must also be weak X-ray emitters, indicating they are accelerating mostly protons. As Matsumoto says, "Using the high sensitivity of the Suzaku satellite, we can find strong candidates for the origin of cosmic rays."

Launched in 2005, Suzaku is the fifth in a series of Japanese satellites devoted to studying celestial X-ray sources. Managed by JAXA, this mission is a collaborative effort between Japanese universities and institutions and NASA Goddard.
-end-


NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Gamma Rays Articles from Brightsurf:

Properties of catalysts studied with gamma ray resonance
Steam-assisted oil extraction methods for heavy deposits have long been the focus of attention at Kazan Federal University.

Strange gamma-ray heartbeat puzzles scientists
Scientists have detected a mysterious gamma-ray heartbeat coming from a cosmic gas cloud.

Physicists find ways to control gamma radiation
Researchers from Kazan Federal University, Texas A&M University and Institute of Applied Physics (Russian Academy of Sciences) found ways to direct high frequency gamma radiation by means of acoustics.

Excess neutrinos and missing gamma rays?
A new model points to the coronoe of supermassive black holes at the cores of active galaxies to help explain the excess neutrinos observed by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

APS tip sheet: correlating matter's distribution in the universe with gamma rays
Scientists present the first direct cross-correlation between dark matter and gamma ray emissions.

APS tip sheet: High energy gamma rays
Nine Galactic sources are the highest-energy gamma -ray sources ever detected, which could suggest the presence of Galactic accelerators.

First detection of gamma-ray burst afterglow in very-high-energy gamma light
An international team of researchers observe a gamma-ray burst, an extremely energetic flash following a cosmological cataclysm, emitting very-high-energy gamma-rays long after the initial explosion.

Gamma-ray bursts with record energy
The strongest explosions in the universe produce even more energetic radiation than previously known: Using specialised telescopes, two international teams have registered the highest energy gamma rays ever measured from so-called gamma-ray bursts, reaching about 100 billion times as much energy as visible light.

Hubble studies gamma-ray burst with highest energy ever seen
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has given astronomers a peek at the location of the most energetic outburst ever seen in the universe -- a blast of gamma-rays a trillion times more powerful than visible light.

The highest energy gamma rays discovered by the Tibet ASgamma experiment
The Tibet ASgamma experiment, a China-Japan joint research project, has discovered the highest energy cosmic gamma rays ever observed from an astrophysical source - in this case, the 'Crab Nebula.' The experiment detected gamma rays ranging from > 100 Teraelectron volts (TeV) to an estimated 450 TeV.

Read More: Gamma Rays News and Gamma Rays Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.