From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published October 7, 2011 10:20 AM

Crab Blast

Imagine a sun shining more bright than our sun does. 10 times brighter and warmer? A thousand times? How about 50 billion times? An international team of scientists has detected the highest energy gamma rays ever observed from a pulsar, a highly magnetized and rapidly spinning neutron star. The VERITAS experiment measured gamma rays coming from the Crab Pulsar at such large energies that they cannot be explained by current scientific models of how pulsars behave, the researchers said. The results, published on Oct. 6 in the journal Science, outline the first observation of photons from a pulsar system with energies greater than 100 billion electron volts — more than 50 billion times higher than visible light from the sun.


The Crab Pulsar is a relatively young neutron star. The star is the central star in the Crab Nebula, a remnant of the supernova SN 1054, which was widely observed on Earth in the year 1054. Discovered in 1968, the pulsar was the first to be connected with a supernova remnant.

"This is the highest energy pulsar system ever detected," said Rene Ong, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy and spokesperson for the VERITAS collaboration. "It is a completely new and surprising phenomenon for pulsars."

Data were acquired for 107 hours over the course of three years by VERITAS's ground-based gamma ray observatory, which is part of southern Arizona's Whipple Observatory, a facility managed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) observes gamma rays using a network of four telescopes, each 12 meters in diameter.

Ong noted that all previous observations of pulsars indicated that the radiation cuts off at the high energies the team observed.

Gamma rays, the most energetic type of electromagnetic radiation, cannot be directed by lenses or bounced off mirrors like ordinary visible light, Ong said. Because the rays are invisible to the human eye, the only way telescopes on Earth can detect them is by observing the path they take as they are absorbed in the planet's atmosphere.

He calls the Crab system the "Rosetta Stone of astronomy," because astronomers and astrophysicists have observed this object at every conceivable wavelength of light.

"The Crab Pulsar is considered among the best understood systems in all of astronomy, yet here we have found something totally new," he said. "It is astronomy in a completely new light; we are seeing phenomena that you just can't explore with optical light or X-rays, or even low-energy gamma rays."

Light detected by the VERITAS experiment cannot be explained by curvature radiation, however, and likely comes from regions well outside the high-magnetic field region close to the neutron star, Ong said. While such energetic gamma rays have been observed elsewhere in the galaxy, the actual mechanism of how they are created in a pulsar is not fully understood.

The VERITAS experiment looks for radiation emanating from celestial objects such as pulsars, active galaxies, the center of the Milky Way and supermassive black holes. It has collected data for nearly 1,000 hours every year since it began operating in 2007.

Ong hopes his research may shed some light on the mystery of cosmic rays.

"We are bombarded by high-energy particles from all over the cosmos that reach unimaginable energies," he said. "These cosmic rays are an important energy source in our galaxy, yet we have no clue where they are coming from.

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