Record-breaking light has more than a quadrillion electron volts of energy

Twelve gamma ray hot spots in space suggest our galaxy harbors powerful particle accelerators

LHAASO observatory

The LHAASO observatory (shown), in China, observes ultra high-energy light using detectors spread across a wide area that will eventually cover more than a square kilometer.

Institute of High Energy Physics/Chinese Academy of Sciences

The cosmos keeps outdoing itself.

Extremely energetic light from space is an unexplained wonder of astrophysics, and now scientists have spotted this light, called gamma rays, at higher energies than ever before.

The Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory, LHAASO, spotted more than 530 gamma rays with energies above 0.1 quadrillion electron volts, researchers report online May 17 in Nature. The highest-energy gamma ray detected was about 1.4 quadrillion electron volts. For comparison, protons in the largest accelerator on Earth, the Large Hadron Collider, reach mere trillions of electron volts. Previously, the most energetic gamma ray known had just under a quadrillion electron volts (SN: 2/2/21).

In all, the scientists spotted 12 gamma ray hot spots, hinting that the Milky Way harbors powerful cosmic particle accelerators. In order for gamma rays to reach such energies, electromagnetic fields must first rev up charged particles, namely protons or electrons, to immense speeds. Those particles can then produce energetic gamma rays, for example, when protons interact with other matter in space.

Scientists aren’t yet sure what environments are powerful enough to produce light with energies reaching more than a quadrillion electron volts. But the new observations point to two possibilities. One hot spot was associated with the Crab Nebula, the turbulent remains of an exploded star (SN: 6/24/19). Another potential source was the Cygnus Cocoon, a region where massive stars are forming, blasting out intense winds in the process.

LHAASO, located on Haizi Mountain in China’s Sichuan province, is not yet fully operational. When it is completed later this year, it is expected to find even more energetic gamma rays.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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