Scientists working with data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have just glimpsed something truly marvelous: a huge particle accelerator sitting in a galaxy 67 million light-years away, and it could be the source of powerful cosmic rays that are beaming in our direction.
When you hear "particle accelerator," your first thought might be of the Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful particle accelerator and the largest machine in the world. Thus, learning that astronomers have just discovered a particle accelerator in a remote galaxy across the universe might elicit visions of extraterrestrial technology.
Fear not, however. Unlike our man-made concoction, the particle accelerator glimpsed in a galaxy far, far away is a completely natural phenomenon.
Astronomers believe that natural particle accelerators are created when supermassive black holes, which sit at the center of a galaxies, feed, or suck in surrounding material. As material whirls toward one of these ginormous black holes, it produces high-speed particles around the black hole's edges that are so energetic that powerful jets of plasma get spewed out at velocities approaching light speed.
The entire process produces what looks like a giant "superbubble" being blown from the galaxy's north and south poles. It's these superbubbles that are what the scientists were able to glimpse via Chandra. While we've witnessed superbubbles like this before, this is the first time the data provided evidence that this process produces a natural particle accelerator too, thus solidifying our theories about what these superbubbles are.
This natural particle accelerator is also way more powerful than anything we've ever produced on Earth. In fact, it's 100 times more energetic than anything we can produce with the Large Hadron Collider.
Interestingly, the sighting could also solve another mystery: the source of powerful cosmic rays that occasionally beam in our direction from outside the Milky Way. Scientists have been measuring these energetic bursts, but have no idea where they are coming from.
A galaxy-sized particle accelerator could certainly fit the bill. That is, assuming that a few rogue accelerated particles are capable of popping through their superbubbles to take an intergalactic voyage.
For now, this is all speculation, but it's an exciting new lead that could help us to understand more about the behavior of supermassive black holes, as well as other unexplained mysteries.
"Future deeper radio/X-ray observations, careful measurement and modelling of the magnetic field, as well as theoretical modelling of the superbubble in different scenarios, will help to better examine the nature of the hard X-ray excess in the SW bubble and to better understand the origin of galactic nuclear superbubbles," the researchers wrote in their paper.