Superstar system is shooting cosmic rays to earth

Hubble Image of Homunculus Nebula

A new study by NASA has found that the most luminous and massive star system within 10,000 light-years, Eta Carinae, is shooting cosmic rays to Earth.

"We know the blast waves of exploded stars can accelerate cosmic rays to speeds comparable to that of light, an incredible energy boost", said NASA astrophysicist Kenji Hamaguchi.

Also, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space telescope had been previously detecting gamma rays that contained X-rays with greater energy compared to other similarly detected gamma rays.

These cosmic rays are "one of our few direct samples of matter from outside the solar system", NASA explains, and pack more than one billion electron volts (eV) of energy.

When the particles reach Earth as cosmic rays, they collide with magnetic fields, usually making it hard for astronomers to track where they come from. But because the paths of cosmic rays are scrambled by magnetic fields, tracing their origins is quite hard.

Between 1838 and 1845, Eta Carinae underwent a period of unusual variability during which it briefly outshone Canopus, normally the second-brightest star.

In five and half years, the two stars in the system come within 230 million kilometers of each or roughly the average distance between Sun and Mars. Colliding stellar winds within Eta Carinae, which is surrounded by an hourglass dust nebula, have now been confirmed as a reason for the energy patterns in the region. "Where these winds clash changes during the orbital cycle, which produces a periodic signal in low-energy X-rays we've been tracking for more than two decades".

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope earlier observed a change in gamma rays from a source in the direction of Eta Carinae.

Before, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope noticed that Eta Carinae emits a high-energy gamma-ray signature, but, as the observations were not very accurate, scientists made no clear link between these radiations and the before-mentioned binary star system.

The low energy X-rays, as previously suggested, was a result of the collision between hot stellar winds going up to 40 million degrees Celsius, but the "hard" X-rays had energies more than 30,000 electron volts, which is much more than what could be explained by the collision of winds.

Some of these X-rays were even higher that they can only be coming from shock waves produced by colliding winds. For comparison, the energy of visible light ranges from about 2 to 3 eV.

Some of these extremely fast particles crash into starlight, which boosts their light's energy, turning them into X-rays and even gamma rays, reveals the new study.

Eta Carinae has been a source of mystery and fascination for nearly two centuries. Before this, the origin of some unique X-rays and gamma rays detected on Earth was a mystery to experts. However, it is only until now that scientists were sure that these energies are reaching the Earth in the form of cosmic rays. "But until NuSTAR was able to pinpoint the radiation, show it comes from the binary and study its properties in detail, the origin was mysterious", said Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR's principal investigator and a professor at Caltech. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia.

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