Our planet has recently been hit by the most powerful gamma-ray blast ever detected.
The blast was made up of high-energy protons and it was discovered by the team of Chinese and Japanese researchers working on the Tibet AS-gamma Experiment.
Gamma rays are usually emitted after a dramatic space event, such as a massive supernova explosion, and it seems that the source of the recent blast was a dying star going nova in the Crab Nebula.
The Crab Nebula is a cloud of gas and dust left behind by a giant explosion in the 11th century AD when a star died and went supernova. The blast was so bright that Chinese astronomers at the time were able to observe it. Scientists believe that, at the moment, the system contains a rapidly spinning star, called a pulsar, which rotates at high speeds and sends off beams of electromagnetic radiation into the universe.
Gamma-rays are extremely dangerous for us. If strong gamma-rays reach humans, they have the ability to kill them or alter their cells are cause cancer.
Fortunately, most of the particles in the blast were destroyed by the atmosphere before reaching our home planet’s surface. The team of scientists in Tibet used around 600 detectors to collect some of the remaining particles in 64 concrete barrels of water. After analyzing the particles, they discovered that the photons amitted 100 tera-electronvolts, which is ten times the maximum energy recorded when colliding particles using the Large Hadron Collider.
With the amount of information scientists have now about the Crab Nebula, after centuries of observing the system, they are still not able to find a complete explanation for why the nebula emits such powerful gamma rays.