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NASA's NuSTAR Telescope Enables Scientists To Learn About Cosmic Rays

Star explosion
NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Researchers at the University of Utah are collaborating with partners like NASA’s NuSTAR and international Telescope Array Project to learn more about cosmic rays. New technologies have made it possible for researchers to study stars light years away. And just recently they’ve discovered that superstars like Eta Carinae, are sending cosmic rays all the way to Earth.  

“Cosmic rays are just atoms moving near the speed of light that regularly collide into the atmosphere and are in fact passing through us right now,” said Daniel Wik, an assistant professor at the University of Utah in the Physics and Astronomy Department.

These particles, he says, move much faster than the ones propelled by the sun into our atmosphere, which cause visible effects like the northern lights.

“So those particles get captured by the atmosphere and in the magnetic field of the Earth and this is what causes the Aurora that you see in the northern hemisphere,” Wik said.

He said that data from NASA’s NuSTAR telescope allows scientists to observe parts of the electromagnetic spectrum in detail like never before.

“NuSTAR is the first focusing hard x-ray telescope in space,” Wik said.

Unlike the x-rays you might get in a doctor’s office, x-rays in space are much harder to capture. However NuSTAR helps to image these high energy x-rays and from this data, researchers can trace the rays back to their source, which was the case with Eta Carinae, a binary or 2-star system.

“Because these two stars are so close together their winds, so all the particles streaming out from them, those particles collide and produce this giant shockwave,” Wik said. 

When shockwaves occur, they have the potential to accelerate particles. Previously, supernovas, or star explosions, were the only known event to accelerate particles into cosmic rays. However, this research along with new technologies funded by the National Science Foundation indicate that binary star systems, like Eta Carinae, and black holes are also possible sources of cosmic rays.