There’s Been a Huge Stellar Explosion in the Serpent Bearer Constellation

On the left you can see the dying red giant. On the right is the corpse-like white dwarf.

In the outer folds of space, some 5,000 light-years from Earth, two stars lurk in poetic lockstep. One is a red giant, blood-colored, colossal, and dying. The other is a white dwarf, eerily white, compact and dead. They lie in the constellation of the Ophiuchus and together they are known as RS Ophiuchi.

For decades, the burned-out corpse star has danced around its decaying companion, feeding on its hydrogen outer shell. But this waltz has a timer. Roughly every 15 years, the binary star system overheats, igniting one of the most extreme events in space — a thunderous nova, or explosion, releasing a shower of particles that rapidly accelerate to near the speed of light.

scientist watched RS Ophiuchi reach this turning point 1898, 1907, 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967, 1985 and 2006.

Then, in 2021, it happened again

According to a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature Astronomy, two ground-based telescopes captured the aftermath of the dramatic eruption just last year. And while we don’t have a Hubble-like image of a mushroom cloud in space, we may have something even more intriguing: gamma-ray observations.

Gamma Ray Notes

According to the study, when super-high energy particles, usually protons, collide, they are basically expected to emit two things – a fugitive new particle and a gamma ray. These rays are among the most energetic things in the universe. A single burst from them could radiate more energy than the sun in his whole lifetimeand they are powerful enough to travel thousands of light years without fading.

Due to the ultra-high power of RS Ophiuchi’s cyclic explosion, scientists had long theorized that some hyperfast particles ejected from the system would likely collide, creating these intense gamma rays. With the new study, that theory may just have turned into truth.

Last year, two telescopes, known as the MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov) telescopes, in the Canary Islands recorded some of the most energetic gamma rays ever seen coming from the red and white nova. The study’s researchers measured the radiation as 250 gigaelectronvolts, which is a hundred billion times more energetic than visible light rays we’re used to.

This discovery is particularly noteworthy for two reasons.

cosmic rays?

First of all, the find with MAGIC was an enormous effort. Researchers had to get those telescopes in place quickly as soon as other instruments warned them that RS Ophiuchi was about to explode. There wasn’t much room for error.

“The spectacular outburst of RS Ophiuchi shows that the fast response of the MAGIC telescopes really pays off: it takes them no longer than 30 seconds to steer to a new target,” says David Green, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Physics and co-author of the work, said in a statement.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, this discovery could help unravel one of the greatest mysteries of our universe: the mystery of cosmic rays.

First discovered in 1912 by an Austrian physicist named Victor Hesscosmic rays have since become an everlasting reminder of how little we know about the universe.

In short, these nimble bits are extraordinarily energetic atomic fragments raining down on earth at the speed of light and known to disrupt our human technology such as satellites or radio communications. But there’s a catch: Scientists can see, measure, and study them, but they still have no clarity on where they’re coming from.

However, because the MAGIC telescopes were successful in finding gamma rays associated with cosmic rays originating from RS Ophiuchi, “this also makes nova flares a source of cosmic rays,” Green said, but stressed that the nova gamma rays are likely cosmic rays act only in the immediate vicinity of RS Ophiuchi, which is very far from our planet.

But going forward, the team intends to keep using MAGIC and see if the telescopes can pick up gamma rays coming from violent events much closer to Earth.

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