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The Most Energetic Mystery in the Universe

March 25, 2009 on 1:05 pm | In Astronomy, Physics, black holes |

When we look out at galaxies, we find the most energetic particles we’ve ever found anywhere in the Universe coming from their centers. Why?

Because as far as we can tell, all galaxies, at their centers, have huge, supermassive black holes! When matter (like a star, globular cluster, intra-galactic gas, etc.) gets too close to one of these black holes, it gets ripped apart, and settles into a disk around the black hole. This disk is called an accretion disk:

Like everything in a strong gravitational field that moves, these particles radiate (give off high-energy photons), fall in towards the center of the black hole, and sometimes get accelerated and shot out of the galaxy!

For a galaxy like ours, with a black hole a few million times as massive as our Sun, we can get extremely energetic particles out: up to 1018 eV, which is 70,000 times more energetic than the LHC!

But our black hole is kind of a commoner — a weakling, even — when you look at other galaxies. There are huge galaxies out there, such as active galaxies and quasars, where instead of a few million times as massive as our Sun, their black holes are billions or even tens of billions times as massive as our Sun:

Well, in theory, the energies of these particles can be thousands or even tens of thousands of times higher than what our galaxy can produce! We’re talking about energies of 1022 eV, which is not only insane, it’s impossible!

Why? Because there’s a maximum energy that particles traveling through the Universe can have. There’s a bath of leftover light from the Big Bang permeating the entire Universe: the CMB. If you smash a particle with too much energy into one of these CMB photons (which is unavoidable as you travel millions of light years), it causes these high-energy particles to slow down until they’re below the “speed limit”. (Okay, it’s an energy limit, but it’s really close enough.)

And unlike cops that pull you over, the light that fills outer space slows you down until you’re below the cosmic energy limit: 5.7 x 1019 eV. Well, do we see a cutoff there?

Maybe. The AGASA experiment says no, there is no cutoff, but the Pierre Auger Observatory says yes, there is one. Who’s right? On one hand, we’ve definitely seen events where we’ve measured more energy than should be allowed. It may mean our theories need revising, or it may mean that there’s something super-energetic happening in our own backyard that we don’t know about. Or — on the other, more boring hand — perhaps we’ve just done a bad job of measuring things at very high energies. Whatever the case, explaining these events that exceed the cosmic energy limit of the Universe is, in fact, the most energetic mystery in the Universe!


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  1. I once broke Lorentz Invariance to try and explain UHECRs.

    Never again.

    Comment by James Chisholm — March 25, 2009 #

  2. This article has been added to the Astronomy Link List.

    Comment by Astronomy Link List — March 26, 2009 #

  3. Lorentz Invariance is like silly putty: you can try to break it, but it refuses to stay broken.

    Comment by ethan — March 26, 2009 #

  4. Do you have a bit of explanation on how the jets are produced? According to Wikipedia, this is a still unsolved problem in astrophysics - they essentially only say that it probably has something to do with “twisted magnetic fields”…

    Although, is there a formula for the maximum energy which a particle in such a jet can have, depending on the mass of the Black Hole? You wrote that Black Holes which are more massive than the one in the center of the Milky Way could produce particles with energies thousands of times higher than the ones produced by the Milky Way; is this “thousands of times” only an estimate, or can one calculate that?

    Comment by Bjoern — March 26, 2009 #

  5. Oops, I meant “also”, not “although”. ;-)

    Comment by Bjoern — March 26, 2009 #

  6. Bjoern,

    This paper:

    shows how to estimate the maximum energy of particles ejected from our black hole. By substituting in another mass, i.e., another black hole, you could estimate the energy from that as well. That is how I arrived at my number.

    (You know that wikipedia is only as good as the people who write it!)

    The jets are something we have been able to reproduce numerically and computationally for many years, but do not yet have a good, simple, analytic explanation for.

    Comment by ethan — March 26, 2009 #

  7. Thanks! But: is there nevertheless a good, simple, explanation which can be given in some few sentences? ;-)

    Comment by Bjoern — March 27, 2009 #

  8. […] Ethan Siegel at Starts With A Bang shares his love for supermassive black holes, explaining that the most energetic particles in the Universe originate from galactic cores. However, there’s a huge mystery. The particles being emitted from the black hole location are too energetic. I’ll let Ethan explain that one… […]

    Pingback by The Carnival of Space Week 96 | — March 30, 2009 #

  9. BomadK

    Comment by Golvnbdc — July 13, 2009 #

  10. You say that super charged particles can’t be possably because it would hit (CMB) but…..
    i have to disagree beings as i don’t fully understand this stuff I will try to explain myself,
    As are universe is expanding it is impossable to say “there is no empty space” being the fact the universy is expanding that is a false remark. Being as the (CMB) would be moving out word with the universy it makes seen that paticles are able to generate that much power. However only for a short periode of time.

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