Highest-Energy Photons Ever Recorded Blasted to Earth from the Crab Nebula

Energetic gamma rays thousands of light years away have been recorded by scientists, and it's the highest energy light ever measured.

High up on the Tibetan Plateau, also known as the 'Roof of the World,' is the Tibetan Air Shower Gamma Experiment, where a team of scientists and astronomers from China and Japan have just discovered the highest-energy light ever to be recorded from an astrophysical source. 


Photons coming from the Crab Nebula were measured at energies upward of 100 tera-electronvolts (TeV). Meaning, a trillion electron volts. One measured photon is roughly the equivalent of a falling ping-pong ball

That's a lot of ping-pong balls. 

The team on the Tibetan Plateau published their findings in the Physical Review Letters on Monday.

The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is a shattered piece of a huge star that ended in a supernova explosion, nearly a thousand years ago, when it reached Earth in 1054 CE.

Highest-Energy Photons Ever Recorded Blasted to Earth from the Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula. Source: R. Gehrz/NASA/JPL-Caltech

After shattering into many pieces, the star's detritus, now spread and grown, shine brightly in the night sky. They crackle low-energy waves and blast out high-energy gamma and x-rays.

What's so incredible with this recent discovery is that it's usually tricky for high-energy photons like gamma rays to even make it past the Earth's atmosphere. What the team of Chinese and Japanese scientists has done is to combine 597 detectors across 65,700 square meters of land.

Highest-Energy Photons Ever Recorded Blasted to Earth from the Crab Nebula
This image shows a composite view of the Crab nebula, an iconic supernova remnant in our Milky Way galaxy, as viewed by the Herschel Space Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Source: NASA

Additionally, eight feet under this array are 64 concrete barrels, filled to the brim with water, serving as extra detectors. 

In collecting their data, the researchers found 24 events greater than 100 TeV - all traceable back to the Crab Nebula. This makes it the highest ever recorded. A clear sign of the massive powerhouse of energy that lurks within the Crab Nebula. 

Highest-Energy Photons Ever Recorded Blasted to Earth from the Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova noted by Earth-bound chroniclers in 1054 A.D., is filled with mysterious filaments that are are not only tremendously complex, but appear to have less mass than expelled in the original supernova and a higher speed than expected from a free explosion. The Crab Nebula spans about 10 light-years. In the nebula's very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. The Crab Pulsar rotates about 30 times each second. Source: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)

It's not yet known how the Crab Nebula creates such high-energy gamma rays.

The Tibetan AS Experiment will keep looking for the answers, but as we've seen here, it takes years to amass data and to then go through it. 

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