The universe is a weird place. We’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of what makes physical reality tick here on Earth, while the goings-on of various objects and energies in space sometimes defy even our wildest scientific theories. Among the many unexplained phenomena we can observe with our scientific instruments are so-called cosmic rays, blasts of high-energy radiation that zoom through the universe close to the speed of light.
These ‘rays’ are actually band of particles made up of protons and the nuclei of common elements like hydrogen and iron and their energy levels are the strongest observed in nature, over 1,000,000 times stronger than what man-made particle accelerators can create. These particles are mostly deflected by the Earth’s atmosphere, but sometimes make it through where they can irradiate flight crews and even scramble electronic circuits.
For years, the source of these cosmic rays has eluded astronomers’ best attempts at explaining them. However, a groundbreaking study conducted at the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina might have finally found their source. After observing cosmic ray particles bombarding Earth for twelve years, a team of over 400 scientists believe they have pinpointed the source of these mysterious rays. According to their headache-inducingly technical publication in Science, the researchers believe the source of the 30,000 particles they observed is a distant region of space with an abnormally high concentration of galaxies.
The University of Adelaide’s Bruce Dawson says that this suggests that Earth is bombarded by stardust from the farthest reaches of space:
This clearly indicates an origin of particles outside of the Milky Way and is a very exciting outcome; the result of years of careful work with a highly tuned giant detector. This is the first conclusive evidence that real atomic material, not just star-light, arrives at Earth from distant galaxies.
This study has interesting implications for the formation of all the matter in the universe, possibly even confirming a ‘center’ out of which all matter is expanding. As Carl Sagan put it, "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff." But where did that stuff come from? Studies like this one make me wonder if there actually was a ‘beginning’ to it all or if everything has just always been. Perhaps the fact that our lives have a clear beginning and end make us try to force that type of narrative onto the universe around us. It’s kind of terrifying and reassuring at the same time to imagine that all that is has always been and always will be. Except for us, of course. We're all gonna die and rot in the ground.