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Where do high-energy particles come from?

Outside of Earth’s protective magnetic field, bombardments of high-energy particles are a real danger, a threat to craft and even astronauts. Efforts to determine when and where flare-ups of high-energy particles happen have been fruitless, until now. 

Scientists at Columbia University have used supercomputers to simulate when and how high-energy particles are created in environments such as the sun’s atmosphere.

“This exciting new research will allow us to better predict the origin of solar energetic particles and improve forecasting models of space weather events, a key goal of NASA and other space agencies and governments around the globe,” said study co-author Luca Comisso of Columbia University’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Laboratory.

Using supercomputers, Comisso and study co-author Lorenzo Sironi were able to simulate the sun and the complex movements of electrons and ions in the sun’s plasma. The research predicts that the sun can accelerate ions and electrons to nearly the speed of light. The results could possibly be confirmed by direct observation with the help of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the closest spacecraft to the sun. 

The researchers seek to answer questions long held about the origins and predictability of high-energy particles. The scientists are pleased with the results of their study but emphasize that there is much more we can learn by utilizing their techniques with supercomputers to address other questions. The information on high-energy particles also allows us to understand other astronomical phenomena far beyond our own sun.   

“Our results center on the sun but can also be seen as a starting point to better understanding how high-energy particles are produced in more distant stars and around black holes,” said Comisso. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what supercomputer simulations can tell us about how these particles are born across the universe.”

The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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