U of M astrophysics grad student pinpoints particles in ‘Space Manatee’

A University of Manitoba (U of M) grad student has helped confirm theories about an unusually-shaped object in space more 18,000 light years away.

The Manatee Nebula is named such because astronomers who photographed it in 2013 thought it looked just like the aquatic mammal known for frequenting Florida waters. “They noticed that when they shaded this nice image in blue…the shape of the nebula looked like a manatee laying on its back,” said Brydyn Mac Intyre, a graduate student who has spent the past three years studying the phenomenon, “that’s how it first rose to fame.”

Mac Intyre is working towards his Ph.D. in High Energy Astrophysics at the U of M, and says the project fell in his lap at just the right time. “This is the first thing I started in my graduate research, and it’s brand new data,” which is unusual, he says, “I felt really lucky to be able to tackle such a unique object.”

What Mac Intyre found by studying the x-ray spectrum of the space manatee was a “non-classical acceleration process,” meaning particles such as protons are injected and re-accelerated into immensely powerful jets of energy being emitted by a black hole.

“This acceleration is coming from materials spiraling down onto a black hole, then being shot out in jets and interacting with a supernova remnant,” said Mac Intyre, visibly excited about his discovery.

Mac Intyre has been working on the project with U of M astrophysicist Dr. Samar Safi-Harb, who theorized back in the 1990s that the system could accelerate particles to energies higher than in the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth, such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. This new data confirms her theory.

“This discovery challenges the theory of particle acceleration and points to injection and re-energization of the particle jets at large distances, nearly 100 light-years away from the black hole,” said Safi-Harb.

The project was an international collaboration, with scientists from Canada, the USA, Europe, and South Korea coming together to work on it. Mac Intyre says he’s grateful for the experience.

“I’m looking at doing the rest of my Ph.D. on similar things,” he said, “see if I can expand what we did for the space manatee out into more things like it in space.”

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