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Celestial Mystery Machine

High-energy gamma rays and cosmic rays flood the heavens and shower the earth. A new observatory is beginning to discover the secrets they carry about our galaxy and the universe beyond.
May 24, 2015
Celestial Mystery Machine

The hidden, very-high-energy workings of the universe just came into the full view of the newly operational High-altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory.

“HAWC covers two-thirds of the full sky during the course of the earth’s daily rotation,” explains Operations Manager Brenda Dingus. “It runs day and night, rain or shine. We are virtually guaranteed to make new discoveries.”

The High-altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC) is situated in the shadow of Mexico’s highest peak. From there, 300 tanks of pure water, more than 50,000 gallons in all, convert atmospheric signals from incoming gamma rays and cosmic rays into detectable flashes of light. Those incoming rays typically come from the most energetic places in the universe, including supernova-explosion shockwaves, highly magnetized neutron stars, bursts of new star formation, black holes, and more. These are the universe’s great particle accelerators, regularly carrying out physical experiments too energetic to be carried out in man-made accelerator laboratories here on earth. Yet HAWC, an international collaboration between more than 30 institutions in the United States and Mexico, consistently keeps 300 eyes on them.