X-3 CONFIRMED AS GALACTIC SOURCE OF HIGH ENERGY GAMMA RAYS - THIS STAR'S
of Cygnus X-3 taken from the Chandra X-ray
Andrew Collins reports on why the recent announcement that a deep space object is the source of high energy gamma rays is so important to our understanding human evolution, and the origins of the world's first sky-religions
the prestigious journals
Nature and Science announced
that Cygnus X-3, either a black hole or neutron star located 30,000 light years
away in the constellation of Cygnus, the celestial swan, has now been shown to
produce periodic bursts of high energy gamma rays, the first confirmed source
in the Milky Way galaxy (Tavani et al, Nature, 2009 & Fermi LAT Collaboration
et al, Science, 2009. See also Reddy, 2009). This is a revelation, for extreme
cosmic radiation of this type is normally only associated with extra-galactic
objects such as quasars, powered by suspected super-massive black holes at the
heart of distant galaxies (also known as AGNs, "active galactic nuclei").
Scientists now believe that monitoring Cygnus X-3, in its role as a microquasar,
i.e. a smaller quasar inside our galaxy, might well lead to a better understanding
of the production of gamma rays in quasars.
This announcement is, presumably, wonderful news for astrophysics, but why is it so important to the person in the street? Well, the answer lies in the fact that Cygnus X-3's production of high energy gamma rays is merely one facet of its extraordinary influence on the solar system, for it is known to spew out electromagnetic radiation across a broad spectrum of frequencies, from radio waves and infrared radiation to higher frequency X-rays and cosmic radiation. This is because Cygnus X-3 has additionally been proposed as the galaxy's first "microblazar", a galactic form of a so-called "blazar".
shot from the Hubble Space Telescope of a relativistic jet
Cygnus X-3's role as a producer of high energy gamma rays, as well as its more controversial role as the galaxy's first microblazar (i.e. a local blazar), makes sense of something else we know about this strange star. It is one of the only known sources of cosmic rays, i.e. extremely high energy cosmic particles. These were first detected in the early 1980s by particle detectors in different parts of the world. At the time these facilities had just been switched on in the hope of detecting the decay of a sub-atomic particle known as the proton (see Cramer, 1985). Each was located underground, either in mountains (like the NUSEX facility in Mont Blanc, France) or deep inside mines (like the Soudan facility in Minnesota, USA). This was so that they shielded out any unwanted incoming cosmic radiation, which for the most part is unable to penetrate rock. Yet despite their best efforts, these proton detectors began detecting not the decay of the proton, but incoming cosmic particles from a single point source. They came in waves of precisely 4.8 hours (thus exactly five cycles a day), something that quickly revealed these particles' point of origin, for this was the time signature of Cygnus X-3, caused by the orbital motion of its suspected black hole or neutron star around its binary companion, a massive so-called Wolf-Rayet star, from which it steals gases, such as hydrogen and helium, in order to provide energy for its accretion disk.
These mysterious cosmic particles quickly gained the appellation "cygnons", although this was soon changed to the less potent, but equally revealing "cygnets", conjuring the vision of them being what Professor John G. Cramer of Washington University saw in 1985 in terms of "children of the swan" (Cramer, 1985), the swan being the Cygnus constellation's most popular identification in European star lore. Scientists will tell you that the existence of cygnets was never confirmed, so the evidence of their discovery at particle detectors such as NUSEX beneath Mont Blanc and Soudan in Minnesota has to be ignored; indeed, scientists who wrote papers on this subject were often ridiculed by their contemporaries. However, I can assure you that the cygnets from Cygnus never stopped coming, and that their detection has continued at facilities around the world, including the Soudan Mine in Minnesota (Allison et al, 1999).
is also toward Cygnus, known more popularly as the Northern Cross, that religious
buildings and structures have been aligned ever since the very first great stone
complexes were erected in southeast Turkey around 12,000 years ago. On top of
this, the Giza Pyramids, the Neolithic passage grave of Newgrange in Ireland,
Hindu temples in India, Olmec centers in Mexico, native American mound sites in
Ohio, and even a great stone circle in the shape of a boat in Sweden, all seem
to reflect a strong interest in the Cygnus constellation (see Collins, 2006 &
is this? Why so much interest in this one constellation? The answer lies initially
in the fact that some 17,000 years ago the stars of Cygnus occupied the position
of the northern celestial pole. This is the pivot point of the heavens around
which the heavens are seen to turn as viewed from anywhere in the northern hemisphere.
Secondly, Cygnus is located on the Milky Way in the region of the so-called Cygnus
Rift, where the starry stream divides into two separate rivers of stars due to
a long dark area of stellar debris, once seen as the entrance to a primordial
sky-world, or heaven, where life began, souls are created and the dead enter an
afterlife among the stars (see Collins, The Cygnus Mystery, 2006).
Beyond all this was the obvious cruciform appearance of the star cluster, or asterism, invoking the image not just of a bird in flight, but also a celestial cross - one that in Christian times quickly became identified with the Cross of Calvary, the One True Cross, rediscovered on Golgotha Mount by the Empress Helena in the fourth century AD.
See Cosmic Rays
is possible, yet even if it were true, pinning down the exact source of any incoming
cosmic rays responsible for such mutations is problematic, as nearly all cosmic
particles are positively charged, which means that they are deflected left, right
and centre by intense magnetic fields, both out in the galaxy and inside the solar
system. Only those particles that possess a neutral charge avoid being affected
in this way, and so reach us directly from source. However, tracing their source
via their trajectory has proved a tricky process, with no confirmed candidates
to date. In fact, other than the cygnets arriving directly from Cygnus X-3 there
are only a few other possible sources of cosmic rays inside our galaxy, the most
likely being an X-ray binary star called Hercules X-1, located around 20,000 light
It is reasonable to conclude that if cosmic rays do affect human evolution, then the cygnets of Cygnus X-3 have played some role in this process, particularly as it is suspected that this star has been in its current state of spontaneous, periodic activity for an estimated 700,000 years (Marti, 2005). This is when mankind's direct forerunners are known to have reached Britain. Although these so-called hominids (or hominins as the scientists like us to refer to them today) preceded the Neanderthals by as much as 500,000 years, they would appear to have been not unlike modern humans. As has been determined from a number of breathtaking discoveries in a thick clay layer dating back 700,000 years, exposed along a stretch of beach at Pakefield in Suffolk, these hominids used quite sophisticated hand tools made of flint (Kinver, 2005). Was it around this time that cosmic rays from Cygnus X-3 first began affecting human evolution?
is plausible. Yet more important is attempting to unravel Cygnus's overall impact
on humanity. Learn this and you will perhaps answer why the constellation became
so important to our Palaeolithic ancestors, when humanity was still creating fabulous
art in the caves of Western Europe. The key, I feel, is the simple fact that we
can see cosmic rays. This was first realized on the Apollo space missions during
the 1960s. When astronauts attempted to go to sleep, they began seeing flashes
of light before their eyes. This occurred either with their eyes open or closed;
it didn't matter which. In-flight experiments on subsequent missions determined
that what the astronauts were experiencing were cosmic rays producing a burst
of light as they decayed en route through the vitreous part of the eye.
effect had not really been noticed before, simply because down here on earth the
upper atmosphere shelters us from the brunt of cosmic radiation hitting the planet.
Moreover, we are rarely in a pitch black environment in which it might be possible
to witness a cosmic ray pass through our eyes. Yet it probably does occur, and
more frequently that is realized, just ask a caver who spends long periods underground.
They will tell you that they frequently witness unaccountable flashes of light
that seem objective, but are in fact probably only occurring inside the head.
I even found that miners who used to work in the Soudan iron mine in Minnesota,
before it became the site of an underground particle detector, would occasionally
see weird flashes of light in the total darkness. Were these, in fact, cosmic
rays inbound from Cygnus X-3, like those registered by the Soudan facility in
the 1980s? I'd like to think it was possible.
cosmic particles hit the atmosphere where they collide with atoms of oxygen and
nitrogen, breaking up to create showers of secondary particles. These then enter
the lower atmosphere, colliding with even more atoms to create even weaker secondary
particles. By the time these cascades of particles reach the ground, they are
basically harmless; if they weren't then humanity might never have evolved in
the first place. Only the most powerful cosmic primaries cause bigger problems,
and of these only a very small percentage reach the surface of the planet. Among
the cosmic particles that are able to reach the earth - in fact they pass right
through it - are neutrinos, neutrally charged particles with an extremely low
mass. They are produced during radioactive decay by stars, including, of course,
our own sun. Since neutrinos are unaffected by the same electromagnetic processes
that govern charged particles, they pass through the earth, and us, without interacting
at all. The only other cosmic particles that are known to penetrate the earth
to any depth are the cygnets from Cygnus X-3. Like neutrinos, they are neutrally
charged, yet unlike neutrinos, they do interact with matter, and that includes
all this means is that if you were hundreds of meters below the surface of the
planet, deep inside a cave, and you witnessed a blue-white flash before your eyes,
the chances are that this was in fact a cosmic ray. Yet since only a tiny percentage
of cosmic rays penetrate the earth, there has to be a small chance that what you
experienced was a particle inbound from Cygnus X-3, and this is important, for
it tells us something about why Cygnus might have attracted the attention of our
distant ancestors. For I can imagine that when experiences like this first started
occurring deep inside caves, the observer might have considered that a flash of
light under such circumstances had to mean something. If the person was a shaman,
perhaps, in some kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, then it is
plausible that the flash will have been seen as connected in some way with their
activities. Maybe they saw this seeing of the light as in some manner enlightening.
Just maybe the occurrence helped trigger other more profound visionary experiences
concerning the nature of life and our place in the universe.
time those who occupied the caves for religious purposes would, I sense, have
realized, eventually, that the flashes were more frequent, or pronounced, when
the Cygnus constellation was overhead, just as cygnets were found to be more easily
detected when Cygnus was high in the sky. If so, then this might well have helped
forge a spiritual link, not just with this particular cluster of stars, but also
the area of the Milky Way to which they occupied, i.e. the Cygnus Rift. In time,
a connection between the light triggering process underground and the Cygnus constellation
would surely have led to cosmological myths featuring both the astronomical position
of the asterism, and its abstract form as a bird (or indeed a cross), identified
most usually as a swan or goose flying, wings outstretched, down the Milky Way.
This avian form then became a symbol of divine knowledge and creative inspiration,
explaining why perhaps the mythical song of the swan came to represent the divine
source of inspiration for epic storytelling and poetry in Homeric tradition; Homer
himself being referred to as the Maeonian Swan, or the Swan of Meander.
first mortal poet in Greek Hellenic tradition was Orpheus, who was not only Homer's
mythical ancestor, but also one of the identities of the swan of Cygnus in classical
star lore. Orpheus was said to have been transformed into a swan and cast into
the sky next to his beloved lyre - the constellation of Lyra - after his body
was torn apart by the crazed female followers of the god Dionysius. In Pythagorean
tradition the souls of great poets were said to have become swans. The soul of
Apollo, the god of music and song, was thought to have been transformed in this
swan became a symbol of poetry and inspiration also in India, where in Hindu tradition
it is the vehicle of the goddess Saraswati, the consort of the creator god Brahma.
Indeed, it was Saraswati who is said to have alerted her husband to the sound
of the cosmic swan-goose hamsa, enabling him to effect the creation of the physical
universe. In Vedic star lore the stars of Cygnus were identified with the swan-goose
hamsa (Collins, 2006).
Elsewhere in the world the bird of Cygnus was seen as the creator of the cosmic egg that subsequently broke or opened to become the physical universe, and everything within it. It is also likely that very similar cosmogonies, featuring birds that bring forth the physical world, were inspired by earlier traditions linking the stars of Cygnus with the idea of cosmic creation. Whether such conviction was either directly or indirectly influenced by visionary experiences, triggered by cosmic rays seen as flashes of light by Palaeolithic shamans deep inside caves, is debatable. However, at the root of many ancient cosmologies is, I believe, a profound connection with the Cygnus constellation, and confirmation that one of its stars, Cygnus X-3, produced bursts of high energy gamma rays has moved us closer to understanding its greater influence on both human evolution and the origins of the world's earliest sky-religions.