Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Seeing" Cosmic Rays

You"ve probably heard of "cosmic rays" before - it"s a term that is thrown about regularly in modern astrophysics and cosmology - but do you know what they really are?

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles with intrinsic mass. They can come from outside the solar system or from extreme solar events (like solar flares). Cosmic rays range from atomic nuclei that have had all of their surrounding electrons stripped away to more exotic particles that make up the standard model. Photons used to be considered cosmic rays; however, they are quanta of electromagnetic radiation that have no intrinsic mass; photons are known by their common names, such as "gamma rays" or "X-rays."

The origin of cosmic rays is unknown, but they are suspected to be born from supernovae, possibly from outside our galaxy. The highest energies produced by cosmic rays have been found to be 40 million times that of those produced in the Large Hadron Collider, but most don"t reach this extreme. Fortunately, our atmosphere protects us from the main front of this strange phenomenon, but out in space where there is no protection, cosmic rays damage equipment--such as microelectronics. However, contrary to popular sci-fi movies, they don"t cause the development of superhuman abilities (The Fantastic Four, anyone?). Studies have tried to detect these particles in a number of experiments, but it has proven difficult for ground-based equipment. They are most easily detected as primary rays in space or the upper atmosphere, and our most effective way of picking up these elusive particles hasn"t been with fancy equipment, but actually through our own eyes!

To learn more about cosmic rays, see:

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