The Facts about Cosmic Rays

“Cosmic rays” is a blanket term used to describe high energy radioactive space particles that shower the Earth’s surface. Science fiction writers often use the term to explain some strange phenomena in their stories or they give the heroes special powers. Thus, there are a few general types of these space particles.

Galactic Cosmic Rays are particles that originate outside of our solar system. Anomalous Cosmic Rays travel from the edge of the heliopause, the boundary of the solar system where outgoing solar winds meet incoming plasma from interstellar space. The term also includes X-rays and gamma rays. Scientists study these heavenly bodies in order to decipher information about the Sun and other distant galaxies.

Scientists have been interested in cosmic rays since the beginning of the 20th century. They begin to notice the high levels of radiation in the environment that could not have originated from natural sources. In 1912, Austrian scientist Victor Hess decides to take his radiation counter on a balloon flight. He manages to reach 17,500 feet without oxygen and observes that radiation reading increase the higher the balloon ascends. Hess’s discovery establishes that radiation is formed in outer space. The term cosmic radiation is born.

These subatomic particles can vary between high energy and low energy rays. The majority of cosmic rays that reach the Earth’s surface are low energy, at a rate of thousands per square meter per second. On the other hand, high energy cosmic rays are rare, reaching Earth’s surface maybe once in a century. The rarity of high energy rays makes them hard to detect.

From the information that scientist have been able to collect, they have concluded that most cosmic rays are protons. However, they can be heavier, even as heavy as uranium nuclei. Because most of cosmic rays are protons, they are positively charged particles. A tiny portion of these rays are photons, as gamma rays, and are essential in studying the origin of cosmic rays because of their lack of electrical charge. These uncharged particles are not deflected by the galactic magnetic field when they reach the Earth.

Cosmic rays affect the Earth in a number of ways. As ambient radiation, they are part of the total amount of radiation to which humans are exposed. They also affect electronic devices, from corrupting computer memories to causing satellites to function incorrectly. They are even suspected of triggering electrical breakdowns in lightning. Scientists are even disputing whether or not cosmic rays are responsible for some of the extreme climate changes that the Earth is experiencing. When it comes to space travel, they can serve as a barrier for launching spacecrafts.

There are still questions that scientist have about these strange particles that fall from the sky. As research advances, there will likely be more revealed about how they affect the Earth’s environment.