A network of instruments set up to detect showers of high-energy particles raining down on Earth is being installed in Wales for the first time.
The particles, known as cosmic rays, travel from deep space at nearly the speed of light and are thought to originate from the regions around black holes and exploding stars. They’ve been hitting the earth and other planets since the solar system formed.
By detecting cosmic rays, scientists worldwide hope to learn more about some of astronomy’s biggest questions, such as the origin of the Universe, the death of stars, and how galaxies and black holes form. On Earth, observations of cosmic rays have also been used to “look inside” volcanoes, and recently helped discover a large hidden chamber in the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The network’s first detector has already been installed on the roof of Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy near the city centre. A second detector is currently under construction at Swansea University, with plans for a third at the proposed Oriel Science exhibition centre in the Swansea city centre.
The team is exploring the possibility of installing another detector at a school in Wales; the network will also be used as an educational resource for schoolchildren across Wales.
The £93K “QuarkNet Cymru” project is being funded by the Welsh Government’s National Science Academy and links Wales to two major international projects – the “High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics” (HiSPARC) in Europe, and US-based “QuarkNet” programme.
When a cosmic ray encounters the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates a cascade of secondary particles called muons which spread out as they travel to the ground. By using detectors sensitive to muons, the schoolchildren will be able to work with the data to find out information about the original cosmic ray, such as its energy and where it came from in the sky.