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What are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic Rays

Cosmic rays are energetic particles originating from deep space that hit our atmosphere 30km above the Earth’s surface. They come from a variety of sources including our own Sun, other stars and distant interstellar objects such as black wholes, but most are the accelerated remnants of supernova explosions.

Although commonly called cosmic rays the term "ray" is a misnomer, as cosmic particles arrive individually as a primary particle, not as a ray or beams of particles. 90% are Protons, 9% helium nuclei, and the remainder electrons or other particels.

Matter smashing energy
When these primary particles hit, they do so with such tremendous energy they rip their way into our atmosphere with atom smashing power. Cosmic rays are commonly known to have energies well over 1020 eV (electron volts), far more than any particle accelerator built here on earth, like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

These interactions produce an exotic zoo of high energy particles and anti-particles high in the earth's atmosphere such as positive and negative pions and kaons that subsequently decay into muons and muon neutrinos (including cascades of protons and neutrons as a result of nucleonic decay). Where uncharged pions decay into pairs of high energy photons they become the starting points of large cascades of electrons, positrons and gamma rays. The resulting flux of particles at ground level consists mainly of muons and electrons/positrons in the ratio of roughly 75% : 25% still with energies greater than 4GeV travelling at near the speed of light ~0.998c.

Common interstellar events on earth of which most people are unaware
Muons created by the interaction of cosmic rays and our atmosphere lose their energy gradually. Muons start with high energies and therefore have the capacity to ionise many atoms before their energy is exhausted. Further, as muons have little mass and travel at nearly the speed of light, they do not interact efficiently with other matter. This means they can travel through substantial lengths of matter before being stopped. Consequently, muons are all around us, passing through just about everything. They can penetrate mountains, buildings, our bodies, and deep into the Earth’s surface, without anyone really being aware of their existence other than scientists and obsessive geeks

Time Travellers
Muons created by the interaction of cosmic rays are an everyday demonstration of Einstein's theory of relativity. A muon has a measured mean lifetime of 2.2 microseconds. Consequently, they should only be able to travel a distance of 660 metres even at near the speed of light and should not be capable of reaching the ground. However Einstein's theory showed that time ticks slowly for particles moving at speeds close to that of light. Whilst the mean lifetime of the muon at rest is only a few microseconds, when it moves at near the speed of light its lifetime is increased by a factor of ten or more giving these muons plenty of time to reach the ground.