Cosmic Rays To Be Studied By University Of Utah
September 26, 2012

Keck Foundation Funds Future Cosmic Ray Search

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

The University of Utah has plans to build a new observatory facility to study high energy cosmic rays, thanks to a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

These cosmic rays, which are 10 trillion times more energetic than particles emitted during a nuclear explosion, originate from violent cosmic events deep within the universe and hurtle their way towards Earth.

The grant will allow a team of researchers to develop a new tool for understanding how the universe evolved. They will use a technique known as "Bistatic Radar." This technique will attempt to use analog television transmitters and high-speed digital receivers to determine the range, direction and strength of high-energy particles in order to track the rays back to their origin. The team expects Bistatic Radar to be much less expensive than traditional cosmic ray detection techniques, which employ surface radiation detectors covering thousands of square kilometers of the Earth's surface and cost tens of millions of dollars.

The W.M. Keck Radar Observatory will be located in Millard County, Utah. It may initially be co-located with Utah's Telescope Array. The Array is the largest "conventional" cosmic ray observatory in the Northern Hemisphere currently. Co-locating them will enable comparison of the Keck Observatory's findings with those of a conventional observatory on an event-by-event basis, which will allow for the evaluation of radar scattering models.

The western deserts of Utah offer very low levels of light pollution and atmospheric aerosols, making it an ideal location for the detection and observation of cosmic rays. Utah's deserts are also highly radio-quiet, meaning there are low levels of human-generated high-frequency interference, making it uniquely suitable for testing of the radar technique.

"We are at the frontier in our understanding of the origin of the universe's most energetic particles," said John Belz, radar project director and research associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah. "These particles are hundreds of thousands of times more energetic than particles emitted from supernova explosions. Our main goal is to understand the origins of these rare cosmic rays, in order to gain a better understanding of some of the most violent processes shaping the universe."

Cosmic rays were discovered in 1912 by Victor Hess, and have since been determined to be subatomic particles and radiation of extra-terrestrial origin. The University of Utah's Fly's Eye Cosmic Ray Detector, which was located in the Dugway Proving Ground, recorded the highest energy elementary particle ever observed in 1991. This particle is thought to be a proton traveling close to the speed of light. This discovery initiated a search for cosmic origins that is ongoing today. High-energy cosmic particles are so rare that a square mile of Earth's surface might be impacted by one of these particles about once a century.

The University of Utah research team is partnering with scientists at the University of Kansas and the Brookhaven National Laboratory to create the W.M. Keck Radar Observatory facility.