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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define cosmic rays and describe their composition
  • Explain why it is hard to study the origin of cosmic rays, and the current leading hypotheses about where they might come from

In addition to gas and dust, a third class of particles, noteworthy for the high speeds with which they travel, is found in interstellar space. Cosmic rays were discovered in 1911 by an Austrian physicist, Victor Hess, who flew simple instruments aboard balloons and showed that high-speed particles arrive at Earth from space ( [link] ). The term “cosmic ray” is misleading, implying it might be like a ray of light, but we are stuck with the name. They are definitely particles and have nearly the same composition as ordinary interstellar gas. Their behavior, however, is radically different from the gas we have discussed so far.

Victor hess (1883–1964).

Photograph of Victor Hess standing in the gondola of his research balloon.
Cosmic-ray pioneer Victor Hess returns from a 1912 balloon flight that reached an altitude of 5.3 kilometers. It was on such balloon flights that Hess discovered cosmic rays.

The nature of cosmic rays

Cosmic rays are mostly high-speed atomic nuclei and electrons. Speeds equal to 90% of the speed of light are typical. Almost 90% of the cosmic rays are hydrogen nuclei (protons) stripped of their accompanying electron. Helium and heavier nuclei constitute about 9% more. About 1% of cosmic rays have masses equal to the mass of the electron, and 10–20% of these carry positive charge rather than the negative charge that characterizes electrons. A positively charged particle with the mass of an electron is called a positron and is a form of antimatter (we discussed antimatter in The Sun: A Nuclear Powerhouse ).

The abundances of various atomic nuclei in cosmic rays mirror the abundances in stars and interstellar gas, with one important exception. The light elements lithium, beryllium, and boron are far more abundant in cosmic rays than in the Sun and stars. These light elements are formed when high-speed, cosmic-ray nuclei of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen collide with protons in interstellar space and break apart. (By the way, if you, like most readers, have not memorized all the elements and want to see how any of those we mention fit into the sequence of elements, you will find them all listed in Appendix K in order of the number of protons they contain.)

Cosmic rays reach Earth in substantial numbers, and we can determine their properties either by capturing them directly or by observing the reactions that occur when they collide with atoms in our atmosphere. The total energy deposited by cosmic rays in Earth’s atmosphere is only about one-billionth the energy received from the Sun, but it is comparable to the energy received in the form of starlight. Some of the cosmic rays come to Earth from the surface of the Sun, but most come from outside the solar system.

Where do they come from?

There is a serious problem in identifying the source of cosmic rays. Since light travels in straight lines, we can tell where it comes from simply by looking. Cosmic rays are charged particles, and their direction of motion can be changed by magnetic fields. The paths of cosmic rays are curved both by magnetic fields in interstellar space and by Earth’s own field. Calculations show that low-energy cosmic rays may spiral many times around Earth before entering the atmosphere where we can detect them. If an airplane circles an airport many times before landing, it is difficult for an observer to determine the direction from which it originated. So, too, after a cosmic ray circles Earth several times, it is impossible to know where its journey began.

There are a few clues, however, about where cosmic rays might be generated. We know, for example, that magnetic fields in interstellar space are strong enough to keep all but the most energetic cosmic rays from escaping the Galaxy. It therefore seems likely that they are produced somewhere inside the Galaxy. The only likely exceptions are those with the very highest energy. Such cosmic rays move so rapidly that they are not significantly influenced by interstellar magnetic fields, and thus, they could escape our Galaxy. By analogy, they could escape other galaxies as well, so some of the highest-energy cosmic rays that we detect may have been created in some distant galaxy. Still, most cosmic rays must have their source inside the Milky Way Galaxy .

We can also estimate how far typical cosmic rays travel before striking Earth. The light elements lithium, beryllium, and boron hold the key. Since these elements are formed when carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen strike interstellar protons, we can calculate how long, on average, cosmic rays must travel through space in order to experience enough collisions to account for the amount of lithium and the other light elements that they contain. It turns out that the required distance is about 30 times around the Galaxy. At speeds near the speed of light, it takes perhaps 3–10 million years for the average cosmic ray to travel this distance. This is only a small fraction of the age of the Galaxy or the universe, so cosmic rays must have been created fairly recently on a cosmic timescale.

The best candidates for a source of cosmic rays are the supernova explosions, which mark the violent deaths of some stars (and which we will discuss in The Death of Stars ). The material ejected by the explosion produces a shock wave, which travels through the interstellar medium. Charged particles can become trapped, bouncing back and forth across the front of the shock wave many times. With each pass through the shock, the magnetic fields inside it accelerate the particles more and more. Eventually, they are traveling at close to the speed of light and can escape from the shock to become cosmic rays. Some collapsed stars (including star remnants left over from supernova explosions) may, under the right circumstances, also serve as accelerators of particles. In any case, we again find that the raw material of the Galaxy is enriched by the life cycle of stars. In the next section, we will look at this enrichment process in more detail.

Key concepts and summary

Cosmic rays are particles that travel through interstellar space at a typical speed of 90% of the speed of light. The most abundant elements in cosmic rays are the nuclei of hydrogen and helium, but electrons and positrons are also found. It is likely that many cosmic rays are produced in supernova shocks.

Questions & Answers

what is comets , astroids ,
Sumit Reply
hi, I am yamini, I am in class 8 but very much interested in astronomy and go to NASA, what are the subjects in which I can master and lead to NASA.
yamini Reply
Hello Yamini, Im Ken and I'm avery intrested in joining the NASA too. Is nice to meet you.
Ken
very*
Ken
nice to meet u ken
yamini
What I know about the subjects is that you have to be a master on science and math, also if you know about aviation is better too
Ken
I read that the Russian language is very important, is not a requirement but it's like an extra point!
Ken
yeah like physics, chemistry and maths, they are my most favorite.
yamini
than you can go free of cost
Arush
Yes, That's right!
Ken
how
yamini
Oh! Free of cost?
Ken
hello yamini nice to meet you
Burak
what is time
Abdul Reply
Time is relative
mrunal
pls elaborate
sakshi
the clear defination.I know that.
Abdul
In planet mars there the life exits or not and is there water there
Eshwarsa Reply
see till now nothing can be found as u know that the curiosity rover has struck in mars
Maya
It has been proven that there are water molecules on Mars but not enough that most lifeforms could thrive upon.
Ariana
There are huge amounts of water in the ice caps and under the surface. The surface and chemistry indicate that Mars had cosiderable amounts of water on its surface in the past.
Julius
what is your opinion about the theory of Vedas about modern physics..
Manish Reply
i think in some ways vedas are also correct but not everytime
Maya
I agree
sakshi
hmm even I agree
Samuel
Is there any patened theory about time relativitg in growth and development?
donot Reply
some astronomer's says that there is no alien exist but why search for extra terrestrial intelligence center is established
Eshwarsa Reply
No One Knows That For Absolute Fact, The Universe Is Too Huge To Have Any Type Of Idea About What Exist In The Far Reaches Of Our Universe.....
Adam
Check Out The Drake Equation.....
Adam
their should be aliens as like ours there would be another planet
Maya
which could have existed life on it
Maya
adam i want to ask a question
Maya
can kepler 1st law be applied on all the planets of the universe
Maya
hello, anyone home?
Denise
sjskskfhjkkktewqqw and try?
Lanika Reply
what is this ?
Samuel
hi I am Samuel from India mumbai
Samuel
nice to meet you
Samuel
thats my question, what is this?
penzias and wilson's a discovery of the cosmic microwave background is a nice example of scientific serendipity-something that is found by chance but turns out to have a positive outcome
Jacqueline Reply
how should I make my carrier in astronomy
Ayush Reply
I think that Newton's third law is not appropriate if any also thinks like this please reply me
Ayush
Can you explain your reasoning
Huh
why u think so
joseph
yes Ayush u are right
Yoganshu
I think when we apply force to a object it start moving but , a/c to Newton's third law every action has equal and opposite reaction,so object should also exert equal force on us and it should not move due to balanced force
Ayush
if I am not right then reply me
Ayush
no
Zack
because of friction that opposes that force and help us to move ahead
Manish
but this is not satisfied as third law say another thing
Ayush
you are telling why object moves
Ayush
you have to think a/c to third law
Ayush
its because of its mass
Maya
because it is applying equal and opposite force but also our mass is also less in comparison to the object
Maya
which is why we cant move the object but it can make move us
Maya
manish is too correct in his place because we need to apply force which would overcome the frictional force
Maya
My dear friends, can u plz tell me that among u guys who are in the field of cosmology
Madhav Reply
😢I am not there in cosmology
Samuel
Just A Science Fan.....
Adam
Adam even I am 😥😅😅😂😂
Samuel
I am also not in cosmology but I am just a fan or we can say science and part of NASA is my dream
Yoganshu
yoganshu Arya same here
Samuel
you are from which country
Yoganshu
hi yoganshu
Samuel
India
Samuel
which state
Samuel
I am also from India
Yoganshu
from delhi
Yoganshu
and u...?
Yoganshu
I am from Maharashtra
Samuel
from which state?
Yoganshu
You are a ASTRONOMER ...
Yoganshu
or a scientist..
Yoganshu
or just a member
Yoganshu
What is time...? not about Newton= time is constant..... that all scientists openions n point of view I m knowing. . what can be the Perfect Definition of Time
Madhav Reply
time is what clock reads
Ayush
Who is the best astronomer of India at present time
Gian Reply
Jayant Narlikar, Proponent Of Steady State Cosmology.....
Adam
What is the real colour of sun rays
Gian Reply
white.. so white it becomes violet.. so violet it become ultraviolet
Tom
white and red and yellow
Bianca
Vibgyor
Samuel
the real colour of sunlight is White
Madhav
the Sun's has a variety of waves all throughout the elextromagnetic spectrum.
Jacie
we only see it as a few bc of how some of them get redshifted (? can that term be applied for something so local?) by some particles in our upper atmosphere
Jacie
Vibgyor will be when, the white light will pass through the clouds ( prism ) then Refraction phenomenon leads us to 7 colours splitting from a single colour "White " light
Madhav
so the sun rays r of White colour
Madhav
Taurus in astronomy and horoscope?
Yasser Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Astronomy. OpenStax CNX. Apr 12, 2017 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11992/1.13
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