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Helping unlock mysteries of rare cosmic rays

15 January 2019

UK scientists, as part of an international team, have helped to design and build a prototype particle detector that aims to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding rare cosmic rays that enter Earth’s atmosphere from deep space.

Cosmic rays are made up of highly energetic atomic nuclei and other particles, travelling through space at almost the speed of light. Even though physicists and astronomers have known about the existence of cosmic rays for over a hundred years, very little is known about where they come from or about the particles they’re made of. The challenge for astronomers trying to detect and analyse these rays is that they're very rare, with an observatory seeing only one or two of the more energetic ones per hour.

Scientists from the University of Manchester, as part of an international team, have developed a particle detector that will enable the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope to study cosmic rays. The prototype is first being deployed and tested at the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in Western Australia, which will also be the site of the low frequency antennas of the SKA.

Dr Justin Bray, who is based at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics says: “The key attribute of cosmic rays that we'd like to measure is what types of particles they are. We know that they're atomic nuclei, stripped of all their electrons, with a mixture of elements ranging from hydrogen up to iron.

“But the exact mix of what they’re made of is difficult to discern. If we can find that out it will provide key information about how they're produced and how they get to us.”

The detector works by analysing the particles that reach ground level after a cosmic ray smashes into our atmosphere, generating “exotic particles” you wouldn’t usually find on Earth.

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by SKA Organisation based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester. STFC represents the UK as part of the SKA consortium and funds the UK involvement in what will the largest-ever radio astronomy project.

More information is available on the Manchester University website.

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by SKA Organisation based at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester. The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes or instruments, called an array, to be spread over long distances. The SKA is to be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 (called SKA1) in South Africa and Australia; Phase 2 (called SKA2) expanding into other African countries, with the component in Australia also being expanded.

Already supported by 10 member countries – Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom – SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions across 20 countries in the design and development of the telescope. Construction of the SKA is set to start in 2018, with early science observations in 2020.

Last updated: 15 January 2019


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