COSMIC RAYS, A SCIENTIFIC MYSTERY
Every second, each square centimeter of us and our Earth is hit by about 10 000 cosmic rays, charged subatomic particles coming from outer space and that can reach very high energies. Their flow is particularly intense in the Arctic (and Antarctica), as they are attracted by the high magnetic field at the Earth’s Poles.
Discovered in 1912 by Austrian physicist Victor Hess (1936 Nobel Prize for Physics), more than 100 years later cosmic rays are still a new frontier in physics. High energy cosmic rays interacting with our atmosphere have travelled in the cosmos for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years. Their energy is so high that it cannot be generated by supernovae, pulsars or even black holes. Where do they come from? Their origin is not yet understood.
Polar QuEEEst, the cosmic ray explorer
Built by school students from Switzerland, Italy, Iceland and Norway at CERN, Polar QuEEEst is a special detector to catch cosmic rays coming from the distant regions of our universe. Three of these special “telescopes” will be built to measure the cosmic ray flux at different latitudes, with one of them on board Nanuq and the two others installed in the schools of the students from Italy and Norway who will build them. The project is part of the Extreme Energy Events - Science Inside Schools (EEE) project coordinated by the Museo storico della Fisica e Centro Studi e Ricerche Enrico Fermi (Centro Fermi), an Italian research institute with its headquarters in the historic building of the old Institute of Physics in via Panisperna in Rome, where Enrico Fermi made his famous studies on the importance of slowing down the neutrons to produce induced radioactivity. The EEE project combines an experiment on cosmic rays studies with an intense program of scientific culture dissemination with the direct participation of students from Italian high schools (more than 100 institutes presently involved). A network of 50 more sophisticated "telescopes" for cosmic rays is installed in Italy, all put in coincidence using GPS, with the goal to detect cosmic muons produced by primary cosmic rays of the highest energy. The Polar QuEEEst detectors will join the present network allowing the study of cosmic rays at latitudes till now not well covered. CERN, INFN Bologna and INFN Bari collaborate to this project.
Cosmic Rays and Climate Change
Cosmic rays are not just a puzzling scientific mystery to solve for physicists and astrophysicists. Recent studies suggest that cosmic rays may influence cloud cover either through the formation of new aerosols (tiny particles suspended in the air that can grow to form seeds for cloud droplets) or by directly affecting clouds themselves. The Earth’s global cloud cover has a crucial impact on climate and understanding how this works in detail is necessary to develop an effective mathematical model able to explain the past and predict the future evolution of the earth’s climate.
Check out this TED animation to know more about this.