BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo

Cosmic ray


Of primary cosmic rays, which originate outside of Earth's atmosphere, about 99% are the nuclei of well-known atoms (stripped of their electron shells), and about 1% are solitary electrons (similar to beta particles). Of the nuclei, about 90% are simple protons (i.e., hydrogen nuclei); 9% are alpha particles, identical to helium nuclei; and 1% are the nuclei of heavier elements, called HZE ions. These fractions vary highly over the energy range of cosmic rays. A very small fraction are stable particles of antimatter, such as positrons or antiprotons. The precise nature of this remaining fraction is an area of active research. An active search from Earth orbit for anti-alpha particles has failed to detect them.

After the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896, it was generally believed that atmospheric electricity, ionization of the air, was caused only by radiation from radioactive elements in the ground or the radioactive gases or isotopes of radon they produce. Measurements of increasing ionization rates at increasing heights above the ground during the decade from 1900 to 1910 could be explained as due to absorption of the ionizing radiation by the intervening air.

In the 1920s, the term cosmic rays was coined by Robert Millikan who made measurements of ionization due to cosmic rays from deep under water to high altitudes and around the globe. Millikan believed that his measurements proved that the primary cosmic rays were gamma rays; i.e., energetic photons. And he proposed a theory that they were produced in interstellar space as by-products of the fusion of hydrogen atoms into the heavier elements, and that secondary electrons were produced in the atmosphere by Compton scattering of gamma rays. But then, sailing from Java to the Netherlands in 1927, Jacob Clay found evidence, later confirmed in many experiments, that cosmic ray intensity increases from the tropics to mid-latitudes, which indicated that the primary cosmic rays are deflected by the geomagnetic field and must therefore be charged particles, not photons. In 1929, Bothe and Kolhorster discovered charged cosmic-ray particles that could penetrate 4.1 cm of gold. Charged particles of such high energy could not possibly be produced by photons from Millikan's proposed interstellar fusion process.

Homi J. Bhabha derived an expression for the probability of scattering positrons by electrons, a process now known as Bhabha scattering. His classic paper, jointly with Walter Heitler, published in 1937 described how primary cosmic rays from space interact with the upper atmosphere to produce particles observed at the ground level. Bhabha and Heitler explained the cosmic ray shower formation by the cascade production of gamma rays and positive and negative electron pairs.

In 2017 the Pierre Auger Collaboration published the observation of a weak anisotropy in the arrival directions of the highest energy cosmic rays. Since the Galactic Center is in the deficit region, this anisotropy can be interpreted as evidence for the extragalactic origin of cosmic rays at the highest energies. This implies that there must be a transition energy from galactic to extragalactic sources, and there may be different types of cosmic-ray sources contributing to different energy ranges.

This abundance difference is a result of the way secondary cosmic rays are formed. Carbon and oxygen nuclei collide with interstellar matter to form lithium, beryllium and boron in a process termed cosmic ray spallation. Spallation is also responsible for the abundances of scandium, titanium, vanadium, and manganese ions in cosmic rays produced by collisions of iron and nickel nuclei with interstellar matter.

Satellite experiments have found evidence of positrons and a few antiprotons in primary cosmic rays, amounting to less than 1% of the particles in primary cosmic rays. These do not appear to be the products of large amounts of antimatter from the Big Bang, or indeed complex antimatter in the universe. Rather, they appear to consist of only these two elementary particles, newly made in energetic processes.

Typical particles produced in such collisions are neutrons and charged mesons such as positive or negative pions and kaons. Some of these subsequently decay into muons and neutrinos, which are able to reach the surface of the Earth. Some high-energy muons even penetrate for some distance into shallow mines, and most neutrinos traverse the Earth without further interaction. Others decay into photon, subsequently producing electromagnetic cascades. Hence, next to photons electrons and positrons usually dominate in air showers. These particles as well as muons can be easily detected by many types of particle detectors, such as cloud chambers, bubble chambers, water-Cherenkov or scintillation detectors. The observation of a secondary shower of particles in multiple detectors at the same time is an indication that all of the particles came from that event.

There are two main classes of detection methods. First, the direct detection of the primary cosmic rays in space or at high altitude by balloon-borne instruments. Second, the indirect detection of secondary particle, i.e., extensive air showers at higher energies. While there have been proposals and prototypes for space and ballon-borne detection of air showers, currently operating experiments for high-energy cosmic rays are ground based. Generally direct detection is more accurate than indirect detection. However the flux of cosmic rays decreases with energy, which hampers direct detection for the energy range above 1 PeV. Both, direct and indirect detection, is realized by several techniques.

Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark has controversially argued that because solar variation modulates the cosmic ray flux on Earth, they would consequently affect the rate of cloud formation and hence be an indirect cause of global warming. Svensmark is one of several scientists outspokenly opposed to the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming, leading to concerns that the proposition that cosmic rays are connected to global warming could be ideologically biased rather than scientifically based. Other scientists have vigorously criticized Svensmark for sloppy and inconsistent work: one example is adjustment of cloud data that understates error in lower cloud data, but not in high cloud data; another example is "incorrect handling of the physical data" resulting in graphs that do not show the correlations they claim to show. Despite Svensmark's assertions, galactic cosmic rays have shown no statistically significant influence on changes in cloud cover, and demonstrated to have no causal relationship to changes in global temperature.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782