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Cosmic-ray air showers are caused when high energy particles from outside the atmosphere collide with molecules in the air. Illustration: Simon Swordy, NASA
Cosmic-ray air showers are caused when high energy particles from outside the atmosphere collide with molecules in the air. Illustration: Simon Swordy, NASA

Natural Selections: Cosmic Rays

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Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager discuss cosmic rays. While many people may think cosmic rays only affect astronauts or satellites--objects in space--computers and other electronic equipment on Earth can be affected too.

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Cosmic rays are a curiosity to most of us because we don’t normally deal with them in our daily lives all that much. Although they interact with us in ways were not normally aware of.

There are not exactly rays; they’re particles—more like a hail storm, or buckshot blowing through space, said Stager, and no one is certain how they arise—maybe from exploding stars or maybe black holes. When people look out in space trying to tell where this stuff is coming from, it’s not random. It is coming from certain locations, such as other galaxies.

Particles spray out in all directions. Most of it is protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, which are the main components of stars. If you leave the shelter of Earth, you are exposed to damage from these high-speed particles.

We take Earth’s protection for granted. Space is full of this dangerous storm of radiating particles. “We actually have two really effective shields to protect us from it,” said Stager— Earth’s blanket of air and its magnetic field.

“A lot of these particles have a charge on them, mostly positive, some are negative. And that means if you have any magnetism around you can draw them away or push them away.” Earth’s magnetic field is a sort of this umbrella made of magnetism that diverts particles.

Particles that do make it through the magnetic field collide with air molecules before they can hit us. So the atmosphere forms a protective blanket. If we could see these collisions, Stager said, “it would look like exploding fireworks all the time in the atmosphere. One of these high-energy protons comes in and hits an air molecule and shatters pieces off that keep going and break other ones off.”

The farther you go from the surface of the Earth, the thinner the atmosphere and the less protected you are. A big burst of cosmic radiation can damage or destroy satellites. But even down here on the ground level they can occasionally disrupt electronic transmissions.

As we make our computers and microprocessor smaller and smaller, they become more sensitive to disruption from cosmic rays, said Stager. “I read that Intel is actually preparing for this, putting little cosmic ray detectors in their little tiny microprocessors. So that if they do get hit by a cosmic ray event, they then repeat the last command they were working on. So you don’t loose the flow of your functioning in your machine. Which will be kind of nice if it is in an airliner…”

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