We spend our lives being bombarded by sub-atomic particles. Each second, about five travel through the top of your head. Sub-atomic particles are produced in the Earth’s atmosphere by cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles that start out life in deep space.

Cosmicrays -1-320An artist's impression of cosmic rays arriving in the Earth's atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Cosmic rays were discovered 100 years ago, but their origin still remains a mystery. In 1912, Victor Hess made his discovery by taking simple radiation detectors up in a hydrogen balloon. Now these particles, their origin and their effects on Earth are studied with experiments up mountains, in space, underground and in schools.

How it works

Cosmic rays are important for understanding the energy balance of the universe and the evolution of its building blocks. They are thought to come from some of the most violent places in the universe, such as jets of material launched from black holes or the remains of supernovae explosions.

On Earth, cosmic rays almost certainly played a role when life first began and during subsequent human evolution. They may also cause lightning and might even have a role in climate change.

This exhibit, which involves school teachers and pupils, presents experiments which study cosmic rays, including Auger, HESS and CTA. Deep in the Boulby Mine in Yorkshire, the SKY-ZERO experiment is investigating the role of cosmic rays in cloud formation by performing controlled experiments. In schools, research has concentrated on measuring cosmic ray flux on the ground and in space.


Additional resources


In the slideshow below, click on any of the images to read its description.


This video shows sixth form students from Simon Langton Grammar School for boys talk about the LUCID project.

This video is an animation of the construction of the school detectors.

This video is a tour of Auger with commentary by Professor Alan Watson.

This video is a reconstruction of a cosmic ray event traced back to a super massive black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A.