Cosmic Rays

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Cosmic Rays. Cosmic rays are energetic particles that are found in space and filter through our atmosphere. Cosmic rays have interested scientists for many different reasons. They come from all directions in space, and the origination of many of these cosmic rays is unknown. Cosmic rays were originally discovered because of the ionozation they produce in our atmosphere. Cosmic rays also have an extreme energy range of incident particles, which have allowed physicists to study aspects of their field that can not be studied in any other way.

In the past, we have often referred to cosmic rays as "galactic cosmic rays", because we did not know where they originated. Now scientists have determined that the sun discharges a significant amount of these high-energy particles. "Solar cosmic rays" (cosmic rays from the sun) originate in the sun's chromosphere. Most solar cosmic ray events correlate relatively well with solar flares.

Scientists have postulated that cosmic rays can affect the earth by causing changes in weather. Cosmic rays can cause clouds to form in the upper atmosphere, after the particles collide with other atmospheric particles in our troposphere. The process of a cosmic ray particle colliding with particles in our atmosphere and disintegrating into smaller pions, muons, and the like, is called a cosmic ray shower. These particles can be measured on the Earth's surface by neutron monitors.

cosmic ray shower icon Click on figure to view a diagram of a cosmic ray shower

Neutron Monitors. Ground-based neutron monitors detect variations in the approximately 500 Mev to 20 GeV portion of the primary cosmic ray spectrum. This class of cosmic ray detector is more sensitive in the approximate 500 Mev to 4 GeV portion of the cosmic ray spectrum than are cosmic ray muon detectors. The portion of the cosmic ray spectrum that reaches the Earth's atmosphere is controlled by the geomagnetic cutoff which varies from a minimum (theoretically zero) at the magnetic poles to a vertical cosmic ray cutoff of about 15 GV (ranging from 13 to 17) in the equatorial regions. (Note: GeV is a unit of energy, GV is a unit of magnetic rigidity).

The primary cosmic ray particles interact with the atmosphere and generate secondaries, some of which will reach the surface of the Earth. In high latitude regions of the Earth, where the geomagnetic cutoff is low, the lower threshold response of the neutron monitor is controlled by the atmospheric mass (about 1030 grams at sea level) which limits the response threshold of the neutron monitor to primary radiation of about 430 MeV. (At the South Pole, where the surface is 2820 M above sea level, the reduced atmospheric mass lowers the primary radiation detection threshold to about 300 MeV). At mid-latitudes or equatorial latitudes, the detection threshold is controlled by the geomagnetic cutoff. Neutron monitors at high altitudes have higher counting rates than neutron monitors at lower altitudes because of the atmospheric absorption of the cosmic ray secondaries generated near the top of the atmosphere.

When the secondary cosmic rays interact in the monitor, (actually in lead surrounding the counters) they cause nuclear disintegrations, or stars. These stars are composed of charged fragments and neutrons typically in the energy range of tens to hundreds of MeV, even up to GeV energies. As a result of these high energy nuclear interactions, there will be more secondary fragments generated than incident particles and hence there is a multiplier effect for the counters. The neutrons are moderated and then counted using Boron tri-fluoride (BF3) proportional counters which are efficient thermal neutron detectors; hence the name neutron monitor. The original design is often designated as an IGY neutron monitor. A description of this type of instrument is given by Simpson, (Annals of the IGY, Vol. 4, pp. 351-373, 1957). The NM-64 or super neutron monitor was developed for the IQSY (International Quiet Sun Years 1964-65) when instruments with a higher counting capacity were required. A description of this type of neutron monitor is given by Carmichael (Annals of the IQSY, Vol. 1, pp. 178-197, 1968). Super neutron monitors are often designated as xx-NM-64 where xx is the number of tubes in the monitors. An 18-NM-64 at high latitude has a counting rate of approximately 1 million counts per hour or 0.1 percent statistics.

The neutron monitor and supermonitor data here consists of over 100 stations' hourly (UT) values of: (a) counting rates corrected for atmospheric pressure effects; (b) uncorrected counting rates; and (c) atmospheric pressure data. If it is not possible to have all three types of data, the most important is the counting rate corrected for atmospheric pressure.

Climax corrected neutron monitor values

This plot shows data from the Climax, Colorado neutron monitor operated by the University of Chicago. The cosmic rays show an inverse relationship to the sunspot cycle because Sun's magnetic field is stronger during sunspot maximum and shields the Earth from cosmic rays.

Cosmic ray data are archived from the following instruments:

  • Neutron Monitors and Supermonitors
  • Ionization Chambers
  • Muon Telescope (cubical, crossed, narrow angle and wide angle)
  • Aircraft and Ship Measurements
  • Satellite Observations

Most of the data held by NCEI are from ground-based neutron monitors. Satellite Observations are primarily held by the NSSDC.

WDC-C2 for Cosmic Rays.
Click to go to WDC-C2's FTP archive.

The cosmic ray data from neutron monitors, ionization chambers and muon telescopes are primarily hourly-value data held as tabulations on paper, or in digital format (currently 130 stations and over 100 Mbytes). Some of these data are regularly published in both tabular and graphical forms in Solar-Geophysical Data.