Reporter 449, 20 March 2000

Flare team heads for the desert

Star-gazers at the University have won a 500,000 grant from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to take a leading role in the exploration of cosmic gamma ray flares reaching the Earth from distant galaxies.

Looking for the light: the Whipple 10-metre telescope used by the Leeds astronomers - pictures after a snowstorm in the Arizona desert

Four Leeds astronomers, led by Professor Michael Hillas, will be the sole UK contributors to the Veritas project to build a very high-energy gamma ray observatory in the Arizona desert.

Every second, more than a billion such rays are absorbed by the upper atmosphere. As it dies, a ray can trigger a flash of blue and ultraviolet light, known as Cherenkov light, lasting for just one thousand-millionth of a second - but bright enough to be detected from the ground using high-speed photosensors in a giant reflecting dish.

Together with colleagues from University College Dublin and six US institutions, the Leeds scientists first discovered the phenomenon using the Whipple 10-metre telescope and have been studying the rays since 1984.

Each ray carries more than a million times more energy than an X-ray. They are believed to originate in some of the most turbulent regions of the universe, such as in particle jets accelerated close to the speed of light by super-massive black holes.

The Leeds team has developed expertise in signal transmission and simulation to help explain the phenomenon and pioneered the Cherenkov imaging technique now used world-wide. The Institute of Physics presented Professor Hillas with the 1998 Rutherford Medal in recognition of his work on cosmic gamma rays.

The Veritas project has also won backing from the Smithsonian Institution in the US.

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