The Reporter
Issue 496, 23 February 2004
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World's biggest observatory looks for origin of mystery rays

Jet of black hole-powered particlesA project to discover the origin of mystery rays hitting the earth is now the largest in the world.

When complete the Pierre Auger observatory in Argentina will have 1,600 detectors covering an area of 3,000 square km – approximately the size of Lancashire.

The collaboration recently set up its 200th detector – exceeding the number deployed in the largest project of its type to date in Japan.

The observatory – a cosmic-ray air shower array – aims to find the origin of sub-atomic particles which hit the earth’s atmosphere at energies believed to be impossible according to existing theories.

The project’s spokesman is retired but still active Professor Alan Watson. Leeds is providing the communications network which links the detectors to the central data collection system.

The observatory consists of an array of detectors 1.5km apart which catch particles propelled towards earth when the cosmic rays hit the atmosphere. Numbers and arrival times of particles are logged and energy and arrival directions calculated. Along with four telescopes which record the faint glow in the sky of the particle showers data of unprecedented quality can be provided.

Dr Johannes Knapp of the School of Physics and Astronomy said the origin of the rays is a mystery and that theory suggests they couldn’t exist. He said, “This mystery is one of the longest standing puzzles in modern physics. To understand these rays means to probe the most violent environments in the universe and to test the laws of nature at energy scales which prevailed only a fraction of a second after the big bang.

“The rays are there beyond doubt. It’s like something tapping you on the shoulder and not knowing where it comes from. Active galaxies with supermassive black holes in their centre are the least unlikely candidate sources. The observatory is designed to solve the problem by increasing statistics dramatically. In six months Auger will double the number of events that have been recorded over the past 40 years.”

Picture: A black-hole powered jet of particles travelling at nearly the speed of light from our nearest active galaxy, M87. This could be the source of the mystery rays. Source: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


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