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Manchester astrophysicist to help ‘unlock mysteries’ of rare cosmic rays

Scientists have designed and built a prototype particle detector that aims to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding rare cosmic rays that enter Earth’s atmosphere from deep space.

Cosmic rays are made up of highly energetic atomic nuclei and other particles, travelling through space at almost the speed of light. The most powerful of these rays contain approximately ten million times more energy than the particles being accelerated in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

But whilst physicists and astronomers have known about the existence of cosmic rays for over a hundred years, very little is known about where they come from or about the particles they’re made of. The challenge for astronomers trying to detect and analyse these rays is that they’re very rare, with an observatory seeing only one or two of the more energetic ones per hour.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory itself was originally founded to help astronomers study cosmic rays with radio antennas. Now, as part of an international team of collaborators, Dr Justin Bray, who is based at Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, has designed and built a new particle detector that will work with the next generation of radio telescopes, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope. The prototype is first being deployed and tested at the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in Western Australia, which will also be the site of the low frequency antennas of the SKA.