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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Cosmic ray

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cosmic ray flux versus particle energy

Cosmic rays are immensely high-energy radiation, mainly originating outside the Solar System.[1] They may produce showers of secondary particles that penetrate and impact the Earth's atmosphere and sometimes even reach the surface. Composed primarily of high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, they are of mysterious origin. Data from the Fermi space telescope (2013)[2] have been interpreted as evidence that a significant fraction of primary cosmic rays originate from the supernovae of massive stars.[3] However, this is not thought to be their only source. Active galactic nuclei probably also produce cosmic rays.

The term ray is a historical accident, as cosmic rays were at first, and wrongly, thought to be mostly electromagnetic radiation. In common scientific usage[4] high-energy particles with intrinsic mass are known as "cosmic" rays, and photons, which are quanta of electromagnetic radiation (and so have no intrinsic mass) are known by their common names, such as "gamma rays" or "X-rays", depending on their origin.

Cosmic rays attract great interest practically, due to the damage they inflict on microelectronics and life outside the protection of an atmosphere and magnetic field, and scientifically, because the energies of the most energetic ultra-high-energy cosmic rays (UHECRs) have been observed to approach 3 × 1020 eV,[5] about 40 million times the energy of particles accelerated by the Large Hadron Collider.[6] At 50 J,[7] the highest-energy ultra-high-energy cosmic rays have energies comparable to the kinetic energy of a 90-kilometre-per-hour (56 mph) baseball. As a result of these discoveries, there has been interest in investigating cosmic rays of even greater energies.[8] Most cosmic rays, however, do not have such extreme energies; the energy distribution of cosmic rays peaks at 0.3 gigaelectronvolts (4.8×10−11 J).[9]

Of primary cosmic rays, which originate outside of Earth's atmosphere, about 99% are the nuclei (stripped of their electron shells) of well-known atoms, and about 1% are solitary electrons (similar to beta particles). Of the nuclei, about 90% are simple protons, i. e. hydrogen nuclei; 9% are alpha particles, and 1% are the nuclei of heavier elements, called HZE ions.[10] A very small fraction are stable particles of antimatter, such as positrons or antiprotons. The precise nature of this remaining fraction is an area of active research. An active search from Earth orbit for anti-alpha particles has failed to detect them.


After the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie in 1896, it was generally believed that atmospheric electricity, ionization of the air, was caused only by radiation from radioactive elements in the ground or the radioactive gases or isotopes of radon they produce.[11] Measurements of ionization rates at increasing heights above the ground during the decade from 1900 to 1910 showed a decrease that could be explained as due to absorption of the ionizing radiation by the intervening air.[12]


In 1909 Theodor Wulf developed an electrometer, a device to measure the rate of ion production inside a hermetically sealed container, and used it to show higher levels of radiation at the top of the Eiffel Tower than at its base. However, his paper published in Physikalische Zeitschrift was not widely accepted. In 1911 Domenico Pacini observed simultaneous variations of the rate of ionization over a lake, over the sea, and at a depth of 3 meters from the surface. Pacini concluded from the decrease of radioactivity underwater that a certain part of the ionization must be due to sources other than the radioactivity of the Earth.[13]

Pacini makes a measurement in 1910.

In 1912, Victor Hess carried three enhanced-accuracy Wulf electrometers[14] to an altitude of 5300 meters in a free balloon flight. He found the ionization rate increased approximately fourfold over the rate at ground level.[14] Hess ruled out the Sun as the radiation's source by making a balloon ascent during a near-total eclipse. With the moon blocking much of the Sun's visible radiation, Hess still measured rising radiation at rising altitudes.[14] He concluded "The results of my observation are best explained by the assumption that a radiation of very great penetrating power enters our atmosphere from above." In 1913–1914, Werner Kolhörster confirmed Victor Hess' earlier results by measuring the increased ionization rate at an altitude of 9 km.

Increase of ionization with altitude as measured by Hess in 1912 (left) and by Kolhörster (right)

Hess received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 for his discovery.[15][16]

The Hess balloon flight took place on 7 August 1912. By sheer coincidence, exactly 100 years later on 7 August 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory rover used its Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument to begin measuring the radiation levels on another planet for the first time. On 31 May 2013, NASA scientists reported that a possible manned mission to Mars may involve a greater radiation risk than previously believed, based on the amount of energetic particle radiation detected by the RAD on the Mars Science Laboratory while traveling from the Earth to Mars in 2011–2012.[17][18][19]

Hess lands after his balloon flight in 1912.


In the 1920s the term "cosmic rays" was coined by Robert Millikan who made measurements of ionization due to cosmic rays from deep under water to high altitudes and around the globe. Millikan believed that his measurements proved that the primary cosmic rays were gamma rays, i.e., energetic photons. And he proposed a theory that they were produced in interstellar space as by-products of the fusion of hydrogen atoms into the heavier elements, and that secondary electrons were produced in the atmosphere by Compton scattering of gamma rays. But then, in 1927, J. Clay found evidence,[20] later confirmed in many experiments, of a variation of cosmic ray intensity with latitude, which indicated that the primary cosmic rays are deflected by the geomagnetic field and must therefore be charged particles, not photons. In 1929, Bothe and Kolhörster discovered charged cosmic-ray particles that could penetrate 4.1 cm of gold.[21] Charged particles of such high energy could not possibly be produced by photons from Millikan's proposed interstellar fusion process.[citation needed]

In 1930, Bruno Rossi predicted a difference between the intensities of cosmic rays arriving from the east and the west that depends upon the charge of the primary particles – the so-called "east-west effect."[22] Three independent experiments[23][24][25] found that the intensity is, in fact, greater from the west, proving that most primaries are positive. During the years from 1930 to 1945, a wide variety of investigations confirmed that the primary cosmic rays are mostly protons, and the secondary radiation produced in the atmosphere is primarily electrons, photons and muons. In 1948, observations with nuclear emulsions carried by balloons to near the top of the atmosphere showed that approximately 10% of the primaries are helium nuclei (alpha particles) and 1% are heavier nuclei of the elements such as carbon, iron, and lead.[26][27]

During a test of his equipment for measuring the east-west effect, Rossi observed that the rate of near-simultaneous discharges of two widely separated Geiger counters was larger than the expected accidental rate. In his report on the experiment, Rossi wrote "... it seems that once in a while the recording equipment is struck by very extensive showers of particles, which causes coincidences between the counters, even placed at large distances from one another."[25] In 1937 Pierre Auger, unaware of Rossi's earlier report, detected the same phenomenon and investigated it in some detail. He concluded that high-energy primary cosmic-ray particles interact with air nuclei high in the atmosphere, initiating a cascade of secondary interactions that ultimately yield a shower of electrons, and photons that reach ground level.[28]

Soviet physicist Sergey Vernov was the first to use radiosondes to perform cosmic ray readings with an instrument carried to high altitude by a balloon. On 1 April 1935, he took measurements at heights up to 13.6 kilometers using a pair of Geiger counters in an anti-coincidence circuit to avoid counting secondary ray showers.[29][30]

Homi J. Bhabha derived an expression for the probability of scattering positrons by electrons, a process now known as Bhabha scattering. His classic paper, jointly with Walter Heitler, published in 1937 described how primary cosmic rays from space interact with the upper atmosphere to produce particles observed at the ground level. Bhabha and Heitler explained the cosmic ray shower formation by the cascade production of gamma rays and positive and negative electron pairs.[citation needed]

Energy distribution

Measurements of the energy and arrival directions of the ultra-high energy primary cosmic rays by the techniques of "density sampling" and "fast timing" of extensive air showers were first carried out in 1954 by members of the Rossi Cosmic Ray Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[31] The experiment employed eleven scintillation detectors arranged within a circle 460 meters in diameter on the grounds of the Agassiz Station of the Harvard College Observatory. From that work, and from many other experiments carried out all over the world, the energy spectrum of the primary cosmic rays is now known to extend beyond 1020 eV. A huge air shower experiment called the Auger Project is currently operated at a site on the pampas of Argentina by an international consortium of physicists, led by James Cronin, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics from the University of Chicago, and Alan Watson of the University of Leeds. Their aim is to explore the properties and arrival directions of the very highest-energy primary cosmic rays.[32] The results are expected to have important implications for particle physics and cosmology, due to a theoretical Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin limit to the energies of cosmic rays from long distances (about 160 million light years) which occurs above 1020 eV because of interactions with the remnant photons from the big bang origin of the universe.

High-energy gamma rays (>50 MeV photons) were finally discovered in the primary cosmic radiation by an MIT experiment carried on the OSO-3 satellite in 1967.[33] Components of both galactic and extra-galactic origins were separately identified at intensities much less than 1% of the primary charged particles. Since then, numerous satellite gamma-ray observatories have mapped the gamma-ray sky. The most recent is the Fermi Observatory, which has produced a map showing a narrow band of gamma ray intensity produced in discrete and diffuse sources in our galaxy, and numerous point-like extra-galactic sources distributed over the celestial sphere.

Sources of cosmic rays

Early speculation on the sources of cosmic rays included a 1934 proposal by Baade and Zwicky suggesting cosmic rays originating from supernovae.[34] A 1948 proposal by Horace W. Babcock suggested that magnetic variable stars could be a source of cosmic rays.[35] Subsequently in 1951, Y. Sekido et al. identified the Crab Nebula as a source of cosmic rays.[36] Since then, a wide variety of potential sources for cosmic rays began to surface, including supernovae, active galactic nuclei, quasars, and gamma-ray bursts.[37]

Sources of Ionizing Radiation in Interplanetary Space.

Later experiments have helped to identify the sources of cosmic rays with greater certainty. In 2009, a paper presented at the International Cosmic Ray Conference (ICRC) by scientists at the Pierre Auger Observatory showed ultra-high energy cosmic rays (UHECRs) originating from a location in the sky very close to the radio galaxy Centaurus A, although the authors specifically stated that further investigation would be required to confirm Cen A as a source of cosmic rays.[38] However, no correlation was found between the incidence of gamma-ray bursts and cosmic rays, causing the authors to set upper limits as low as 3.4 × 10−6 erg cm−2 on the flux of 1 GeV-1 TeV cosmic rays from gamma-ray bursts.[39]

In 2009, supernovae were said to have been "pinned down" as a source of cosmic rays, a discovery made by a group using data from the Very Large Telescope.[40] This analysis, however, was disputed in 2011 with data from PAMELA, which revealed that "spectral shapes of [hydrogen and helium nuclei] are different and cannot be described well by a single power law", suggesting a more complex process of cosmic ray formation.[41] In February 2013, though, research analyzing data from Fermi revealed through an observation of neutral pion decay that supernovae were indeed a source of cosmic rays, with each explosion producing roughly 3 × 1042 - 3 × 1043 J of cosmic rays.[2][3] However, supernovae do not produce all cosmic rays, and the proportion of cosmic rays that they do produce is a question which cannot be answered without further study.[42]


Primary cosmic particle collides with a molecule of atmosphere.

Cosmic rays originate as primary cosmic rays, which are those originally produced in various astrophysical processes. Primary cosmic rays are composed primarily of protons and alpha particles (99%), with a small amount of heavier nuclei (~1%) and an extremely minute proportion of positrons and antiprotons.[10] Secondary cosmic rays, caused by a decay of primary cosmic rays as they impact an atmosphere, include neutrons, pions, positrons, and muons. Of these four, the latter three were first detected in cosmic rays.

Primary cosmic rays

Primary cosmic rays primarily originate from outside the Solar System and sometimes even the Milky Way. When they interact with Earth's atmosphere, they are converted to secondary particles. The mass ratio of helium to hydrogen nuclei, 28%, is similar to the primordial elemental abundance ratio of these elements, 24%.[43] The remaining fraction is made up of the other heavier nuclei that are nuclear synthesis end products, products of the Big Bang,[citation needed] primarily lithium, beryllium, and boron. These nuclei appear in cosmic rays in much greater abundance (~1%) than in the solar atmosphere, where they are only about 10−11 as abundant as helium. Cosmic rays made up of charged nuclei heavier than helium are called HZE ions. Due to the high charge and heavy nature of HZE ions, their contribution to an astronaut's radiation dose in space is significant even though they are relatively scarce.

This abundance difference is a result of the way secondary cosmic rays are formed. Carbon and oxygen nuclei collide with interstellar matter to form lithium, beryllium and boron in a process termed cosmic ray spallation. Spallation is also responsible for the abundances of scandium, titanium, vanadium, and manganese ions in cosmic rays produced by collisions of iron and nickel nuclei with interstellar matter.[44]

Primary cosmic ray antimatter

Satellite experiments have found evidence of positrons and a few antiprotons in primary cosmic rays, amounting to less than 1% of the particles in primary cosmic rays. These do not appear to be the products of large amounts of antimatter from the Big Bang, or indeed complex antimatter in the universe. Rather, they appear to consist of only these two elementary particles, newly made in energetic processes.
Preliminary results from the presently operating Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) on board the International Space Station show that positrons in the cosmic rays arrive with no directionality, and with energies that range from 10 GeV to 250 GeV. In September, 2014, new results with almost twice as much data were presented in a talk at CERN and published in Physical Review Letters.[45][46] A new measurement of positron fraction up to 500 GeV was reported, showing that positron fraction peaks at a maximum of about 16% of total electron+positron events, around an energy of 275 ± 32 GeV. At higher energies, up to 500 GeV, the ratio of positrons to electrons begins to fall again. The absolute flux of positrons also begins to fall before 500 GeV, but peaks at energies far higher than electron energies, which peak about 10 GeV.[47] These results on interpretation have been suggested to be due to positron production in annihilation events of massive dark matter particles.[48]

Cosmic ray antiprotons also have a much higher energy than their normal-matter counterparts (protons). They arrive at Earth with a characteristic energy maximum of 2 GeV, indicating their production in a fundamentally different process from cosmic ray protons, which on average have only one-sixth of the energy.[49]

There is no evidence of complex antimatter atomic nuclei, such as antihelium nuclei (i.e., anti-alpha particles), in cosmic rays. These are actively being searched for. A prototype of the AMS-02 designated AMS-01, was flown into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-91 in June 1998. By not detecting any antihelium at all, the AMS-01 established an upper limit of 1.1×10−6 for the antihelium to helium flux ratio.[50]

The moon in cosmic rays
The moon's muon shadow
The Moon's cosmic ray shadow, as seen in secondary muons detected 700 m below ground, at the Soudan 2 detector
The moon as seen in gamma rays
The moon as seen by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, in gamma rays with energies greater than 20 MeV. These are produced by cosmic ray bombardment on its surface.[51]

Secondary cosmic rays

When cosmic rays enter the Earth's atmosphere they collide with atoms and molecules, mainly oxygen and nitrogen. The interaction produces a cascade of lighter particles, a so-called air shower secondary radiation that rains down, including x-rays, muons, protons, alpha particles, pions, electrons, and neutrons.[52] All of the produced particles stay within about one degree of the primary particle's path.

Typical particles produced in such collisions are neutrons and charged mesons such as positive or negative pions and kaons. Some of these subsequently decay into muons, which are able to reach the surface of the Earth, and even penetrate for some distance into shallow mines. The muons can be easily detected by many types of particle detectors, such as cloud chambers, bubble chambers or scintillation detectors. The observation of a secondary shower of particles in multiple detectors at the same time is an indication that all of the particles came from that event.

Cosmic rays impacting other planetary bodies in the Solar System are detected indirectly by observing high energy gamma ray emissions by gamma-ray telescope. These are distinguished from radioactive decay processes by their higher energies above  about 10 MeV.

Cosmic-ray flux

An overview of the space environment shows the relationship between the solar activity and galactic cosmic rays.[53]

The flux of incoming cosmic rays at the upper atmosphere is dependent on the solar wind, the Earth's magnetic field, and the energy of the cosmic rays. At distances of ~94 AU from the Sun, the solar wind undergoes a transition, called the termination shock, from supersonic to subsonic speeds. The region between the termination shock and the heliopause acts as a barrier to cosmic rays, decreasing the flux at lower energies (≤ 1 GeV) by about 90%. However, the strength of the solar wind is not constant, and hence it has been observed that cosmic ray flux is correlated with solar activity.

In addition, the Earth's magnetic field acts to deflect cosmic rays from its surface, giving rise to the observation that the flux is apparently dependent on latitude, longitude, and azimuth angle. The magnetic field lines deflect the cosmic rays towards the poles, giving rise to the aurorae.

The combined effects of all of the factors mentioned contribute to the flux of cosmic rays at Earth's surface. For 1 GeV particles, the rate of arrival is about 10,000 per square meter per second. At 1 TeV the rate is 1 particle per square meter per second. At 10 PeV there are only a few particles per square meter per year. Particles above 10 EeV arrive only at a rate of about one particle per square kilometer per year, and above 100 EeV at a rate of about one particle per square kilometer per century.[54]

In the past, it was believed that the cosmic ray flux remained fairly constant over time. However, recent research suggests 1.5 to 2-fold millennium-timescale changes in the cosmic ray flux in the past forty thousand years.[55]

The magnitude of the energy of cosmic ray flux in interstellar space is very comparable to that of other deep space energies: cosmic ray energy density averages about one electron-volt per cubic centimeter of interstellar space, or ~1 eV/cm3, which is comparable to the energy density of visible starlight at 0.3 eV/cm3, the galactic magnetic field energy density (assumed 3 microgauss) which is ~0.25 eV/cm3, or the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation energy density at ~ 0.25 eV/cm3.[56]

Detection methods

The VERITAS array of air Cherenkov telescopes.

There are several ground-based methods of detecting cosmic rays currently in use. The first detection method is called the air Cherenkov telescope, designed to detect low-energy (< 200 GeV) cosmic rays by means of analyzing their Cherenkov radiation, which for cosmic rays are gamma rays emitted as they travel faster than the speed of light in their medium, the atmosphere.[57] While these telescopes are extremely good at distinguishing between background radiation and that of cosmic-ray origin, they can only function well on clear nights without the Moon shining, and have very small fields of view and are only active for a few percent of the time. Another Cherenkov telescope uses water as a medium through which particles pass and produce Cherenkov radiation to make them detectable.[58]

Comparison of Radiation Doses - includes the amount detected on the trip from Earth to Mars by the RAD on the MSL (2011 - 2013).[17][18][19]

Extensive air shower (EAS) arrays, a second detection method, measure the charged particles which pass through them. EAS arrays measure much higher-energy cosmic rays than air Cherenkov telescopes, and can observe a broad area of the sky and can be active about 90% of the time. However, they are less able to segregate background effects from cosmic rays than can air Cherenkov telescopes. EAS arrays employ plastic scintillators in order to detect particles.

Another method was developed by Robert Fleischer, P. Buford Price, and Robert M. Walker for use in high-altitude balloons.[59] In this method, sheets of clear plastic, like 0.25 mm Lexan polycarbonate, are stacked together and exposed directly to cosmic rays in space or high altitude. The nuclear charge causes chemical bond breaking or ionization in the plastic. At the top of the plastic stack the ionization is less, due to the high cosmic ray speed. As the cosmic ray speed decreases due to deceleration in the stack, the ionization increases along the path. The resulting plastic sheets are "etched" or slowly dissolved in warm caustic sodium hydroxide solution, that removes the surface material at a slow, known rate. The caustic sodium hydroxide dissolves the plastic at a faster rate along the path of the ionized plastic. The net result is a conical etch pit in the plastic. The etch pits are measured under a high-power microscope (typically 1600x oil-immersion), and the etch rate is plotted as a function of the depth in the stacked plastic.

This technique yields a unique curve for each atomic nucleus from 1 to 92, allowing identification of both the charge and energy of the cosmic ray that traverses the plastic stack. The more extensive the ionization along the path, the higher the charge. In addition to its uses for cosmic-ray detection, the technique is also used to detect nuclei created as products of nuclear fission.

A fourth method involves the use of cloud chambers[60] to detect the secondary muons created when a pion decays.
Cloud chambers in particular can be built from widely available materials and can be constructed even in a high-school laboratory. A fifth method, involving bubble chambers, can be used to detect cosmic ray particles.[61]

Another method detects the light from nitrogen fluorescence caused by the excitation of nitrogen in the atmosphere by the shower of particles moving through the atmosphere. This method allows for accurate detection of the direction from which the cosmic ray came.[62]

Finally, the CMOS devices in pervasive smartphone cameras have been proposed as a practical distributed network to detect air showers from ultra-high energy cosmic rays (UHECRs) which is at least comparable with that of conventional cosmic ray detectors.[63] The app, which is currently in beta and accepting applications, is CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found In Smartphones).[64][65]


Changes in atmospheric chemistry

Cosmic rays ionize the nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, which leads to a number of chemical reactions. One of the reactions results in ozone depletion. Cosmic rays are also responsible for the continuous production of a number of unstable isotopes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as carbon-14, via the reaction:
n + 14N → p + 14C
Cosmic rays kept the level of carbon-14[66] in the atmosphere roughly constant (70 tons) for at least the past 100,000 years, until the beginning of above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the early 1950s. This is an important fact used in radiocarbon dating used in archaeology.
Reaction products of primary cosmic rays, radioisotope half-lifetime, and production reaction.[67]
  • Tritium (12.3 years): 14N(n, 3H)12C (Spallation)
  • Beryllium-7 (53.3 days)
  • Beryllium-10 (1.39 million years): 14N(n,p α)10Be (Spallation)
  • Carbon-14 (5730 years): 14N(n, p)14C (Neutron activation)
  • Sodium-22 (2.6 years)
  • Sodium-24 (15 hours)
  • Magnesium-28 (20.9 hours)
  • Silicon-31 (2.6 hours)
  • Silicon-32 (101 years)
  • Phosphorus-32 (14.3 days)
  • Sulfur-35 (87.5 days)
  • Sulfur-38 (2.84 hours)
  • Chlorine-34 m (32 minutes)
  • Chlorine-36 (300,000 years)
  • Chlorine-38 (37.2 minutes)
  • Chlorine-39 (56 minutes)
  • Argon-39 (269 years)
  • Krypton-85 (10.7 years)

Role in ambient radiation

Cosmic rays constitute a fraction of the annual radiation exposure of human beings on the Earth, averaging 0.39 mSv out of a total of 3 mSv per year (13% of total background) for the Earth's population. However, the background radiation from cosmic rays increases with altitude, from 0.3 mSv per year for sea-level areas to 1.0 mSv per year for higher-altitude cities, raising cosmic radiation exposure to a quarter of total background radiation exposure for populations of said cities. Airline crews flying long distance high-altitude routes can be exposed to 2.2 mSv of extra radiation each year due to cosmic rays, nearly doubling their total ionizing radiation exposure.

Average annual radiation exposure (millisieverts)
Radiation UNSCEAR[68][69] Princeton[70] Wa State[71] MEXT[72]
Type Source World
Typical range USA USA Japan Remark
Natural Air 1.26 0.2-10.0a 2.29 2.00 0.40 Primarily from Radon, (a)depends on indoor accumulation of radon gas.
Internal 0.29 0.2-1.0b 0.16 0.40 0.40 Mainly from radioisotopes in food (40K, 14C, etc.) (b)depends on diet.
Terrestrial 0.48 0.3-1.0c 0.19 0.29 0.40 (c)Depends on soil composition and building material of structures.
Cosmic 0.39 0.3-1.0d 0.31 0.26 0.30 (d)Generally increases with elevation.
Subtotal 2.40 1.0-13.0 2.95 2.95 1.50
Artificial Medical 0.60 0.03-2.0 3.00 0.53 2.30
Fallout 0.007 0 - 1+ - - 0.01 Peaked in 1963 with a spike in 1986; still high near nuclear test and accident sites.
For the United States, fallout is incorporated into other categories.
others 0.0052 0-20 0.25 0.13 0.001 Average annual occupational exposure is 0.7 mSv; mining workers have higher exposure.
Populations near nuclear plants have an additional ~0.02 mSv of exposure annually.
Subtotal 0.6 0 to tens 3.25 0.66 2.311
Total 3.00 0 to tens 6.20 3.61 3.81
Figures are for the time before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Human-made values by UNSCEAR are from the Japanese National Institute of Radiological Sciences, which summarized the UNSCEAR data.

Effect on electronics

Cosmic rays have sufficient energy to alter the states of circuit components in electronic integrated circuits, causing transient errors to occur, such as corrupted data in electronic memory devices, or incorrect performance of CPUs, often referred to as "soft errors" (not to be confused with software errors caused by programming mistakes/bugs).
This has been a problem in electronics at extremely high-altitude, such as in satellites, but with transistors becoming smaller and smaller, this is becoming an increasing concern in ground-level electronics as well.[73] Studies by IBM in the 1990s suggest that computers typically experience about one cosmic-ray-induced error per 256 megabytes of RAM per month.[74] To alleviate this problem, the Intel Corporation has proposed a cosmic ray detector that could be integrated into future high-density microprocessors, allowing the processor to repeat the last command following a cosmic-ray event.[75]

Cosmic rays are suspected as a possible cause of an in-flight incident in 2008 where an Airbus A330 airliner of Qantas twice plunged hundreds of feet after an unexplained malfunction in its flight control system. Many passengers and crew members were injured, some seriously. After this incident, the accident investigators determined that the airliner's flight control system had received a data spike that could not be explained, and that all systems were in perfect working order. This has prompted a software upgrade to all A330 and A340 airliners, worldwide, so that any data spikes in this system are filtered out electronically.[76]

Significance to space travel

Galactic cosmic rays are one of the most important barriers standing in the way of plans for interplanetary travel by crewed spacecraft. Cosmic rays also pose a threat to electronics placed aboard outgoing probes. In 2010, a malfunction aboard the Voyager 2 space probe was credited to a single flipped bit, probably caused by a cosmic ray. Strategies such as physical or magnetic shielding for spacecraft have been considered in order to minimize the damage to electronics and human beings caused by cosmic rays.[77][78]

Role in lightning

Cosmic rays have been implicated in the triggering of electrical breakdown in lightning. It has been proposed that essentially all lightning is triggered through a relativistic process, "runaway breakdown", seeded by cosmic ray secondaries. Subsequent development of the lightning discharge then occurs through "conventional breakdown" mechanisms.[79]

Postulated role in climate change

A role of cosmic rays directly or via solar-induced modulations in climate change was suggested by Edward P. Ney in 1959[80] and by Robert E. Dickinson in 1975.[81] Despite the opinion of over 97% of climate scientists against this notion,[82] the idea has been revived in recent years, most notably by Henrik Svensmark, who has argued that because solar variations modulate the cosmic ray flux on Earth, they would consequently affect the rate of cloud formation and hence the climate.[83] Nevertheless, it has been noted by climate scientists actively publishing in the field[who?] that Svensmark has inconsistently altered data on most of his published work on the subject, an example being adjustment of cloud data that understates error in lower cloud data, but not in high cloud data.[84]

The 2007 IPCC synthesis report, however, strongly attributes a major role in the ongoing global warming to human-produced gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and halocarbons, and has stated that models including natural forcings only (including aerosol forcings, which cosmic rays are considered by some to contribute to) would result in far less warming than has actually been observed or predicted in models including anthropogenic forcings.[85]
Svensmark, being one of several scientists outspokenly opposed to the mainstream scientific assessment of global warming, has found eminence among the popular culture movement that denies the scientific consensus. Despite this, Svensmark's work exaggerating the magnitude of the effect of GCR on global warming continues to be refuted in the mainstream science.[86] For instance, a November 2013 study showed that less than 14 percent of global warming since the 1950s could be attributed to cosmic ray rate, and while the models showed a small correlation every 22 years, the cosmic ray rate did not match the changes in temperature, indicating that it was not a causal relationship.[87]

Research and experiments

There are a number of cosmic-ray research initiatives.




Milankovitch cycles

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Past and future Milankovitch cycles. VSOP allows prediction of past and future orbital parameters with great accuracy.
— ε is obliquity (axial tilt).
— e is eccentricity.
— ϖ is longitude of perihelion.
— e sin(ϖ) is the precession index, which together with obliquity, controls the seasonal cycle of insolation.
{\overline{Q}}^{\mathrm{day}} is the calculated daily-averaged insolation at the top of the atmosphere, on the day of the summer solstice at 65 N latitude.
— Benthic forams and — Vostok ice core show two distinct proxies for past global sealevel and temperature, from ocean sediment and Antarctic ice respectively.
The vertical gray line shows current conditions, at 2 ky A.D.

Milankovitch theory describes the collective effects of changes in the Earth's movements upon its climate, named after Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milanković, who worked on it during his internment as a POW during the First World War. Milanković mathematically theorized that variations in eccentricity, axial tilt, and precession of the Earth's orbit determined climatic patterns on Earth through orbital forcing.

The Earth's axis completes one full cycle of precession approximately every 26,000 years. At the same time, the elliptical orbit rotates more slowly. The combined effect of the two precessions leads to a 21,000-year period between the astronomical seasons and the orbit. In addition, the angle between Earth's rotational axis and the normal to the plane of its orbit (obliquity) oscillates between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees on a 41,000-year cycle. It is currently 23.44 degrees and decreasing.

Similar astronomical theories had been advanced in the 19th century by Joseph Adhemar, James Croll and others, but verification was difficult due to the absence of reliably dated evidence and doubts as to exactly which periods were important. Not until the advent of deep-ocean cores and a seminal paper by Hays, Imbrie, and Shackleton, "Variations in the Earth's Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages", in Science (1976)[1] did the theory attain its present state.

Earth’s movements

As the Earth spins around its axis and orbits around the Sun, several quasi-periodic variations occur due to gravitational interactions. Although the curves have a large number of sinusoidal components, a few components are dominant.[2] Milankovitch studied changes in the orbital eccentricity, obliquity, and precession of Earth's movements. Such changes in movement and orientation alter the amount and location of solar radiation reaching the Earth. This is known as solar forcing (an example of radiative forcing). Changes near the north polar area, about 65 degrees North, are considered important due to the great amount of land. Land masses respond to temperature change more quickly than oceans, which have a higher effective heat capacity, because of the mixing of surface and deep water and the fact that the specific heat of solids is generally lower than that of water.

Orbital shape (eccentricity)

Circular orbit, no eccentricity.
Orbit with 0.5 eccentricity.

The Earth's orbit is an ellipse. The eccentricity is a measure of the departure of this ellipse from circularity. The shape of the Earth's orbit varies in time between nearly circular (low eccentricity of 0.000055) and mildly elliptical (high eccentricity of 0.0679)[3] with the mean eccentricity of 0.0019 as geometric or logarithmic mean and 0.034 as arithmetic mean, the latter useless. The major component of these variations occurs on a period of 413,000 years (eccentricity variation of ±0.012). A number of other terms vary between components 95,000 and 125,000 years (with a beat period 400,000 years), and loosely combine into a 100,000-year cycle (variation of −0.03 to +0.02). The present eccentricity is 0.017 and decreasing.

If the Earth were the only planet orbiting our Sun, the eccentricity of its orbit would not perceptibly vary even over a period of a million years. The Earth's eccentricity varies primarily due to interactions with the gravitational fields of Jupiter and Saturn. As the eccentricity of the orbit evolves, the semi-major axis of the orbital ellipse remains unchanged. From the perspective of the perturbation theory used in celestial mechanics to compute the evolution of the orbit, the semi-major axis is an adiabatic invariant. According to Kepler's third law the period of the orbit is determined by the semi-major axis. It follows that the Earth's orbital period, the length of a sidereal year, also remains unchanged as the orbit evolves.

Orbital shape and Temperature

As the semi-minor axis is decreased with the eccentricity increase, the seasonal changes increase.[4] But the mean solar irradiation for the planet changes only slightly for small eccentricity, due to Kepler's second law. Season is not solely by distance from sun, see: Season.

The same average irradiation does not correspond to the average of corresponding temperatures (due to non-linearity of the Stefan–Boltzmann law). For an irradiation with corresponding temperature 20 °C and its symmetric variation ±50% (e.g. from the seasons change[5]) we obtain asymmetric variation of corresponding temperatures with their average 16 °C (i.e. deviation −4 °C)[clarification needed]. And for the irradiation variation during a day (with its average corresponding also to 20 °C) we obtain the average temperature (for zero thermal capacity) −113 °C.[clarification needed]

The relative increase in solar irradiation at closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) compared to the irradiation at the furthest distance (aphelion) is slightly larger than four times the eccentricity. For the current orbital eccentricity this amounts to a variation in incoming solar radiation of about 6.8%, while the current difference between perihelion and aphelion is only 3.4% (5.1 million km). Perihelion presently occurs around January 3, while aphelion is around July 4. When the orbit is at its most elliptical, the amount of solar radiation at perihelion will be about 23% more than at aphelion.

The higher eccentricity also causes extra behavior in due to precession and axial tilt (see Season). The true global summer does not appear to be the warmer part of the year in the North (until an eon from now when balanced). Seasons always arrive early (see Mean tropical year) but not the same for differning seasons, since elliple motion (speed, angle) to sun differs per season arrival.
Season durations[6]
Year Northern Hemisphere Southern Hemisphere Date: GMT Season duration
2005 Winter solstice Summer solstice 21 December 2005 18:35 88.99 days
2006 Spring equinox Autumn equinox 20 March 2006 18:26 92.75 days
2006 Summer solstice Winter solstice 21 June 2006 12:26 93.65 days
2006 Autumn equinox Spring equinox 23 September 2006 4:03 89.85 days
2006 Winter solstice Summer solstice 22 December 2006 0:22 88.99 days
2007 Spring equinox Autumn equinox 21 March 2007 0:07 92.75 days
2007 Summer solstice Winter solstice 21 June 2007 18:06 93.66 days
2007 Autumn equinox Spring equinox 23 September 2007 9:51 89.85 days
2007 Winter solstice Summer solstice 22 December 2007 06:08
Orbital mechanics requires that the length of the seasons be proportional to the areas of the seasonal quadrants, so when the eccentricity is extreme, the Earth's orbital motion becomes more nonuniform and the lengths of the seasons change. When autumn and winter occur at closest approach, as is the case currently in the northern hemisphere, the earth is moving at its maximum velocity and therefore autumn and winter are slightly shorter than spring and summer. Thus, summer in the northern hemisphere is 4.66 days longer than winter and spring is 2.9 days longer than autumn. But as the orientation of Earth's orbit changes relative to the Vernal Equinox due to apsidal precession, the way the length of the seasons are altered by the nonuniform motion changes, since different sections of the orbit are involved. When the Earth's apsides are aligned with the equinoxes the length of Spring and Summer (together) equals that of Autumn and Winter. When they are aligned with the solstices either Spring and Summer or Autumn and Winter will be at its longest. Increasing the eccentricity lengthens the time spent near aphelion and shortens the time near perihelion.

Changes to the eccentricity do not by themselves change the length of the anomalistic year or the Earth's mean motion along its orbit since they are both functions of the semi-major axis.

Axial tilt (obliquity)

22.1–24.5° range of Earth's obliquity.

The angle of the Earth's axial tilt (obliquity of the ecliptic) varies with respect to the plane of the Earth's orbit. These slow 2.4° obliquity variations are roughly periodic, taking approximately 41,000 years to shift between a tilt of 22.1° and 24.5° and back again. When the obliquity increases, the amplitude of the seasonal cycle in insolation increases, with summers in both hemispheres receiving more radiative flux from the Sun, and winters less. Conversely, when the obliquity decreases, summers receive less insolation and winters more.

But these changes of opposite sign in summer and winter are not of the same magnitude everywhere on the Earth's surface. At high latitude the annual mean insolation increases with increasing obliquity, while lower latitudes experience a reduction in insolation. Cooler summers are suspected of encouraging the onset of an ice age by melting less of the previous winter's precipitation. Because most of the planet's snow and ice lies at high latitude, it can be argued that lower obliquity favors ice ages for two reasons: the reduction in overall summer insolation and the additional reduction in mean insolation at high latitude.

Scientists using computer models to study more extreme tilts than those that actually occur have concluded that climate extremes at high obliquity would be particularly threatening to advanced forms of life that presently exist on Earth. They noted that high obliquity would not likely sterilize a planet completely, but would make it harder for fragile, warm-blooded land-based life to thrive as it does today.[7]

Currently the Earth is tilted at 23.44 degrees from its orbital plane, roughly halfway between its extreme values. The tilt is in the decreasing phase of its cycle, and will reach its minimum value around the year 11,800 CE ; the last maximum was reached in 8,700 BCE. This trend in forcing, by itself, tends to make winters warmer and summers colder (i.e. milder seasons), as well as cause an overall cooling trend.

Axial precession

Precessional movement.

Precession is the trend in the direction of the Earth's axis of rotation relative to the fixed stars, with a period of roughly 26,000 years. This gyroscopic motion is due to the tidal forces exerted by the Sun and the Moon on the solid Earth, which has the shape of an oblate spheroid rather than a sphere. The Sun and Moon contribute roughly equally to this effect.

When the axis points toward the Sun in perihelion (i.e. the north pole is pointed towards the Sun), the northern hemisphere has a greater difference between the seasons while the southern hemisphere has milder seasons. When the axis points away from the Sun in perihelion (i.e. the south pole is pointed towards the Sun), the southern hemisphere has a greater difference between the seasons while the northern hemisphere has milder seasons. The hemisphere that is in summer at perihelion receives much of the corresponding increase in solar radiation, but that same hemisphere in winter at aphelion has a colder winter. The other hemisphere will have a relatively warmer winter and cooler summer.

When the Earth's axis is aligned such that aphelion and perihelion occur near the equinoxes, the northern and southern hemispheres will have similar contrasts in the seasons.

At present, perihelion occurs during the southern hemisphere's summer, and aphelion is reached during the southern winter. Thus the southern hemisphere seasons are somewhat more extreme than the northern hemisphere seasons, when other factors are equal.

Apsidal precession

Planets orbiting the Sun follow elliptical (oval) orbits that rotate gradually over time (apsidal precession). The eccentricity of this ellipse is exaggerated for visualization. Most orbits in the Solar System have a much smaller eccentricity, making them nearly circular.

Effects of precession on the seasons (using the Northern Hemisphere terms).

In addition, the orbital ellipse itself precesses in space, primarily as a result of interactions with Jupiter and Saturn.

Smaller contributions are also made by the sun's oblateness and by the effects of General Relativity that are well known for Mercury. The total orbital precession is in the same sense to the gyroscopic motion of the axis of rotation, shortening the period of the precession of the equinoxes with respect to the perihelion from 25,771.5 to ~21,636 years. Apsidal precession occurs in the plane of the Ecliptic and alters the orientation of the Earth's orbit relative to the Ecliptic. In combination with changes to the eccentricity it alters the length of the seasons.

Orbital inclination

The inclination of Earth's orbit drifts up and down relative to its present orbit. Milankovitch did not study this three-dimensional movement. This movement is known as "precession of the ecliptic" or "planetary precession".
More recent researchers noted this drift and that the orbit also moves relative to the orbits of the other planets. The invariable plane, the plane that represents the angular momentum of the Solar System, is approximately the orbital plane of Jupiter. The inclination of Earth's orbit drifts up and down relative to its present orbit with a cycle having a period of about 70,000 years. The inclination of the Earth's orbit has a 100,000-year cycle relative to the invariable plane. This is very similar to the 100,000-year eccentricity period. This 100,000-year cycle closely matches the 100,000-year pattern of ice ages.

It has been proposed that a disk of dust and other debris exists in the invariable plane, and this affects the Earth's climate through several possible means. The Earth presently moves through this plane around January 9 and July 9, when there is an increase in radar-detected meteors and meteor-related noctilucent clouds.[8][9]

A study of the chronology of Antarctic ice cores using oxygen-nitrogen ratios in air bubbles trapped in the ice, which appear to respond directly to the local insolation, concluded that the climatic response documented in the ice cores was driven by northern hemisphere insolation as proposed by the Milankovitch hypothesis (Kawamura et al., Nature, 23 August 2007, vol 448, pp 912–917). This is an additional validation of the Milankovitch hypothesis by a relatively novel method, and is inconsistent with the "inclination" theory of the 100,000-year cycle.


Because the observed periodicities of climate fit so well with the orbital periods, the orbital theory has overwhelming support. Nonetheless, there are several difficulties in reconciling theory with observations.

The nature of sediments can vary in a cyclic fashion, and these cycles can be displayed in the sedimentary record. Here, cycles can be observed in the colouration and resistance of different strata.

100,000-year problem

The 100,000-year problem is that the eccentricity variations have a significantly smaller impact on solar forcing than precession or obliquity - according to theory- and hence might be expected to produce the weakest effects. 
However, the greatest observed response in regard to the ice ages is at the 100,000-year timescale, even though the theoretical forcing is smaller at this scale.[10] During the last 1 million years, the strongest climate signal is the 100,000-year cycle. In addition, despite the relatively great 100,000-year cycle, some have argued that the length of the climate record is insufficient to establish a statistically significant relationship between climate and eccentricity variations.[11] Various explanations for this discrepancy have been proposed, including frequency modulation[12] or various feedbacks (from carbon dioxide, cosmic rays, or from ice sheet dynamics). Some models can reproduce the 100,000-year cycles as a result of non-linear interactions between small changes in the Earth's orbit and internal oscillations of the climate system.[13][14]

Stage 5 problem

The stage 5 problem refers to the timing of the penultimate interglacial (in marine isotopic stage 5) that appears to have begun ten thousand years in advance of the solar forcing hypothesized to have caused it (also known as the causality problem)(putative effect precedes cause).

Effect exceeds cause

420,000 years of ice core data from Vostok, Antarctica research station.

The effects of these variations are primarily believed to be due to variations in the intensity of solar radiation upon various parts of the globe. Observations show climate behavior is much more intense than the calculated variations. Various internal characteristics of climate systems are believed to be sensitive to the insolation changes, causing amplification (positive feedback) and damping responses (negative feedback).

The unsplit peak problem

The unsplit peak problem refers to the fact that eccentricity has cleanly resolved variations at both the 95 and 125 ka periods. A sufficiently long, well-dated record of climate change should be able to resolve both frequencies.[15] However, some researchers[who?] interpret climate records of the last million years as showing only a single spectral peak at 100 ka periodicity.

The transition problem

Variations of Cycle Times, curves determined from ocean sediments

The transition problem refers to the switch in the frequency of climate variations 1 million years ago. From 1–3 million years, climate had a dominant mode matching the 41 ka cycle in obliquity. After 1 million years ago, this switched to a 100 ka variation matching eccentricity, for which no reason has been established.[citation needed]

Identifying dominant factor

Milankovitch believed that decreased summer insolation in northern high latitudes was the dominant factor leading to glaciation, which led him to (incorrectly) deduce an approximate 41 ka period for ice ages.[16] Subsequent research[17][18][19] has shown that ice age cycles of the Quaternary glaciation over the last million years have been at a 100,000-year period, leading to identification of the 100 ka eccentricity cycle as more important, although the exact mechanism remains obscure.

Present and future conditions

Past and future of daily average insolation at top of the atmosphere on the day of the summer solstice, at 65 N latitude. The green curve is with eccentricity e hypothetically set to 0. The red curve uses the actual (predicted) value of e. Blue dot is current conditions, at 2 ky A.D.

As mentioned above, at present, perihelion occurs during the southern hemisphere's summer and aphelion during the southern winter. Thus the southern hemisphere seasons should tend to be somewhat more extreme than the northern hemisphere seasons. The relatively low eccentricity of the present orbit results in a 6.8% difference in the amount of solar radiation during summer in the two hemispheres.

Since orbital variations are predictable,[20] if one has a model that relates orbital variations to climate, it is possible to run such a model forward to "predict" future climate. Two caveats are necessary: that anthropogenic effects may modify or even overwhelm orbital effects; and that the mechanism by which orbital forcing influences climate is not well understood. In the most prominent anthropogenic example, orbital forcing from the Milankovitch cycles has been in a cooling phase for millennia, but that cooling trend was reversed in the 20th and 21st centuries due to warming caused by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.[21]

The amount of solar radiation (insolation) in the Northern Hemisphere at 65° N seems to be related to occurrence of an ice age. Astronomical calculations show that 65° N summer insolation should increase gradually over the next 25,000 years.[22] A regime of eccentricity lower than the current value will last for about the next 100,000 years.
Changes in northern hemisphere summer insolation will be dominated by changes in obliquity ε. No declines in 65° N summer insolation, sufficient to cause a glacial period, are expected in the next 50,000 years.

An often-cited 1980 study by Imbrie and Imbrie determined that, "Ignoring anthropogenic and other possible sources of variation acting at frequencies higher than one cycle per 19,000 years, this model predicts that the long-term cooling trend that began some 6,000 years ago will continue for the next 23,000 years."[23]

More recent work by Berger and Loutre suggests that the current warm climate may last another 50,000 years.[24]

Other planets in the Solar System

Other planets in the Solar System have been discovered to have Milankovitch cycles. Mostly these cycles are not as intense or complex as the Earth's cycles, but do have a global geological impact with respect to the movement of mobile solids like Water or Nitrogen ices or hydrocarbon lakes.
  • Mars's polar caps vary in extent due to orbital instability related to a latent Milankovitch cycle. [25][26][27]
  • Saturn's moon Titan has a ~60,000-year cycle that changes the location of the methane lakes.[28][29]
  • Neptune's moon Triton has a similar variation to Titan with respect to migration of solid nitrogen deposits over long time scales.[30][31][32]