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The Nature and Origin of Cosmic Rays

Recording Details

Speaker(s): 
Scientific Areas: 
Collection/Series: 
PIRSA Number: 
06100003

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that the majority of high energy atomic nuclei ("cosmic rays") that continually rain upon the Earth originate in galactic supernova shock waves, although some different (likely extragalactic) origin must be invoked to explain the highest energy particles. Despite many decades of intensive research on the subject, only indirect clues to these ideas exist at present. Direct measurements of the spectrum and mass composition of high energy cosmic rays are needed to validate these notions, but are hampered by rapidly dwindling fluxes with energy. Indeed, there is an expectation that the cosmic nuclei should have progressively more charge (and therefore mass), on average, with increasing energy, up to the astrophysical "knee" (spectral break) in the spectrum at around 3x10^15 eV. At energies beyond the knee, only indirect measurements are possible. The CREAM (Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass) experiment is a complex particle detector flown by high altitude balloon to directly measure the charge and energy of the cosmic rays at energies near the spectral knee. It flew successfully in Antarctica in Dec 04 / Jan 05 for a record-breaking 42 days, and again in Dec 05 / Jan 06. We will review the science and performance of the instrument in flight, and present preliminary results and discuss prospects for additional CREAM missions. The Auger experiment is the largest cosmic ray detector ever built, currently nearing completion in Argentina, covering an area of 3000 km^2. Its aim is to resolve a number of mysteries surrounding the highest energy cosmic rays, beyond 10^18 eV, whose very existence and ability to reach the Earth are difficult to understand. The rarity of the highest energy particles has precluded definitive answers to the question of their nature and origin, and indeed some controversy surrounds the existing experimental evidence. The Auger experiment will afford an order of magnitude improvement in statistics over previous efforts, as well as much improved control of systematics. We will briefly review the science of the highest energy cosmic rays and present first results obtained with the growing Auger array, and discuss plans for the future of these efforts.