Wichita State News
Photo: Lainie Rusco
Physics professor Nick Solomey says the Pierre Auger Observatory test site in Colorado will help him and other researchers study the origins of cosmic rays.

Physics faculty, students take part in cosmic ray project

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Wichita State University is the lead Kansas institution participating in the development of the $127 million northern test site of the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, a major international effort to probe the cosmos and learn more about how cosmic rays work.

Cosmic rays are charged particles that constantly rain down on Earth from space. They are the most energetic and rarest of particles in the universe. While much progress has been made in understanding cosmic rays with low to moderate energies, those with extremely high energies remain mysterious.

Since 2004, nearly 500 physicists from 19 countries have gathered data at the southern Pierre Auger Observatory near Malargue, Argentina, to help shed light on those mysteries. And now the same is being done near Lamar, Colo., where construction of the northern Pierre Auger Observatory is under way.

Wichita State, Fermilab (Ill.), and five other universities are working on the project. The other universities are: Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines, Michigan Technical University, Case Western University and University of Paris VII.

WSU’s researchers are in charge of handling the computer read-out system. The control room for the test site is located at WSU and was paid for in part by donations from physics alumnus Bill Simon.

Holger Meyer
Holger Meyer
Physics professor Nick Solomey, assistant professor Holger Meyer and physics students Jeanette Bergkamp, Richard Bonde and Matthew Onstott are conducting the research on behalf of Wichita State. The research is a unique chance for the students to get hands-on experience with a big international project.

Read more about how the cosmic ray project is helping students gain valuable experience-based learning.

The observatory research also promotes Wichita State on a comprehensive level among its peers, Solomey said, and advocates the WSU Department of Physics as a leader in the industry.

“The Auger project is a great opportunity for physics faculty and students because it is (a) worldwide priority project in astro-physics that will bring great attention to our physics program,” Solomey said. “Wichita State University will be able to shine in the spotlight with us.”

How the observatory works

The Auger Observatory is a "hybrid detector," employing two independent methods to detect and study high-energy cosmic rays. One technique detects high-energy particles through their interaction with water placed in surface detector tanks.

The other technique tracks the development of air showers by observing ultraviolet light emitted high in the Earth's atmosphere.

Employing these two complementary observation methods provides the Auger Observatory with high-quality information about the types of particles in the cosmic rays.

The southern observatory in Argentina has 1,500 surface detector tanks. The northern site will be much larger, with 8,000 tanks more than a 100-by-100-mile area.

It will study the origins of cosmic rays, trying to understand where they come from.

“It is a new window on the very distant past and the Big Bang creation of the universe,” Solomey said. “The studies might also find evidence of dark matter and dark energy – an ongoing mystery.”

Solomey said the students will have an opportunity to learn a lot about this type of astro-particle physics science and how to work in large groups. WSU will be the closest research university to the test site and can provide a unique ability for the students to participate in the project because of the proximity to the planned array.

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Created on Wednesday, August 03, 2011; Last modified on Monday, August 22, 2011