University of Utah receives $1 million grant to study cosmic particles

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25 2012 10:51 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists at the University of Utah have been awarded a $1 million grant to study high-energy cosmic rays in Utah’s western desert that are hurtling toward Earth.

The rays are 10 trillion times more energetic than particles emitted in a nuclear explosion and originate from violent cosmic events deep within the universe.

The award from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation will assist researchers in developing a new tool for what it says will help understand how the universe evolved, employing a technique known as Bistatic Radar.

Bistatic Radar is much less expensive than traditional cosmic ray detection techniques, which cost tens of millions of dollars. Scientists will attempt to use analog television transmitters and high-speed digital receivers to observe the range, direction and strength of high-energy particles in order to track the rays back to their point of origin.

Upon completion, the new facility created using the grant will be known as the W.M. Keck Radar Observatory and will be located in Millard County.

Established in 1954, the Keck Foundation was established by the late W.M. Keck — founder of the Superior Oil Company. The organization’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering, and undergraduate education.

Initially, the observatory will share space with Utah's Telescope Array — the largest “conventional” cosmic ray observatory in the Northern Hemisphere, explained John Belz, radar project director and research associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Utah.

Utah’s western desert offers low levels of light pollution and atmospheric aerosols, making Utah an ideal location for detecting and studying cosmic rays, he said.

In addition, the state’s deserts are highly “radio-quiet” with low levels of human-generated high-frequency interference, which makes it uniquely suitable for tests of the radar technique, he added.

“We are at the frontier in our understanding of the origin of the universe’s most energetic particles,” Belz said. “These particles are hundreds of thousands of times more energetic than particles emitted from supernova explosions.”

The main goal of the research is to understand the origins of these rare cosmic rays in order to gain a better understanding of some of the most violent processes shaping the universe, he said.

Victor Hess discovered cosmic rays in 1912 that have since been determined to be subatomic particles and radiation of extra-terrestrial origin, according to U. scientists. In 1991, the U.'s Fly’s Eye Cosmic Ray Detector in Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground recorded the highest energy elementary particle ever observed.

This particle was believed to be a proton traveling close to the speed of light and initiated a search for cosmic origins that continues to this day. High-energy cosmic particles are considered very rare. For instance, a square mile of the Earth’s surface might be impacted by one of these particles roughly once every century.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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