They call it the Fly's Eye, but it looks more like a collection of giant garbage cans with big mirrors inside.
The exotic-looking equipment is used for equally exotic research being done by University of Utah physicists in the desert of Dugway Proving Ground.The scientists use the 36 huge cylinders that sit on the valley floor and 67 more arranged on a nearby hillside to detect cosmic ray showers, explained Eugene Loh, U. physics department chairman.
He showed off the installation recently to duly impressed members of the State Advisory Council for Science and Technology.
Cosmic rays are ordinary atomic nuclei that come from outer space, Loh said. "They possess enormous energy," one million times that of the proposed superconducting supercollider.
"Where they come from nobody knows. That's why we're trying to study their origin."
As the tremendously energetic particles strike nuclei in the atmosphere, they create particle showers that glow as they travel toward Earth at the speed of light, he said. But the showers happen infrequently and unpredictably and glow for just a fraction of a nanosecond as they go by - too fast for the human eye to see.
They can be seen, though, by the Fly's Eye, so called because the detector operates like a fly's compound eye, with cylinders pointing in all directions to cover the entire sky.
The scientists try to determine what kind of particle is involved - hydrogen, helium, carbon, whatever - and where the shower is coming from.
Recently, they identified what they think is a source near the edge of this galaxy - a binary star system called Cygnus X3.
"We see high-energy particles coming from that place," and as it passes overhead the rate of particles detected goes up, Loh said. The physicists submitted a paper to a scientific journal announcing the discovery.
One interesting finding is that Cygnus X3 has a strong magnetic field. "Maybe such a high magnetic field can produce particles of this energy."
Loh said the researchers also have weak indications of another possible source within the galaxy, but the Fly's Eye isn't sensitive enough for them to be sure.
If the National Science Foundation, which has funded the $5 million project, approves a proposed $20 million upgrade, the scientists will be able to make the detector 100 times more sensitive.
The U. research, which began in 1976, has caught the interest of scientists around the country. Physicists from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan have joined the project and plan to go one step further than the Utahns.
"They are catching the showers when the showers hit the ground. We are watching them in the sky," Loh said.
The scientists from Chicago are laying 1,000 white counter boxes on the valley floor, and those from Michigan are digging seven 10-foot-deep pits, in each of which they'll place 64 door-sized counters.
Counters will extend over 2,000 square meters of desert floor when the installation is complete. "We will have the world's best array of detectors at Dugway to look at energetic particles," Loh said.
So what is the purpose of all this research?
"Just fundamental knowledge about the universe," according to Loh. While there are potential spinoffs - the scientists have had to develop all of their own electronics and programming, for example - the research is basically pure, rather than applied science.
It provides information about an energy source, and it helps those who are studying the origins of the universe, Loh said.