Cosmic Ray Study gets Down to Earth with $1 Million Grant

When you’re studying high-energy cosmic rays, you need all the help you can get. After all, these rays are 10 trillion times more energetic than the particles emitted in a nuclear explosion.

Enter the W.M. Keck Foundation, which recently awarded the University of Utah $1 million for the study of these hyperpowered rays.

The goal is to better understand how the universe evolved. Employing a new technique known as “bistatic radar,” researchers 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. The Keck grant will assist U researchers in the development of bistatic radar.

This new method of studying cosmic rays is much more cost effective than former options that employ surface radiation detectors and cost millions of dollars.

The new facility, named the W.M. Keck Radar Observatory, will be built in Millard County, Utah, where it will be located adjacent to Utah’s Telescope Array, the largest “conventional” cosmic ray observatory in the Northern Hemisphere. This proximity will enable researchers to compare the findings from the Keck Observatory to those of the Telescope Array on an event-by-event basis.

Utah’s western deserts are the perfect location for such research, as they present low levels of light pollution and atmospheric aerosols. Utah’s deserts are also relatively “radio-quiet” with low levels of human-generated high-frequency interference.

The researchers from the U’s College of Science will be Pierre Sokolsky, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Dean of the College of Science, and Gordon Thomson, the Jack W. Keuffel chair in experimental astrophysics at the Department of Physics and Astronomy.