If you could enlist your smartphone to become part of an earth-sized telescope searching for the source of cosmic rays, would you? Researchers at University of California are hoping you'd say yes—they've developed an app that will leverage the power of one million smartphone cameras to answer one of the great questions about our universe. What exactly is a cosmic ray? Basically, they're high-energy particles from far, far away that smashes into our atmosphere in events called "air showers." How common are they? Well, CERN says that "one
per second passes through a volume the size of a person's head," which is to say that one muon may have just passed through your head while reading this.
The thing is, air showers are hard to detect since they're random and massive—in fact, we've been trying to figure out where they come from for nearly a century. In the early 1900s, a scientist named Theodor Wulf planted the empirical seed that would become the idea of cosmic rays by showing how the air at the tip of the Eiffel Tower contained more radiation than the air at the bottom. A few years later, physicist Victor Hess confirmed Wulf's findings in a hydrogen balloon high above the Earth, and cosmic rays were born.
Here's how their app works: Inside your smartphone's camera, whether a Galaxy S5 or an iPhone 6, are silicon photodiode pixels—the things that detect visible light and turn it into something you can see on your screen. But as the UC team explains in their new paper (PDF), they can also detect high-energy particles. The app is basically a piece of software that records when your camera senses these particles, then records the levels, location, and time of the "shower."
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