If there is anything more pop culture sounding for a technical term, then cosmic rays are it. Maybe the term brings visions of thin, laser-like beams of light zipping down from outer space to strike the Earth, or broad beams that bathe our planet in ethereal mystery. They definitely aren’t large, flat creatures that float majestically between the stars!
I first came across the term reading about the solar cycle, as periods of low solar activity, i.e. slower solar winds, allow more cosmic rays to penetrate our magnetic field. But what are they? Finding a clear definition of a cosmic ray was as hard as catching one, but that’s partly because they were badly described in the first place.
About half the cosmic rays that reach Earth are thought to be high energy particles flung out of supernovae explosions. Now, they are pretty serious events, but we’re talking single particles here, random particles that have wondering the universe by themselves that just happen to run into the Earth. The other half are though to come from the Sun. One, random particle on its own isn’t likely to do much to you if it hits you, but if you fly regularly, perhaps, because your job is an airline pilot, then you’re more likely to be exposed to these high energy radiation particles.
Historically, they’ve left an imprint in tree rings, as an increase in Carbon-14 at time of high cosmic ray incursion. More seriously, they have been known to cause electronic chaos, by flipping switches inside computers to cause random glitches. There is also some debate on whether they have some effect on the weather, too.
I was lucky enough to catch a cosmic ray on video a few months back. I’m seeing a few here and there at the moment as the Sun heads towards Solar Minimum. Perhaps I’ll end up with a cosmic ray gallery!