Air shower (physics)

Air shower (physics)

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An air shower is an extensive (many kilometres (miles) wide) cascade
Particle shower
In particle physics, a shower is a cascade of secondary particles produced as the result of a high-energy particle interacting with dense matter. The incoming particle interacts, producing multiple new particles with lesser energy; each of these then interacts in the same way, a process that...

 of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation
Electromagnetic radiation
Electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy that exhibits wave-like behavior as it travels through space...

 produced in the atmosphere
Earth's atmosphere
The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention , and reducing temperature extremes between day and night...

 when a primary cosmic ray
Cosmic ray
Cosmic rays are energetic charged subatomic particles, originating from outer space. They may produce secondary particles that penetrate the Earth's atmosphere and surface. The term ray is historical as cosmic rays were thought to be electromagnetic radiation...

 (i.e. one of extraterrestrial origin) enters the atmosphere. The term cascade means that the incident particle, which could be a proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

, a nucleus
Atomic nucleus
The nucleus is the very dense region consisting of protons and neutrons at the center of an atom. It was discovered in 1911, as a result of Ernest Rutherford's interpretation of the famous 1909 Rutherford experiment performed by Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford. The...

, an electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

, a photon
In physics, a photon is an elementary particle, the quantum of the electromagnetic interaction and the basic unit of light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation. It is also the force carrier for the electromagnetic force...

, or (rarely) a positron
The positron or antielectron is the antiparticle or the antimatter counterpart of the electron. The positron has an electric charge of +1e, a spin of ½, and has the same mass as an electron...

, strikes a molecule in the air so as to produce many high energy ions (secondaries), which in turn create more, and so on.

The original particle arrives with high energy and hence a velocity near the speed of light
Speed of light
The speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, is a physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its value is 299,792,458 metres per second, a figure that is exact since the length of the metre is defined from this constant and the international standard for time...

, so the products of the collisions tend also to move generally in the same direction as the primary, while to some extent spreading sidewise. In addition, the secondary particles produce a widespread flash of light in forward direction due to the Cherenkov effect, as well as fluorescence light
Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation of a different wavelength. It is a form of luminescence. In most cases, emitted light has a longer wavelength, and therefore lower energy, than the absorbed radiation...

 that is emitted isotropically from the excitation of nitrogen molecules. The particle cascade and the light produced in the atmosphere can be detected with surface detector arrays and optical telescopes. Surface detectors typically use Cherenkov detector
Cherenkov detector
A Cherenkov detector is a particle detector using the mass-dependent threshold energy of Cherenkov radiation. This allows a discrimination between a lighter particle and a heavier particle ....

s or Scintillation counter
Scintillation counter
A scintillation counter measures ionizing radiation. The sensor, called a scintillator, consists of a transparent crystal, usually phosphor, plastic , or organic liquid that fluoresces when struck by ionizing radiation. A sensitive photomultiplier tube measures the light from the crystal...

s to detect the charged secondary particles at ground level. The telescopes used to measure the fluorescence and Cherenkov light use large mirrors to focus the light on PMT
Photomultiplier tubes , members of the class of vacuum tubes, and more specifically phototubes, are extremely sensitive detectors of light in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum...


The longitudinal profile of the number of charged particles can be parameterized by the Gaisser-Hillas function.

External links

  • Extensive Air Showers.
  • Buckland Park Air Shower Detector
  • Haverah Park Detection System
  • HiRes Detector System
  • Pierre Auger Observatory
  • AIRES (AIRshower Extended Simulations) : Large and well documented Fortran package for simulating cosmic ray showers by Sergio Sciutto at the Department of Physics of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata
    Universidad Nacional de La Plata
    The National University of La Plata is one of the most important Argentine national universities and the biggest one situated in the city of La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires Province...

    , Argentina
    CORSIKA is a physics computer software for simulation of extensive air showers induced by high energy cosmic rays. It may be used up to and beyond the highest energies of 100 EeV....

    , CORSIKA: Another code for simulating cosmic ray air showers by Dieter Heck of the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe, Germany
  • COSMUS : Interactive animated 3d models of several different cosmic ray air showers, and instructions on how to make your own using AIRES simulations. From the COSMUS group at the University of Chicago.
  • Milagro Animations : Movies and instructions for how to make them, showing how air showers interact with the Milagro detector. By Miguel Morales.
  • CASSIM Animations : Animations of different cosmic ray air showers by Hajo Dreschler of New York University.
  • SPASE2 Experiment : South-Pole Air Shower Experiment (SPASE).
  • GAMMA Experiment : High mountain Air Shower Experiment.