Noisy Data May Help Us Unlock The Secrets of High-Energy Particles

a group of stars in space
Noisy Data May Unlock High-Energy Particle SecretsNational Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) Collaboration

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  • When cosmic rays hit the atmosphere, they often scatter to create air showers.

  • Historically, air showers are a nuisance to scientists, as they pollute images with hard-to-remove noise.

  • A new study shows how they might instead be useful, especially for studying high-energy particles like the cosmic rays that create them.

We are being actively bombarded at every moment of every day that we exist. Not by any kind of weapon or anything—we’d probably notice that a bit more often—but by high-energy particles known as cosmic rays. Originating from various sources in the universe and streaking through space to hit anything in their path, we are hit by thousands of cosmic rays per square meter every second.

Interestingly, when these particles hit our atmosphere, they have a tendency to scatter. Some of them make it through, but most of them scatter away before they hit the ground. And when they do, they create a mess of secondary particles known as an “air shower.” If you track out the paths of the particles in an air shower, it kind of looks like a very complicated lightning strike.

As it turns out, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports earlier this month, we have a really good way to study these things. And not only can we very successfully image air showers, we want to. For a long time, air showers were not much more than an annoyance to scientists trying to study other things in the sky without streaks of light getting in the way, and were dismissed as noise in the data. But now, that “noise” may be an ace in the hole for studying high energy particles.

The team analyzed around 17,000 images (taken between 2014 and 2020 by an instrument of the Subaru Telescope) in order to isolate just 13 that depict what they refer to as “extensive air showers,” which are air showers with especially high numbers of secondary particle tracks. From there, on very close inspection, they were able to divine a fair amount of information about the particle that started the air shower.

This is a first crack at studying these events in this manner, so the information is largely preliminary, but the researchers seemed to consider it a solid base from which to probe further. The team has come to believe that if they had access to a few more of the kind of detectors used in this study, they could divine not only the energy and mass composition of the original cosmic rays that started these showers, but the direction from which it came. This could help scientists identify the flight paths of these cosmic rays—a coveted and difficult-to-find piece of information for those in the field—and allow us to better analyze some of (according to a NASA website) the only samples of matter we can get from outside our Solar System.

“With conventional observation methods, it is challenging to distinguish between the types of particles that constitute extensive air showers,” Toshihiro Fujii, one of the authors on the study, said in a press release. “Our method, on the other hand, has the potential to determine the nature of individual particles.”

And it might not even stop with cosmic rays. Fujii hopes that “by integrating our method with conventional approaches, we hope to advance our understanding of extensive air showers. This technique may allow us to search for dark matter or other exotic particles, offering additional insights into the transition of the universe into a matter-dominated era.”

All that from a little noise in the data.

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