THP Quarterfinalist: Low-Cost Solid State Cosmic Ray Observatory

Cosmic Rays There are a number of crowdsourced projects to put data from around the world onto the Internet, tracking everything from lightning to aircraft transponders. [aelias36]‘s entry for The Hackaday Prize is a little different. He’s tracking cosmic rays, and hopes to turn his low-cost hardware into the largest observatory in the world.

Cosmic rays are protons and other atomic nuclei originating far outside the solar system. They hit the very top of Earth’s atmosphere at a significant fraction of the speed of light, and the surface of the Earth is frequently sprayed with particles resulting from cosmic rays. Detecting this particle spray is the basis for all Earth-based cosmic ray observatories, and [aelias] has figured out a cheap way to put detectors in every corner of the globe.

The solution is a simple PIN diode. An op-amp amplifies the tiny signal created in the diode into something a microcontroller can use. Adding a GPS module and an Ethernet connection, this simple detector can send time, position, and particle counts to a server, creating a huge observatory with crowdsourced data.

The detectors [aelias] is working on isn’t great as far as cosmic ray detectors go; the focus here is getting a lot of them out into the field and turning a huge quantity of data into quality data. It’s an interesting project, and the only one with this scale of crowdsourcing we’ve seen for The Hackaday Prize.

You can check out [aelias]‘ entry video below.


SpaceWrencherThe project featured in this post is a semifinalist in The Hackaday Prize.

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Researching cosmic rays with cloud chambers

In the late 1940s, the US Naval Research Laboratory used a few German-built V2 rockets to study cosmic rays from above Earth’s atmosphere. To do this, a nitrogen-powered cloud chamber was fitted inside the nose cone of these former missiles, sent aloft, and photographed every 25 seconds during flight. When [Markus] read about these experiments, he thought it would be an excellent way to study cosmic rays from a high altitude balloon and set about building his own Wilson cloud chamber.

Cloud chambers work by supersaturating the atmosphere with water or alcohol vapor. This creates a smoky cloud inside the chamber, allowing for the visualization of radiation inside the cloud. Usually the clouds in these chambers are made in a very cold environment using dry ice, but rapidly decreasing the air pressure in the chamber will work just as well, as [Markus] discovered.

[Markus]‘s small cloud chamber uses a CO2 cartridge to provide the pressure in the cloud chamber before dumping the CO2 out of the chamber with the help of a solenoid valve.

In the video after the break, [Markus] demonstrates his cloud chamber by illuminating the cloud with a laser pointer and introducing a few alpha particles with a sample of Americium 241. It looks very cool, and seems to be useful enough to count cosmic rays aboard a balloon or amateur rocket.

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Detecting cosmic rays with 18 Geiger tubes

What do you do if you have 18 Geiger tubes lying around? [Robert] had an interesting idea to build a cosmic ray detector and hodoscope to observe the path cosmic rays take while flying through his lab.

[Robert]‘s cosmic ray detector works by detecting the output 9 Geiger tubes on the y-axis and 9 Geiger tubes on the x-axis with a coincidence circuit. When a cosmic ray flies through the detector, it should trigger two tubes simultaneously. By graphing which of the two tubes were triggered on an array of 81 LEDs, [Robert] not only knows when a cosmic ray is detected, but where the cosmic ray was.

The detectors do pick up a little background radiation, but thanks to [Robert]‘s coincidence circuit, he can be fairly certain that what he’s recording are actually high-energy cosmic rays.

Before building the 9×9 hodoscope, [Robert] built a similar drift hodoscope that simply plots the path a cosmic ray takes through an array of Geiger tubes. You can check out videos of both these cosmic ray detectors after the break.

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