Make A Cheap Muon Detector Using Cosmicwatch

A little over a year ago we’d written about a sub $100 muon detector that MIT doctoral candidate [Spencer Axani] and a few others had put together. At the time there was little more than a paper on about it. Now, a few versions later they’ve refined it to the level of a kit with full instructions for making your own under the banner, CosmicWatch including PCB Gerber files for the two surface mount boards you’ll need to assemble.

What’s a muon? The Earth is under constant bombardment from cosmic rays, most of them being nuclei expelled from supernova explosions. As they collide with nuclei in our atmosphere, pions and kaons are produced, and the pions then decay into muons.  These muons are similar to electrons, having a +1 or -1 charge, but with 200 times the mass.

This pion-to-muon decay happens higher than 10 km above the Earth’s surface. But the muons have a lifetime at rest of 2.2 μs. This means that the number of muons peak at around 10 km and decrease as you go down. A jetliner at 30,000 feet will encounter far more muons than will someone at the Earth’s surface where there’s one per cm2 per minute, and the deeper underground you go the fewer still. This makes them useful for inferring altitude and depth.

How does CosmicWatch detect these muons? The working components of the detector consist of a plastic scintillator, a silicon photomultiplier (SiPM), a main circuit board which does signal amplification and peak detection among other things, and an Arduino nano.

As a muon passes through the scintillating material, some of its energy is absorbed and re-emitted as photons. Those photons are detected by the silicon photomultiplier (SiPM) which then outputs an electrical signal that is approximately 0.5 μs wide and 10-100 mV. That’s then amplified by a factor of 6. However, the amplified pulse is too brief for the Arduino nano and so it’s stretched out by the peak detector to roughly 100 μs. The Arduino samples the peak detector’s output and calculates the original pulse’s amplitude.

Their webpage has copious details on where to get the parts, the software and how to make it. However, they do assume you can either find a cheap photomultiplier somewhere or buy it in quantities of over 100 brand new, presumably as part of a school program. That bulk purchase makes the difference between a $50 part and one just over $100. But being skilled hackers we’re sure you can find other ways to save costs, and $150 for a muon detector still isn’t too unreasonable.

Detecting muons seems to have become a thing lately. Not too long ago we reported on a Hackaday prize entry for a detector that uses Russian Geiger–Müller Tubes.

Hackaday Prize Entry : Cosmic Particle Detector Is Citizen Science Disguised As Art

Thanks to CERN and their work in detecting the Higgs Boson using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), there has been a surge of interest among many to learn more about the basic building blocks of the Universe. CERN could do it due to the immense power of the LHC — capable of reaching a beam energy of almost 14TeV. Compared to this, some cosmic rays have energies as high as 3 × 1020 eV. And these cosmic rays keep raining down on Earth continuously, creating a chain reaction of particles when they interact with atmospheric molecules. By the time many of these particles reach the surface of the earth, they have mutated into “muons”, which can be detected using Geiger–Müller Tubes (GMT).

[Robert Hart] is building an array of individual cosmic ray detectors that can be distributed across a landscape to display how these cosmic rays (particles, technically) arrive as showers of muons. It’s a citizen science project disguised as an art installation.

The heart of each individual device will be a set of three Russian Geiger–Müller Tubes to detect the particles, and an RGB LED that lights up depending on the type of particle detected. There will also be an audio amplifier driving a small 1W speaker to provide some sound effects. A solar panel is used to charge the battery, which will feed the converters that generate the logic and high voltages required for the GMT array. The GMT signals pass through a pulse shaper and then through the logic gates, finally being amplified to drive the LEDs and the audio amplifier. Depending on the direction and order in which the particles pass through the GMT’s, the device will produce a bright flash of one of 4 colors — red, green, blue or white. It also triggers generation one of three musical notes — C, F, G or a combination of all three. The logic section uses coincidence detection, which has worked well for his earlier iterations. A coincidence detector is an AND logic which produces an output when two input events occur sufficiently close to each other in time. He’s experimented with several design versions, before settling on a trio of 555 monostable multivibrators to provide the initial pulse shaping, followed by some AND gates. A neat PCB design brings it all together.

While the prototypes are housed in wooden cases, he’s going to experiment with various enclosure and mounting options to see which works best — bollard lamp posts, spheres, something that hangs on a tree or tripod or is put in the ground like a paving block. Future prototypes and installations may include a software, pulse summing and solid-state detectors. Embedded below is a video of his current version of the detector, but there are several other interesting videos on his project page that are worth looking at. And if this has gotten you interested, check out this CERN brochure — LHC, The guide for a simple explanation of particle physics and information on the LHC.

Continue reading “Hackaday Prize Entry : Cosmic Particle Detector Is Citizen Science Disguised As Art”

CRAYFIS Hijacks our Cellphones for a Worldwide Cosmic Ray Detector

Although scientists have known about Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays (UHECRs) for years, nobody can pinpoint their origin. When these UHECRs hit the ground, however, they cause a widespread local disturbance called an air shower. This air shower is a wide dispersion of photons, muons, and electrons at sea level. The means of observing this air shower mandates a widespread geographic region for detecting them. One solution would be a very big detector. Physicists [Daniel] and [Michael] discovered an alternative to pricey hardware, though. By leveraging the CMOS sensors in our smartphones, they can borrow some CPU cycles on our phones to create a worldwide detector network.

According to their paper, the CMOS camera in our smartphones is sensitive to the spectrum of radiation induced by muons and photons from these air showers. With an app running on our phones, [Daniel], [Michael], and other scientists can aggregate the data from multiple detections in a similar region to better understand their origins.

If you’re concerned about CRAYFIS taking away from your talk or web-browsing time, fear not; it runs in the background when a power source has been detected, hopefully, when you are asleep. It’s not the first time we see scientists tap into our computing resources, but this is certainly an achievement made possible in only the last few years by the sensor-loaded smartphone that charges on many of our night stands. With over 1.5 billion smartphones active in the world, we’re thrilled to see a team cleverly leveraging a ubiquitous and already-well-distributed resource.

via [NPR]