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.

Dirt Cheap Muon Detector Puts Particle Physics Within DIY Reach

Subatomic physics is pretty neat stuff, but not generally considered within the reach of the home-gamer. With cavernous labs filled with racks of expensive gears and miles-wide accelerators, playing with the subatomic menagerie has been firmly in the hands of the pros for pretty much as long as the field has been in existence. But that could change with this sub-$100 DIY muon detector.

[Spencer Axani] has been fiddling with the idea of a tiny muon detector since his undergrad days. Now as an MIT doctoral candidate, he’s making that dream a reality. Muons are particles that are similar to electrons but more massive and less likely to be affected by electromagnetic fields. Muons rain down on the Earth’s surface at the rate of 10,000 per square meter every minute after being created by cosmic rays interacting with the atmosphere and are capable of penetrating deep into the planet. [Spencer]’s detector is purposely kept as low-budget as possible, using cheap plastic scintillators and solid-state photomultipliers hooked up to an Arduino. The whole project is as much STEM outreach as it is a serious scientific effort; the online paper (PDF link) stresses the mechanical and electronics skills needed to complete the build. At the $100 price point, this build is well within the means of most high school STEM programs and allows for a large, distributed array of muon detectors that has the potential for some exciting science.

We’ve covered quite a few subatomic detection projects before, from the aforementioned large-scale builds to more modest efforts. But we like this project because it has the potential to inspire a lot of citizen scientists.

Thanks for the tip, [deralchemist]

Light Speed: It’s not Just a Good Idea

[Kerry Wong] took apart a PM2L color analyzer (a piece of photography darkroom gear) and found a photomultiplier tube (PMT) inside. PMTs are excellent at detecting very small amounts of light, but they also have a very fast response time compared to other common detection methods. [Kerry] decided to use the tube to measure the speed of light.

There are several common methods to indirectly measure the speed of light by relating frequency to wavelength (for example, using microwave ovens and marshmallows). However, measuring it directly is difficult because of the scale involved. In only a microsecond, light travels almost 1000 feet (986 feet or 299.8 meters).

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Creating a Scanning Monochromator

If you need a specific wavelength of light for research purposes, the naïve way of obtaining that is a white source light, a prism, and a small slit that will move across your own personal Dark Side of the Moon album cover. This is actually a terrible idea; not only won’t you have a reference of exactly what wavelength of light you’re letting through the optical slit, the prism itself will absorb more of one wavelength of light than others.

The solution is a monochromator, a device that performs the same feat of research without all the drawbacks. [Shahriar] got his hands on an old manual monochromator and decided to turn it into a device that performs automatic scans.

The key of a monochromator is a diffraction grating, a mirrored surface with many fine parallel grooves arranged in a step pattern. Because of the surface of the diffraction grating, it’s possible to separate light according to its spectrum much like a prism. Unlike a prism, it’s effectively a first surface mirror meaning all wavelengths of light are reflected more or less equally.

By adding a stepper motor to the dial of his monochromator, [Shahriar] was able to automatically scan across the entire range of the device. Inside the monochromator is a photomultiplier tube that samples the incoming light and turns it into a voltage. By sampling this voltage and plotting it with MATLAB, [Shahriar] was able to plot the intensity of every wavelength of light within the range of the device. It’s all expertly explained in the video below.

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Cooling a photomultiplier tube


A photomultiplier tube is a device used to measure very low levels of light. It’s a common tool of particle physics when trying to detect just a few photons. It turns out that running a tube at room temperature will not provide the best results. To improve the accuracy and sensitivity of his equipment [David Prutchi] built this thermoelectric photomultiplier tube cooling rig.

You can’t actually see the tube in this image but it looks similar to a vacuum tube or Nixie tube. The difference being that the components inside the glass dome make up the detector instead of an amplifier or filament display. To make a physical interface with the glass [David] wrapped it in magnetic shielding and finished with a layer of aluminum foil tape. This cylinder was then snugly fit inside of an aluminum heat sync. two Peltier coolers were attached to the outside of the heat sync, using Arctic Silver thermal compound to help transmit heat. A thermocouple was also added to monitor the temperature of this first stage of cooling. All of this fits into an aluminum enclosure which was filled with expanding spray foam before having a trio of fan-cooled heat syncs attached to it.

Large area x-ray detector

This is an x-ray detector built by [Ben Krasnow]. It’s an interesting combination of parts working with an oscilloscope. The result is an audible clicking much the same as you would hear from a Geiger counter

He’s measuring backscatter, which is the reflection of x-rays on other objects. Because the signal will be quite weak compared to waves emitted directly from an x-ray source he needed a large collector to measure them. He started by gutting an x-ray image intensifying cassette. This has a phosphor layer that glows when excited by x-rays. The idea is that the glowing phosphors do a better job of exposing film than direct x-rays can. But [Ben’s] not using film. He built that pyramid-shaped collector with the phosphor material as the base. At the apex of the pyramid he mounted a photomultiplier tube (repurposed from his scanning electron microscope) which can detect the excited points on its surface. His oscilloscope monitors the PMT, then issues a voltage spike on the calibration connector which is being fed to an audio amplifier. Don’t miss his presentation embedded after the break.

[Ben] mentions that this build is in preparation for a future project. We’d love to hear what you think he’s working on. Leave your guess in the comments section.

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Imploding Vacuum tubes for science

The researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory are looking for a way to harden photomultiplier tubes. In order to make a more durable tube the researchers decided it would be a good idea to first observe how the tubes are failing. So they got their hands on an old torpedo test bay and smashed some bulbs inside of it. Check in after the break for some high fps bulb smashing.

Photomultiplier tubes are used in massive quantities to detect the highly elusive neutrino particle. The problem is when you have 50,000 photomultipliers submerged in pressurized water the the collapse of just a single bulb can cause a shock wave of destruction. This is what happened in japan in 2001 when a maintenance worker unknowingly compromised a single bulb in a 11,000 bulb array. When the tank was repressurized that single compromised bulb caused them to lose 7,000 more.

[via wired]

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