A century ago when scientists first began investigating the cosmic energy radiating from outer space, they decided to call the phenomena cosmic rays. Like the rays of the Sun. But as the years went by these same scientists came to realize that this very powerful and potentially deadly phenomena was not composed of rays, or even of waves. They were highly energized particles.
Scientists had been puzzled by the blank photographic plates they sent up in weather balloons. These balloons drifted high up into the troposphere, where regular aircraft could not yet reach. When the plates were collected they showed curious streaks of powerful energy waves. They suspected that some kind of very powerful energy stream was washing around the Earth.
But the phrase ‘cosmic rays’ had already stuck in the public’s imagination, with dozens of stories featuring cosmic ray guns and cannons, and creatures radiating cosmic rays against the helpless human race published in numerous pulp magazines, so the scientific community wisely decided against a campaign to rename them ‘cosmic particles.’ Just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Cosmic rays, so-called, are highly ionized positive atoms. Their source remains a mystery, but there are plenty of theories about their origin. More on that later. These cosmic rays follow the path of least resistance in the universe, which is called the interstellar medium – very low density, but chock full of magnetic fields; which ionized positive atoms follow as blindly as a flea follows a dog. The interstellar medium is like a highway between stars. So in theory it’s possible to avoid running into or going through, a belt of cosmic rays. The reason cosmic rays are considered deadly is because of their extremely high energy. Consider them as atoms with a bad attitude and too much energy, like a delinquent teenager. Like other types of radiation, cosmic rays penetrate just about anything and on their way through organic living matter they like to punch out the lights of DNA strands and any genes that happen to get in their way. This can lead to lingering disease, burns, scars, even birth defects and death. No one has yet to find any beneficial use for cosmic rays. Except comic books.
As to where cosmic rays come from, a large segment of astrophysicists think that they originate from the remnants of super novas. A super nova is a star that got too big for its britches. A star that used up all its stable hydrogen and helium in the fusion process, and then began cannibalizing all the other elements in its makeup. These other elements, such as iron and nickel, don’t work so well as fuel. In fact, what they do instead of burning steadily is blow up. So the star goes nova, or in the case of a very large star, goes super nova. What remains after the big bang are fragments of highly charged gas and dust that can’t hold on to their frisky little atoms too long. These atoms escape at extremely high velocity and become the particles of cosmic rays. And since there are super novas happening all the time in the universe, there is a vast and probably increasing supply of cosmic rays clogging up the interstellar medium. Gridlock among the stars! Luckily, with the steady expansion of the universe, there is plenty of room for them at this time. In a couple of billion years . . . well, the universe may have to put up some stoplights.
A substantial minority of scientists think that there is another source for cosmic rays.
They posit that when galaxies collide, as they sometimes do despite the best efforts of whoever is in charge of these things, the resulting crush of matter releases enormous bursts of energy that becomes gamma rays, x-rays, and cosmic rays. Our own Milky Way, after all, is due to crash into the Andromeda galaxy in about four billion years. It’s going to be messy, and the cosmic rays created by this intergalactic fender bender may start flowing like wine at a wedding.
Scientific theories that cosmic rays are responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, and for global warming, have been disproved and discredited for many years. That’s why they’re still so popular on social media.
If you want to really get a handle on cosmic rays, to get on a first name basis with them, you need to go to Mars, where they fall like a constant drizzle on the sterile soil. No wonder some have named it the Angry Red Planet! So if you’re planning on going to Mars any time soon you may want to reconsider and get yourself a condo in Hawaii instead. Because on Mars, with the constant bombardment of cosmic rays, you will be limited to just 4 hours of exposure each day. The other twenty hours of the day you’ll need to be deep underground or otherwise shielded from the effects of cosmic rays.
Not to mention they don’t have one single Starbucks up there yet . . .