Cosmic Ray Shower

By Zach Williams

         Life on Earth may seem safe from space, but every minute, high-energy particles bombard our atmosphere and travel freely through almost every material here on Earth, including our skin! Though the particles are common, most do not make it through the atmosphere. The sources of these are called cosmic rays.

         Cosmic rays are charged sub-atomic particles (protons, electrons, or atomic nuclei) that originate from supernovas, exploding stars. These particles then collide with our atmosphere, resulting in particles getting knocked off of these atmospheric particles, thus causing ions. Ions are any molecule, or atom that loses or gains electrons, so it then carries a net positive or negative charge. They are looking for any other atoms to latch on to. This causes them to either collide with other atoms, breaking off that atoms particles, or bond with atoms it usually would not, which in turn leads to a mutated atom.

This process of knocking off electrons and other small particles from elements in the atmosphere leads to a shower effect. As particles are knocked off atoms by the primary sources, cosmic rays, these now fast moving particles collide with other atoms, thus knocking off more electrons, and so forth until the bottom of the atmosphere. However, by the time this process reaches the bottom of the atmosphere, the particles lose speed and are now less penetrating and therefore less damaging than the cosmic rays. Figure one shows this process in a somewhat simple way. As the cosmic rays collide with the first atoms in the atmosphere, the electrons start the chain-reaction shower. The yellow line is the path of the original cosmic ray, after first colliding with a molecule in the atmosphere it breaks the molecule up into pieces, whose paths are shown by the green lines. The red lines show the result of the broken molecules colliding with additional molecules.

It is much like striking pool balls with a cue ball at the beginning of a game. The cue ball strikes the front ball, and that front ball strikes the ball behind it and so on resulting in all the balls scattering in all directions.

As a member of the Adler’s Far Horizon Team, I had the opportunity to launch in experiment I designed to measure cosmic ray radiation levels at different layers of the atmosphere, closer and closer to the primary source. The experiment was launched on a high altitude balloon (HAB) up to around one hundred thousand feet, above nearly 99% of the atmosphere. Up there, the radiation levels are much higher than what we can expect here on Earth’s surface.

For this experiment, a Geiger counter was used to measure radiation levels. A Geiger counter detects radiation by ionization produced in a low-pressure gas in a Geiger–Müller tube. Each particle detected produces a pulse of current which the Geiger counter records and stores as a “count”.

Graph one shows the relationship between time into the flight and amount of radiation measured. It clearly shows that as time progressed, and altitude increased, the radiation increased, and as the radiation goes down, it shows that there is less radiation measured on the trip back down. The X- axis is the time into flight and the Y- Axis is the amount of radiation counts detected. The colored dots represent radiation counts taken while being shielded by different materials. The solid black line is the average of all radiation counts.

Without our atmosphere, all of these cosmic rays would be moving at high speeds, with little opposition towards us delicate humans. As we are exposed to these dangerous particles, all cells would be potentially harmed and bonded to unnatural particles, which could lead to health issues such as cancer. Our atmosphere acts as a little shield, protecting us, and keeping Earth within a safe level of radiation.


1. According to around 100,000 feet, what would be the expected radiation levels?

2. What are possible outcomes to high radiation exposure?

3. What are the primary sources of cosmic rays?


12 thoughts on “Cosmic Ray Shower

  1. So, an amazing passage of superbness just informed me that sub-atomic particles can actullay reach the surface of Earth. It’s time for a anit sub-atomic particle umberella.

  2. This article helped me understand why many idividuals get cancer from tanning in the sun. The risk of getting cancer increases as harmful rays penetrate the skin and harm the mitosis and DNA replication process. Thus, cancer is produced.

    – Heriberto Guzman

  3. Great blog Zach! I hope our atmosphere doesn’t, EVER, get ruined by these particles and green house

  4. Awesome article and chart! I knew a little about the atmosphere serving as a shield, but i didn’t know that each level of the atmosphere acted upon the rays differently. The pool ball analogy was a great way of explaining this. Are there any interesting traits that the particles have during, lets say, a Coronal Mass Ejection, CME? I know these are more violent

    • Thank you! Now during a CME, the particles are moving a lot faster and there are a lot more of them flying to our atmosphere, so to answer your question, yes during a CME, the cosmic rays could shatter the particles in our atmosphere and cause a more powerful umbrella effect.

  5. High Radiation exposure to humans can cause various cancers, cell defects, and illnesses similar to those seen in the Japanese people that survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People that suffered from the radiation exposure during the aftermath had mutated limbs, cell defects, and other effects that would cause pain, loss of senses or limbs, or death. Also, although some cancers are treated by radiation, over exposure can worsen such conditions.

  6. great job zach!!! the graphs made everything in the reading come together really well. i also have a question, besides cancer what other health problems does radiation cause? keep up the good job this, blog was interesting. looking foward to reading more from you! (shorty)

  7. Your blog is great. It explains in detail of cosmic rays and of high radiation exposure and shows their effect on Earth. Splendid work!

  8. 1. according to the reading, radiation levels are much more higher than those on earth around 100,000 feet.
    2. most of our cells would harmed and can also increase the chances of cancer.
    3. the primary sources of cosmic rays coming from exploding stars/Super novas.
    My comment: well done buddy! this article was very interesting, easily understandable, and very specific! i expect more blogs from you!!!

  9. 1-According to the passage, it would be much higher than we can expect on the Earth’s surface. But , the graph doesnt give much information on the radiation levels and altidude.
    2-The possible outcomes to high radiation are all cells would be potentially harmed and bonded to unnatural particles, which could lead to health issues such as cancer.
    3-?The primary source of cosmic rays are supernovas, or exploding stars. (G.H)

  10. In your first question you asked what would be the expected radiation levels at 1000,000 feet, with what you said in the passage this question would not be clearly answered. In your graph there was not a relationship between altitude and radiation levels. I would add this information to the article or to the graph.

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