SALT LAKE CITY— Scientists at the University of Utah have been awarded $1 million to study the high-energy cosmic rays hurtling toward Earth.
From Utah’s west desert, scientists will use analog TV transmitters and digital receivers as part of an effort to trace the origins of violent events that make cosmic rays 10 trillion times more energetic than particles emitted in a nuclear explosion.
The grant from a Los Angeles-based foundation will help researchers understand the forces that have shaped the universe.
The W.M. Keck Foundation, named after the founder of Superior Oil Co., supports pioneering efforts in science, engineering and medical research.
“We are at the frontier in our understanding of the origin of the universe’s most energetic particles,” said John Belz, a professor at University of Utah who is heading up the project.
Utah’s west desert offers ideal conditions in the search for elusive cosmic rays — a single particle might fall only once a century on a square mile of the Earth’s surface.
The desert has virtually no light pollution, atmospheric aerosols or radio interference to cloud radar images.
Scientists are building the Keck Radar Observatory in Millard County alongside Utah’s Telescope Array, the largest conventional cosmic ray observatory in the Northern Hemisphere.
They will compare results of both observatories to pinpoint the range, direction and strength of high-energy particles.
Utah’s Telescope Array has 508 detectors, each the size of a hospital bed, spanning over 300 square miles of the desert. They can detect only a few high-energy particles a day, Belz said.
The Keck Radar Observatory is a cheaper method of surveying a larger part of the universe without carpeting the ground with so much equipment, he said.
The observatory is basically a shack housing an analogue TV transmitter donated by KUTV when the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City switched to digital equipment.
“We’re broadcasting the carrier wave only. There’s no ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or other signals in there,” Belz said Wednesday. “It’s just a pure wave at 54.1 megahertz at the low end of what used to be Channel 2.”
Those signals will bounce off columns of ions that form with cosmic rays in the atmosphere. Digital receivers on the ground will capture the return signals.
The Keck Radar Observatory will start operating by year’s end, he said.