Cosmic-Ray Showers Reveal Muon Mystery

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN produces proton collisions with center-of-mass energies that are 13 thousand times greater than the proton’s rest mass. At such extreme energies these collisions create many secondary particles, whose distribution in momentum and energy reveals how the particles interact with one another. A key question is whether the interactions determined at the LHC are the same at higher energies. Luckily, nature already provides such high-energy collisions—albeit at a much lower rate—in the form of cosmic rays entering our atmosphere. Using its giant array of particle detectors, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina has found that more muons arrive on the ground from cosmic-ray showers than expected from models using LHC data as input [1]. The showers that the Auger collaboration analyzed come from atmospheric cosmic-ray collisions that are 10 times higher in energy than the collisions produced at the LHC. This result may therefore suggest that our understanding of hadronic interactions (that is, interactions between protons, neutrons, and mesons) from accelerator measurements is incomplete.

Cosmic rays are relativistic particles (mostly protons and light nuclei) that are produced by supernovae and other powerful sources in and beyond our galaxy. When a cosmic-ray particle collides with a molecule in Earth’s atmosphere, it generates a cascade of secondary particles. An incident proton, for example, will typically expend 40% of its energy producing a secondary proton or neutron, together with a large number of other hadrons, mostly pions. Neutral pions decay immediately to two photons that generate an electromagnetic “cascade” comprising electron-positron pairs and gamma rays. Charged pions with high energies interact again in the atmosphere. The neutral pions they produce contribute further to the electromagnetic component of the shower, while other particles carry energy forward to subsequent interactions. Lower-energy charged pions decay before interacting again and produce muons, which largely survive to the ground.

Unlike detectors at accelerators, experiments like Auger do not directly detect the initial collision but only the secondary cascade that it generates. This is simply because the rate of events is too low: At an energy equivalent to 10 times the center-of-mass energy at the LHC, the cosmic-ray flux is only about one particle per square kilometer per year. This is far too low to observe the collision directly with a detector in space or a balloon-borne detector above the atmosphere. Auger, with a detector array that spans 3000 square kilometers, may collect only a few thousand such events per year. In comparison, the LHC can produce a billion proton collisions per second.The signal at the ground comes both from muons and from the electrons and positrons produced by the electromagnetic cascade. Since these two components cannot be distinguished, the researchers must predict them separately. Fortunately, the electromagnetic component dominates for cascades arriving from straight above the observatory, while the muon component dominates for angles of arrival exceeding 37 degrees. (The data correspond to events with arrival angles from 0 to 60 degrees.)  Read more here

This research is published in Physical Review Letters.


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