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Detecting Cosmic Rays in a Cloud Chamber

Jennifer Chu Ying Yau



Cosmic rays were detected and analysed using a cloud chamber, by taking various photos of
the tracks left by ionisation of the vapour by particles. Identification of those tracks were
made and found to have distinguishing features similar to those of muon decay, muon
deflections, low energy scattering and high energy photon decay.

1. Introduction

This report investigates the ionised tracks left by cosmic particles which pass through the
cloud chamber. However only ionising radiation can be detected as the cloud chamber
works on the principle that the particles ionise the super saturated alcohol vapour. The ions
then act as condensation nuclei, so that vapour forms a trail of condensed alcohol which is
then illumination by an external light source.

The term supersaturation describes a solution which contains more dissolved substance
than it would contain under normal conditions. In a cloud chamber, dry ice (normal ice is
not cold enough) is used to create a steep temperature gradient, allowing the alcohol to
vaporise and saturate the air. Ionisation occurs as the particles contain enough energy to
detach electrons from atoms or molecules.

2. Theory

2.1 Cosmic Rays
Cosmic rays are particles which shower onto the Earths atmosphere and originate from
anywhere beyond our atmosphere. These include any particles coming from the interstellar
space, outside our solar system, from solar flares which emit large amounts of energetic
nuclei into space towards Earth and also include x-rays and gamma rays.

As these particles enter the Earths atmosphere, they collide with molecules such as oxygen
and nitrogen. This produces what can be called an air shower, whereby the collision
produces a cascade of lighter particles.

Muons are created by the collisions of cosmic rays (mainly protons) in the upper
atmosphere, and this experiment hopes to detect muons and the particles muons decay
into. As approximately 10,000 muons reach every square meter of the Earths surface every
minute, the possibilities of detected muons in the chamber are relatively high.

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2.2 Cloud Chamber
A cloud chamber is a radioactivity detector. In this experiment cosmic rays enter the
chamber and ionise the supersaturated alcohol in the chamber, which leave behind trails of
condensed alcohol. This system is ideal for observing cosmic rays, as the system is very
sensitive to any changes in temperature, volume and pressure.

The region just above the metal condenser plate is the most sensitive to radioactive tracks.
Around this region most of the alcohol is in a gaseous state and on the verge of condensing,
meaning it is the optimal region for particles to trigger condensation, hence cloud
formation. In this region a layer of precipitation (rain) is observed, due to contamination in
the chamber which condenses the vapour. The height of this region can be increased by
introducing a steeper temperature gradient, so there is enough vapour to replace the
vapour which has been condensed lower down in the chamber.

3. Method

Figure 1: Basic arrangement of a cloud chamber

Throughout this experiment, many readjustments were made to ensure that the cloud
chamber remained effective for observing cosmic rays. To prevent too much rain forming
in the cloud chamber, measurements on the amount of alcohol were made and recorded.
However the required amount varies with the size of the cloud chamber, but roughly
sprinkling enough alcohol to soak the felt sheet should suffice. Pure isopropyl alcohol was

Another vital condition required to have a functioning cloud chamber, is to keep the
chamber completely air tight. Any external air currents or leakages into the chamber will
disturb the rain, deform the tracks and prevent the chamber becoming super saturated with
alcohol. This was achieved by using silicone sealant, duck tape and rubber lining.

The angle at which the light source is directed at the chamber will also determine whether
the chamber will appear to have no rain to being able to observe faint tracks. The best
light source will be a uniform beam which casts a bright light across the bottom of the
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chamber. This could be achieved by using the light from a slide projector.

The metal condenser plate must be in direct contact with the dry ice. This will create the
steep temperature gradient (from approximately -50C to 20C) needed within the chamber
to enable supersaturation to occur.

Finally the chamber must also be level, as the rain will be observed to flow towards a certain
direction, which can disrupt the clarity of the tracks, if it is slanted. Once the system has
been left to stand for an estimated 15 minutes, visible tracks will become apparent.

4. Results and Discussion
The following photographs of tracks observed in the cloud chamber, have been enhanced to
allow for easier observation and identification of possible decaying or deflections of cosmic

Figure 2: Charged High Energy Particle

The photograph shows a very straight ionisation track. This could be the track of any charged high
energy particle such as electrons, protons, muons or pions. As these particles carry a significant
amount of energy, any interactions with the particles within the chamber will not result in

Figure 3: Charged Low Energy Particle (left) Diagram of electron scattering particle track (right)

From first observations, this photograph would seem to show a charged low energy particle
such as an electron being scattered by other charged particles within the cloud chamber
through electrostatic Coulomb forces. However the left side of this track suggests that the
electron has decayed, even though this normally only occurs with high energy particles;
which should leave straight incident tracks as shown in Figure 2. One possible explanation
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could be an overlap of separate tracks. However due to the difficulties with capturing clear
photos, no solid conclusion can be made on how Figure 3 was formed.

Figure 4: Alpha track (left) Possibly a track falling from upper regions of the cloud chamber(right)

Other observations were made of alpha radiation type tracks. These consisted of very thick
and straight tracks, which appear to fall to the bottom of the chamber and dissolve into the
precipitate clouds. Some of these tracks may also have been from ionisation higher up in the
chamber (in the region where we cannot observe tracks) by cosmic particles. As
condensation tracks tend to spread out and become less uniform as they fall towards the

Figure 5: Muon p decay (left) Common decay of muon (right)

This shows a cosmic particle, possibly a muon p
, decaying into an electron, an electron-
and a muon-neutrino

. However in Figure 5 only the electron is visible as

neutrinos do not carry any charge, therefore will not leave ionisation trails in the cloud

Figure 6: Muon p deflecting off an atomic electron (left) Diagram of collision (right)
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In Figure 6 it shows a high energy particle, such as a muon p, colliding with an atomic
electron (electron within the first orbital shell of an atom). The muon then transfers energy
to the electron which jumps out of the outer shell and can be seen ionising the vapour.
The muons path is then deflected.

Figure 7: Neutron n
(beta) decay (left) Diagram of decay (right)

Just as shown in Figure 6, Figure 7 appears to fork into three branches. An initial explanation
could be neutron (beta) decay. Free neutrons n
(unstable if outside the nucleus) decay and
are converted to a protons p
, and emitted an electron
, an electron antineutrino
However if the tracks are traced back to a main centre point, one might also
suggest that only the top two tracks line up to a common origin. Suggesting Figure 7 may be
similar to Figure 6, another high energy particle decaying into two other subatomic particles
or similar tracks overlapping one another. Furthermore, electron antineutrinos cannot be
detected as they are not charged particles, so Figure 7 cannot have resulted from the decay
of a neutron.

Figure 8: Photony decaying into electron
and positron
(left) Diagram of decay (right)

This photograph looks similar to Figure 6, as they both fork off into two branches. However
Figure 8 does not show an incident track before it decays, where as Figure 6 does. The
reason being that this is the decay of a high energy photon y; which does not carry a charge
so can not ionise the vapour. However the photon does decay into an electron
and a
, which both carry charges.

5. Errors
There was great difficulty when trying to physically identify what particles left the tracks
captured in the photographs, with the equipment available to use. One method was to
identify particles by introducing materials such as paper or aluminium into the bottom of
the cloud chamber, to observe whether they would stop certain particles from passing
through. Then by using elimination we could try differentiate between beta and alpha
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radiation. However, the set up of this was very difficult to carry out and due to reflections
and temperature difference of the materials. It was very difficult to observe clear tracks.

Another option was to use a magnetic field to draw the cloud tracks into the sensitive region
of the cloud chamber, and possibly observe the curvature of the tracks caused by the
magnetic field. However from calculations made, we would require approximately 2.83 tesla
for muons or 0.015 tesla for electrons. This would not have been achievable with the
equipment available to us.

There were also problems with the sealing procedure. Which meant some of the tracks may
have been disrupted by external air currents. Because we had to reuse the same cloud
chamber, we could not use silicone sealant but had to rely on duck tape; which would freeze
and sometime crack from the cold temperatures. This also reduced the amount of time the
cloud chamber could be used effectively.

Furthermore, to capture tracks in photos with enough clarity and correct timing was a huge
problem. This could be solved by using a trigger or improving the light source. As the
currently halogen light source heated up the perspex sheet it was directed at, and caused
the rain to drift towards the warmer regions, and so disrupting the formation of tracks.

Finally, there may be some overlapping of tracks which may give the appearance of
decaying subatomic particles. However due to the probability of this being very small, we
have assumed that our recorded tracks are not due to the overlapping of separate particle

6. Conclusion
The aim of this report was to observe the tracks left by cosmic rays within a cloud chamber.
From analysing the photographs, we can conclude that tracks such as muon decay, muon
deflections, low energy scattering and high energy photon decay have been observed in the
cloud chamber. However many assumptions had to be made when observing and
identifying the tracks; for example assuming that the probability of overlapping tracks is
small or that all the ionising radiation came solely from cosmic rays.

To seclude the cloud chamber, so there is no radiation coming from surrounding material
would be incredibly difficult, as would be the task of differentiating tracks from different
sources of ionising radiation; unless we observed showers. In which case it would be
possible to trace the tracks back to a single point in space, and assume it is radiation from
surrounding materials.

To further develop this experiment, as mentioned previously, a magnetic field could be
used, to help differentiate tracks more effectively and so reducing the need for
assumptions. Replacing the halogen light source with one which has a uniform bright beam
and using a one time cloud chamber; which could be sealed more effectively. Trying to
observe vertical tracks may also be of interest, as this experiment only observes horizontal
tracks. This could be done by increasing the sensitive region in the cloud chamber, through
increasing the temperature gradient or using cloud chambers of different dimensions.
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7. References