The term ray is a historical accident, as cosmic rays were at first, and wrongly, thought to be mostly electromagnetic radiation.
They are particles. Most are protons and alpha particles, which are the nuclei of helium atoms. Some are electrons (beta particles), gamma rays or photons and a tiny fraction are even heavier particles.
Their origin is not exactly known. There is evidence that many primary cosmic rays come from the supernovae of massive stars. However, this is not thought to be their only source.
Secondary cosmic rays
Cosmic rays can have as much energy as 1020 eV, far higher than the 1012 to 1013 eV that man-made particle accelerators can produce. When cosmic ray particles enter the Earth's atmosphere they hit other particles, like molecules of oxygen and nitrogen. This causes a shower of lighter particles, a so-called 'air shower'.
The number of particles made in an air shower event can reach billions. All of the particles in the shower stay within about one degree of the first particle's path. In a shower are x-rays, muons, protons, alpha particles, pions, electrons, and neutrons.
Typical particles produced in such collisions are neutrons and charged mesons such as positive or negative pions and kaons. Some of these decay into muons. These are able to reach the surface of the Earth, and even penetrate for some distance into shallow mines. The muons can be easily detected by many types of particle detectors. The observation of a secondary shower of particles in different detectors at the same time shows that all of the particles came from that event.
Effects on Earth chemistry
- n + 14N → p + 14C
Cosmic rays kept the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere roughly constant (70 tons) for at least the past 100,000 years, until the beginning of above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the early 1950s. This is an important fact used in radiocarbon dating used in archaeology.
Effect on space vehicles
Images for kids
Comparison of radiation doses, including the amount detected on the trip from Earth to Mars by the RAD on the MSL (2011 – 2013)
Cosmic ray Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.