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Outer Space Particles Help Image Things On Earth

Outer Space Particles Help Image Things On Earth

Scientists use something that comes from space to peer into large objects like pyramids

Outerspace Particles Help Image Things On Earth

Friday, October 26, 2018 - 08:30

Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- Since the beginning of this video, millions upon millions of particles have already passed through your body. Among them is a kind of fundamental particle, called a muon, that comes from outer space. But instead of letting them slip by unnoticed, scientists are using them to look inside large structures here on Earth.

“Muons are subatomic particles. They are very much like the electrons that make up all of atoms, but they're a couple hundred times heavier. They're unstable. They only last for a millionth of a second or so before they decay. But their interactions with matter are very special for us because they can penetrate long distances through ordinary matter,” said Roy Schwitters at the University of Texas at Austin.

Since muons can look through large objects and are good for looking through dirt and rocks, much deeper than X-rays can, scientists can use them to look inside large archeological structures -- like pyramids.

The process generates a muon shadow that maps the interior of a structure. By putting muon detectors behind or underneath something like a mountain or a pyramid, scientists can get a view of what lies inside. If you think using particles from outer space to image the inside of a pyramid sounds a bit “out there,” scientists have actually been doing this since at least the ’60s -- and it works.

“So, what's been found in Egypt? Two major sets of discoveries. First one was when the idea was first invented by Luis Alvarez, [a] great physicist of the previous generation. He discovered in the second large pyramid in Giza that there were no tunnels in that one, or caverns or big chambers. More recently, groups from Japan and Europe reproduced essentially the Alvarez experiment in the big pyramid, the Great Pyramid. And they seemed to have found a whole new system of tunnels and things inside that pyramid,” said Schwitters.

Nowadays, researchers want to use the method to look at pyramids in Belize.

“What we have is a particularly exciting opportunity in Belize, because if we can demonstrate that there is a chamber inside the pyramid we're looking at, then my colleagues here at the university will be able to get permission to go in and see what's in there. And that is potentially extremely exciting with even the possibility of finding books and manuscripts which have never survived the rigors of the jungle environment in this hemisphere,” concluded Schwittters.

The technique allows archeologists to look at historic sites without the risk of destroying precious ancient artifacts, and geologists can look at caves and volcanoes without climbing down into them or getting too close to tunnels full of hot lava.

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Yuen Yiu covers the Physics beat for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.