COSMIC RAY DETECTORS

Equipment that was once used to study cosmic rays in space now sits grounded in a Chicago alley.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

Anyone who has spent more than an hour with me is probably privy to the fact that I fucking love space. Space fascinates me and terrifies me...or possibly fascinates me because it terrifies me.

For example; there is an old constellation in the southern sky called Eridanus. Eridanus is part of the larger constellation representing the 11th sign in the Zodiac - it's the water that is pouring out of Aquarius. Besides this, it's just an otherwise unremarkable path of stars. But within this constellation of Eridanus, between the stars, there's an area where the background radiation is inexplicably cold.

 

After the Big Bang, there was an abundance of light energy that was scattered everywhere. This is the oldest light in the universe and it's so dim that it only shows up as a glow of microwaves. To us here on Earth though, it just looks like the blackness of night. Within the constellation of Eridanus, there's an area where the little glow of ancient microwaves is just...wrong. This spot is dark and cold and enormous - about a billion light years across.

 

This giant empty space is still a mystery. One theory is that it's simply a huge void in space where no other galaxies exist. Voids like this exist, they're sort of a predictable part of the structure of the universe, but most of them are smaller. If this cold, empty place in Eridanus were in fact one of these voids, it would be so enormous that it would actually change how scientists understand the universe.

 

Another theory is that this unexplained emptiness could be a place where a parallel universe is tangled with our own.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

As a child I was fascinated with the idea of going to space - though I greatly underestimated the amount of math classes you have to endure to get there. It takes much less math to locate the weather-worn objects in an alley near the University of Chicago's Research Computing Center. If you manage to find these without falling into the endless depths of one of Chicago's potholes, congratulations! You have discovered the Cosmic Ray Detectors.

 

The three large objects sitting in this alley are the legacy of University of Chicago astrophysicists’ pioneering work on cosmic rays. The large yellow storage container holds the remains of the "Chicago Egg." Nicknamed for its shape, the Chicago Egg was a 12-foot-tall, 2.5-ton instrument that used light sensors to detect and provide computer readouts on the makeup of cosmic rays. It was designed by the University of Chicago at a cost of $10 million and was among the largest pieces of scientific equipment ever to fly on a NASA space shuttle.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

The Egg flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985 as part of the Spacelab 2 mission. It was one of 13 scientific experiments conducted on that mission and is arguably the only one that worked better than expected, providing a treasure trove of data. 

University of Chicago physicist Peter Meyer was one of the scientists monitoring the Space Shuttle from Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center. He stated that with the use of the new cosmic ray detector and the lower orbit of the Space Shuttle in this particular mission, he hoped to gain, "the best look we have ever had at what makes up these high-energy particles and where they come from."

 

Another experiment was designed to study gases surrounding the Earth. Astronauts extended from the orbiter scientific measuring equipment attached to a long mechanical arm in an attempt to measure how the shuttle disturbed those high-temperature gases - much as sailors would observe the wake of their boat. Also on this mission were Coca-Cola and Pepsi cans that were specially designed to allow astronauts to enjoy their favorite sodas while in space. Apparently, soda and space don't mix and the beverages were removed from the menu of future shuttle flights.

 

The next year, on January 28, 1986, the tenth flight of Space Shuttle Challenger met with disaster 73 seconds into when it broke apart, killing all seven crew members. After the tragic Challenger explosion the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for nearly three years, during which various safety measures, solid rocket booster redesign, and a new policy on management decision-making for future launches were implemented.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

During this time, researchers switched to high-altitude balloons to bring their cosmic ray detectors to the edges of space to continue gathering data. The two battered white objects are from these later missions.

 

This is probably about the closest Lunarbomb and I are going to get to touching space, so of course we climbed up and gave the old cosmic ray detectors a loving embrace.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Lunarbomb

As humans, we tend to get so wrapped up in our daily routines that we forget to look up. You may not be as fascinated with space as I am, but personally, I find my cosmic insignificance reassuring. Had a tough day? The stars don't care about who you are or what you did wrong. You owe the universe nothing.

 

Perhaps if that one theory about the vast emptiness in Eridanus is correct, the you that's living in a parallel universe just had the best day of their life.

Cosmic Ray Detectors

Cosmic Ray Detectors | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb

© 2018 by NIESA LENOX. Layout created with Wix.com