ARLINGTON, Va., July 14 -- Scientists at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the European Commission of the European Union have announced a new initiative -- called CRONUS, for cosmic-ray produced nuclide systematics -- to measure cosmic rays from far-distant supernovas to time the history of the Earth's surface.
Galactic explosions known as supernovas unleash torrents of fantastically energetic atomic particles. Billions of these cosmic rays impact Earth every year. The infinitesimal particles blast apart the atoms of Earth's atmosphere and rocks, changing them into new elements. Now, NSF has awarded $5.8 million over five years for geologists to measure the accumulated results of these atomic transmutations in rocks at Earth's surface.
Fred Phillips of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology will coordinate the US arm of the project, which includes 13 US universities.
"This is a way of bringing the projectiles of exploding stars down to very practical use on earth," Phillips said.
The European Union, through its Marie Curie Actions, has awarded 3.4 million euros ($4.4 million) over four years for the project, a research-training network involving teams in France, Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia, Switzerland and the UK. Training of early-stage and experienced researchers in the novel technique is an integral part of the European CRONUS effort to contribute to the mobility, exchange and training of high-quality European scientists.
Tibor Dunai, now at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, will coordinate the European arm. He will relocate to the University of Edinburgh in the fall of 2005.
Powerful cosmic-ray particles penetrate only a few feet below the Earth's surface, so deeper rocks are shielded from the buildup of cosmic-ray transmutations. The number of new atoms produced by cosmic rays can thus show the amount of time passed since geological events such as earthquakes, landslides and glaciers. They can also reveal how fast Earth's surface changes from such forces as erosion by rivers.
Scientists affiliated with CRONUS will work to understand the fundamentals of cosmic-ray reactions so that they can routinely use them as methods for reconstructing and analyzing environment changes. When perfected, the new cosmic-ray methods will shed light on Earth's past climate cycles, changes in soil erosion, frequency of floods and landslides, and how weathering of rocks affects global warming and cooling.
The US and European researchers will work together sampling rocks from key sites around the world, exposing elements to nuclear beams in high-energy accelerators and counting cosmic-ray impacts with detectors aboard high-altitude aircraft.
For more information, visit: www.nsf.gov