Neutrons in the Stratosphere

Feb. 17, 2017:  In a joint operation on Feb.12th, the students of Earth to Sky Calculus and their sister club Earth to Sky Maritime launched a neutron counter to the stratosphere onboard a high altitude balloon. Neutrons are an important form of cosmic radiation because they provide much of the biologically effective radiation dose at altitudes of interest to aviation and space tourism. How are these particles distributed through our atmosphere? This is what we wanted to find out.

We’ve just finished reducing the data and can report that the experiment was a success. Neutrons were detected throughout the 2 hour flight covering altitudes from ground level to 113,200 ft:

This first data set shows that neutrons, like gamma rays, peak at the entrance to the stratosphere in a layer known as the Regener-Pfotzer Maximum. Moreover, neutron counts are significantly elevated not only in the stratosphere, but also at lower altitudes where planes fly (20,000 ft to 45,000 ft)–something to think about the next time you buy an airline ticket.

We’ve been monitoring cosmic rays in the atmosphere for more than two years, and find that deep space radiation has been intensifying. Previous payloads measured only X-rays and gamma-rays, however. The addition of a neutron counter to the payload is a major upgrade, providing a more complete picture of the radiation environment. Stay tuned for updates as we improve our technique and gather more data in future flights.

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