Cosmic rays—mostly made up of protons accelerated to near light speed by exploding stars, or supernovae—collide with the atoms of our atmosphere and break apart into a cascade of rapidly decaying particles. By the time the rays reach earth’s surface, they are primarily composed of muons, which are much like heavy electrons and barely interact with the nuclei of other atoms. They’re ghost particles that zip through matter. Muons can survive up to 2.2 microseconds, which makes them the Methuselahs of the cosmic particle parade, and they live long enough to pass through hundreds of miles of atmosphere and into the earth. “We’re bathed, all of us, in a sea of muons,” Schwitters says. As they pass through matter, including us, they knock electrons off other atoms, losing a little energy and leaving a charged trail, like the vapor behind a high-flying jet. The denser the material muons travel through, the more energy they lose, until they eventually just fade away.
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