Particle physicists are experts at seeing invisible things and their detecting techniques have already found many applications in medical imaging or the analysis of art works. Researchers from the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider are developing a new application based on one of the experiment’s particle detectors: a new, small-scale, portable muon telescope, which will allow imaging of visually inaccessible spaces.
Earth’s atmosphere is constantly bombarded by particles arriving from outer space. By interacting with atmospheric matter, they decay into a cascade of new particles, generating a flux of muons, heavier cousins of electrons. These cosmic-ray muons continue their journey towards the Earth’s surface, travelling through almost all material objects.
This “superpower” of muons makes them the perfect partners for seeing through thick walls or other visually challenging subjects. Volcanic eruptions, enigmatic ancient pyramids, underground caves and tunnels: these can all be scanned and explored from the inside using muography, an imaging method using naturally occurring background radiation in the form of cosmic-ray muons.
Large-area muon telescopes have been developed in recent years for many different applications, some of which use technology developed for the LHC detectors. The muon telescope conceived by CMS researchers from two Belgian universities, Ghent University and the Catholic University of Louvain, is compact and light and therefore easy to transport. It is nonetheless able to perform muography at high resolution. It will be the first spin-off for muography using the CMS Resistive Plate Chambers (RPC) technology. A first prototype of the telescope, also baptised a “muoscope”, has been built with four RPC planes with an active area of 16x16 cm. The same prototype was used in the “UCL to Mars” project; it was tested for its robustness in a simulation of Mars-like conditions in the Utah Desert, where it operated for one month and later came back fully functional.
Other CMS technologies have been used in muon tomography for security and environmental protection, as well as for homeland security.
Learn more about the muon telescope here.