Earth and the Moon

Cosmic Rays

Who first discovered cosmic rays?

The Austrian American astronomer Victor Franz Hess (1883–1964) became interested in a mysterious radiation that scientists had found in the ground and in Earth’s atmosphere. This radiation could change the electric charge on an electroscope—a device used to detect electromagnetic activity—even when placed in a sealed container. Hess thought that the radiation was coming from underground and that at high altitudes it would no longer be detectable. To test this idea, in 1912 Hess took a series of high-altitude, hot-air balloon flights with an electroscope aboard. He made ten trips at night, and one during a solar eclipse, just to be sure the Sun was not the source of the radiation. To his surprise, Hess found that the higher he went, the stronger the radiation became. This discovery led Hess to conclude that the radiation was coming from outer space. For his work on understanding cosmic rays, Hess received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936.


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