Neutrons on a Plane

March 18, 2017: Among researchers, it is well known that air travelers are exposed to cosmic rays. High-energy particles and photons from deep space penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and go right through the hulls of commercial aircraft. This has prompted the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) to classify pilots and flight attendants as occupational radiation workers.

Many studies of this problem focus on ionizing radiation such as x-rays and gamma-rays. On March 16th we turned the tables and measured neutrons instead. During a 12-hour flight from Stockholm to Los Angeles, and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus used bubble chambers to monitor neutron activity inside a Scandinavian Airlines jetliner.

In the photo above, taken 35,000 feet above Greenland, each bubble shows where a neutron passed through the chamber and vaporized a superheated droplet. By the time the long flight was over, we measured almost 20 uSv (microsieverts) of radiation from neutrons–similar to the dose from a panoramic X-ray at your dentist’s office. This confirms that neutrons are an important form of aviation radiation relevant to both air travelers and future space tourists.

Where do these neutrons come from? Mainly, they are secondary cosmic rays. When primary cosmic rays from deep space hit Earth’s atmosphere, they produce a spray of secondary particles including neutrons, protons, alpha particles, and other species.¬†Cosmic ray neutrons can reach the ground; indeed, researchers routinely use neutron counters on Earth’s surface to monitor cosmic ray activity above the atmosphere. Now we’re doing the same thing onboard airplanes.

Earlier in the week, we flew these bubble chambers to the Arctic stratosphere using a space weather balloon.¬†Interestingly, the 12-hour plane flight yielded ~6 times more neutrons than the shorter (2 hour) but far higher (97,000 ft)¬†balloon flight to the stratosphere. What does it mean? We’re still analyzing the data and will have more insights to share in the days ahead. Stay tuned!