Muon - Muon Sources

Muon Sources

Since the production of muons requires an available center of momentum frame energy of 105.7 MeV, neither ordinary radioactive decay events nor nuclear fission and fusion events (such as those occurring in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons) are energetic enough to produce muons. Only nuclear fission produces single-nuclear-event energies in this range, but do not produce muons as the production of a single muon would violate the conservation of quantum numbers (see under "muon decay" below).

On Earth, most naturally occurring muons are created by cosmic rays, which consist mostly of protons, many arriving from deep space at very high energy

About 10,000 muons reach every square meter of the earth's surface a minute; these charged particles form as by-products of cosmic rays colliding with molecules in the upper atmosphere. Travelling at relativistic speeds, muons can penetrate tens of meters into rocks and other matter before attenuating as a result of absorption or deflection by other atoms.

When a cosmic ray proton impacts atomic nuclei in the upper atmosphere, pions are created. These decay within a relatively short distance (meters) into muons (their preferred decay product), and neutrinos. The muons from these high energy cosmic rays generally continue in about the same direction as the original proton, at a velocity near the speed of light. Although their lifetime without relativistic effects would allow a half-survival distance of only about 0.66 km (660 meters) at most (as seen from Earth) the time dilation effect of special relativity (from the viewpoint of the Earth) allows cosmic ray secondary muons to survive the flight to the Earth's surface, since in the Earth frame, the muons have a longer half life due to their velocity. From the viewpoint (inertial frame) of the muon, on the other hand, it is the length contraction effect of special relativity which allows this penetration, since in the muon frame, its lifetime is unaffected, but the length contraction causes distances through the atmosphere and Earth to be far shorter than these distances in the Earth rest-frame. Both effects are equally valid ways of explaining the fast muon's unusual survival over distances.

Since muons are unusually penetrative of ordinary matter, like neutrinos, they are also detectable deep underground (700 meters at the Soudan II detector) and underwater, where they form a major part of the natural background ionizing radiation. Like cosmic rays, as noted, this secondary muon radiation is also directional.

The same nuclear reaction described above (i.e. hadron-hadron impacts to produce pion beams, which then quickly decay to muon beams over short distances) is used by particle physicists to produce muon beams, such as the beam used for the muon g − 2 experiment.

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