Gieljan de Vries

Gieljan de Vries

science writer

Travel report

KIJK magazine no. 1, 2012

Particle sleet over the pampa

There are places you never think you'll get to visit: Easter Island, for example, or in my case the Pierre Auger Observatory near Mallargüe in Argentina. When my wife goes there for an astronomy internship, my suitcase is packed quickly: we add a vacation to the trip, and during her last internship week I come to look around at that overwhelmingly large lab for cosmic rays.

At KIJK they also see the fun of a travel report to 'Auger', and so after thirty hours in airplane seats I tuck into a small van south of the wine city of Mendoza for my first-ever story for KIJK. I'm well spent, and so begin to doubt myself quite a bit as I start to see more and more flashes of light from the wilderness.

Time for a break and a bottle of water? I find out I'm being greeted by the reflecting solar panels on the detector tanks of the Pierre Auger astronomical observatory. Here (and everywhere on Earth), particles from space plough into the atmosphere with the energy of a hefty tennis serve in a single hydrogen atom. Where they come from? No one knows for sure. Pierre Auger was built to discover the origin of those cosmic rays, but after a decade of research, no solid evidence has presented itself. Their struggle to squeeze more data out of the detectors appeals.

What follows are extensive tours of the pampa (with special tires because of the decimeter-long spines), a nighttime outing to watch a pampa fire blind the sensitive LIDAR installation, and tasty stories about the local gauchos who used the detector tanks as target practice, until Auger's astronomers joined in with local traditions and hoisted a detector tank onto a truck for the carnival parade. The story appears in KIJK No. 1 of 2012.