Sunday, December 12, 2010

Muons reveal the interior of volcanoes

The location of the muon detector on the slopes of the Vesuvius volcano.

Like X-ray scans of the human body, muon radiography allows researchers to obtain an image of the internal structures of the upper levels of volcanoes. Although such an image cannot help to predict ‘when’ an eruption might occur, it can, if combined with other observations, help to foresee ‘how’ it could develop and serves as a powerful tool for the study of geological structures.

Muons come from the interaction of cosmic rays with the Earth's atmosphere. They are able to traverse layers of rock as thick as one kilometre or more. During their trip, they are partially absorbed by the material they go through, very much like X-rays are partially absorbed by bones or other internal structures in our body. At the end of the chain, instead of the classic X-ray plate, is the so-called 'muon telescope', a special detector placed on the slopes of the volcano.

See: Muons reveal the interior of volcanoes

MU-RAY project 
MUon RAdiographY

A. Kircher (1601-1680), “The interior of Vesuvius”  
A. Kircher (1601-1680): “The interior of Vesuvius” (1638)
Read more about Athanasius Kircher on Wikipedia.

Cosmic ray muon radiography is a technique capable of imaging variations of density inside a hundreds of meters of rock. With resolutions up to tens of meters in optimal detection conditions, muon radiography can give us images of the top region of a volcano edifice with a resolution that is significantly better than the one typically achieved with conventional gravity methods and in this way can give us information on anomalies in the density distribution, such as expected from dense lava conduits, low density magma supply paths or the compression with depth of the overlying soil.

The MU-RAY project is aimed toward the study of the internal structure of Stromboli and Vesuvius volcanoes using this technique.