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BASICS .. COSMIC RAYS .. SUN .. SPACE WEATHER

Composition

Composition in the News
Composition Activities

The particles studied in cosmic and heliospheric science are atoms or pieces of atoms. Atoms are composed of three major building blocks: protons (with a positive charge), neutrons (with no charge), and electrons (with a negative charge). The nucleus of an atom contains the protons and neutrons, while the electrons orbit the nucleus. The number of protons determines to which element the atom belongs: hydrogen has one proton, carbon has six, etc.

The Particle Adventure (by the Particle Data Group) introduces the theory of fundamental particles and forces, called the Standard Model. It explores the experimental evidence and the reasons physicists want to go beyond this theory. In addition, it provides information on particle decay and a brief history section.

The Science of Matter, Space, and Time (by the Fermilab) contains another good particle physics "tour". Hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium models

New elements are created in stars by a process called nucleosynthesis. (More about nucleosynthesis...)

The number of neutrons tells us which isotope of the element is present. The isotope number is the total of the number of protons plus the neutrons. Take carbon, for example, which is a very common element necessary for life, and is found in nature as diamonds and graphite. We find several different isotopes of carbon in nature. Carbon-12 has an equal number of protons and neutrons, six of each. Carbon-14 contains two more neutrons (eight) than carbon-12, but still has only six protons. This makes carbon-14 an isotope of carbon, but it is different from carbon-12. While carbon-12 is a stable isotope, carbon-14 is unstable, or radioactive. It is much less common in nature but is found where carbon-12 is found. Because of its radioactive nature, carbon-14 is used to date archaeological artifacts. Shown in this figure, deuterium and tritium are isotopes of hydrogen. This image is from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which also offers a good interactive tour of matter.

The periodic table of the elements provides some information about each of the different elements. Each element has distinctive properties, and those with similar properties are grouped into families, shown by the different colors. Follow the link on the periodic table here to learn more about it and the different elements.

In an atom, the number of electrons that orbit the nucleus equals the number of protons in the nucleus, thus making an atom electrically neutral. When bombarded by ultraviolet (UV) radiation or after being struck by energetic particles, atoms can lose one or more of their electrons. The positively charged remains of these atoms are called ions. The number of electrons lost determines the charge state of the particle. For example, alpha particles are helium nuclei with a double positive charge; they have two protons and two neutrons, but no electrons.

Together with their freed electrons, the ions form a plasma. Plasma is a fourth state of matter, not a liquid, solid, or gas. Matter in the Sun is in a plasma state. Plasma is the most common state of matter in the Universe. More than 99% of all matter is plasma, so what we see on Earth is the exception. Since plasmas consist of electrically-charged particles, electric and magnetic forces affect a plasma.

When we measure the elemental, isotopic, and charge composition of ions, it helps us to understand how nature selected the particles and accelerated them to the energies at which we find them. The "composition" of electrons is not interesting, since all electrons look the same. But their number, energy, and direction of travel are important.

Back to Basics


newspaper imageComposition in the News:

May 1, 2012: "Beautiful" new particle found at LHC -- National Geographic
April 24, 2012: Gamma rays hint at dark matter -- Physics World
April 21, 2012: New study finds no evidence for dark matter in the Milky Way -- Astrobiology
April 18, 2012: Not-quite-so elementary, my dear electron -- Nature
April 13, 2012: On the border between matter and anti-matter -- Science Daily
April 4, 2012: Handheld plasma flashlight rids skin of notorious pathogens -- Science Daily
March 29, 2012: Cassiopeia A: A star explodes and turns inside out -- Chandra X-ray Observatory
March 27, 2012: Lightning strikes produce free neutrons, and we're not sure how -- Ars Technica
March 19, 2012: Neutrinos not faster than light -- Nature
March 8, 2012: Experiment observes elusive neutrino transformation -- Caltech
March 7, 2012: Internal structure of antihydrogen probed for the first time -- Physics World
February 25, 2012: Tellurium in ancient stars -- Astrobiology
January 31, 2012: IBEX: Glmpses of the interstellar material beyond our solar system -- NASA
January 9, 2012: A guide to the dark side -- Science
December 23, 2011: Shell galaxy NGC 7600 -- APOD
December 22, 2011: LHC reports discovery of its first new particle -- BBC
December 22, 2011: How to build a gamma-ray laser with antimatter hybrid -- New Scientist
December 21, 2011: What Higgs result means for dark matter conspiracy -- New Scientist
December 18, 2011: Hints of Higgs from the Large Hadron Collider -- APOD
December 16, 2011: Revealing how the elements were forged -- Astrobiology
December 14, 2011: More clues in the hunt for the Higgs -- Caltech
December 13, 2011: ATLAS and CMS experiments present Higgs search status -- Max Planck Institute
December 5, 2011: The return of energetic 3He in the inner heliosphere -- ACE News
November 24, 2011: Caught in the afterglow -- APOD
November 23, 2011: Physicists set strongest limit on mass of dark matter -- Brown University
November 23, 2011: LHC antimatter anomaly hints at new physics -- New Scientist
November 17, 2011: World's most difficult chemical experiment: The struggle to discover the secret of super-heavy elements -- Science Daily
November 17, 2011: Racing to be the first to create the world's heaviest element -- Science Daily
November 16, 2011: NGC 7822 in Cepheus -- APOD
November 10, 2011: Pristine relics of the Big Bang spotted -- Physics World
November 9, 2011: Three new elements named -- Astrobiology
November 9, 2011: Physicists chip away at mystery of antimatter imbalance -- Science Daily
November 6, 2011: Ancient galaxies are rich in elements -- Astrobiology
October 18, 2011: Dark matter mystery deepens -- Astronomy
October 4, 2011: Isotope ranking reveals leading labs -- Nature
October 3, 2011: Dark matter movie from the Bolshoi simulation -- APOD
September 30, 2011: The Pulled Groin Extrapolation -- Big Blog Theory
September 22, 2011: The Skank Reflex Analysis & the Infestation Hypothesis -- Big Blog Theory
September 13, 2011: Shedding light on the mystery of dark matter -- Nature
September 8, 2011: CRESST uncovers hint of dark matter -- Physics World
September 7, 2011: SDSS J102915+172927: A star that should not exist -- APOD
August 28, 2011: Don't panic about the missing Higgs -- for now -- New Scientist
August 25, 2011: Using ionic charge states as a thermometer in the solar corona -- Caltech
August 25, 2011: Surprise difference in neutrino and antineutrino mass lessening with new measurements from a Fermilab experiment -- Science Daily
August 18, 2011: Cubic neutrons might find it hip to be square -- Physics World
August 17, 2011: Cosmological evolution of dark matter is similar to that of visible matter -- Science Daily
August 10, 2011: Antimatter found orbiting Earth -- a first -- National Geographic
August 3, 2011: Half of Earth's heat from radioactive decay -- Astrobiology
July 25, 2011: New laser technique makes cold positronium -- Physics World
July 23, 2011: Asymmetric quarks defy standard model of physics -- Nature
July 22, 2011: Surprise LHC blip hints at Higgs -- again -- New Scientist
July 21, 2011: Particle discovery fills a gap -- Science News
July 19, 2011: Radioactive decay accounts for half of Earth's heat -- Physics World
July 14, 2011: New spin revealed on mysterious antimatter -- Space.com
June 29, 2011: Dark matter may solve 'radio filaments' mystery -- BBC
June 27, 2011: Four-way stop sign -- HEAPOW
June 25, 2011: The breath of the solar system's birth -- Astrobiology
June 23, 2011: NASA mission suggests sun and planets constructed differently -- NASA
June 23, 2011: Proton somersault study could explain why matter still exists -- Wired
June 20, 2011: A neutrino-flavored universe -- Astrobiology
June 15, 2011: Evidence mounts for previously unseen neutrino oscillation -- Physics World
June 14, 2011: 'Hidden' galaxies of the universe have lower amounts of heavier elements -- Science Daily
June 10, 2011: Tevatron teams clash over new physics -- Nature
June 6, 2011: Two ultra-heavy elements added to the periodic table -- Wired
June 5, 2011: CERN experiment traps antimatter atoms for 1000 seconds -- CERN
May 28, 2011: Physicists explain the long, useful lifetime of carbon-14 -- Science Daily
May 25, 2011: Rounding the electron -- Nature
May 24, 2011: Universe's not-so-missing mass -- Science Daily
May 16, 2011: Cosmic ray detector blasts off on space shuttle -- Physics World
May 10, 2011: The collider that cried 'Higgs' -- Nature
May 6, 2011: WIMP wars -- Scientific American
May 4, 2011: Antiuniverse here we come -- Nature
May 3, 2011: Signs of dark matter from Minnesota mine -- Science News
April 28, 2011: Antimatter detector ready for launch -- Nature
April 27, 2011: "We hope to detect the largest proportion of the matter in space" -- Max Planck Institute
April 27, 2011: The dark side of the universe -- Science News
April 24, 2011: RHIC physicists nab new record for heaviest antimatter -- Brookhaven National Laboratory
April 7, 2011: Tevatron accelerator yields hints of new particle -- BBC
April 1, 2011: The strong force -- Astrobiology
March 31, 2011: Neutral atoms made to act like electrically charged particles -- Science Daily
March 28, 2011: The fringes of Perseus -- HEAPOW
March 22, 2011: Physicists create heaviest form of antimatter ever seen -- New Scientist
March 17, 2011: LHC could be the first time machine -- Astrobiology
March 7, 2011: Silent superball -- HEAPOW
March 5, 2011: Cooling neutron star -- APOD
February 28, 2011: Beautiful theory collides with smashing particle data -- Nature
February 25, 2011: Radioactivity challenges dark-matter detector -- Nature
February 24, 2011: The Toast Derivation -- Big Blog Theory
February 23, 2011: 'Weird science' uncovered inside neutron star -- Eurekalert
February 17, 2011: Musical chairs around the periodic table -- Astrobiology
February 16, 2011: Herschel measures dark matter for star-forming galaxies -- NASA
February 13, 2011: Ice fishing for cosmic neutrinos -- APOD
January 31, 2011: Hunt for dark matter closes in at Large Hadron Collider -- Eurekalert
January 26, 2011: Neutrino detector starts measurement -- Max Planck Institute
January 24, 2011: Periodic table gets some flex -- Science News
January 20, 2011: No direct link between black holes and dark matter, scientists find -- Science Daily
January 20, 2011: The Love Car Displacement -- Big Blog Theory
January 19, 2011: Tevatron to shut down in September -- Science News
January 18, 2011: NASA's Fermi catches thunderstorms hurling antimatter into space -- Imagine the Universe!
January 14, 2011: Dark-matter galaxy detected: Hidden dwarf lurks nearby? -- National Geographic
January 14, 2011: A twisted way to take pictures -- Science News
January 10, 2011: Spacecraft catches thunderstorms hurling antimatter into space -- AGU
January 10, 2011: How do you make lithium melt in the cold? -- Eurekalert
January 10, 2011: NASA's Fermi catches thunderstorms hurling antimatter into space -- NASA
January 6, 2011: New subatomic particle could help explain the mystery of dark matter -- Scientific American
December 23, 2011: World's largest neutrino detector completed at South Pole -- Scientific American
December 20, 2011: Physics World reveals its top 10 breakthroughs for 2010 (see #1) -- Physics World
December 16, 2011: The Justice League Recombination -- Big Blog Theory
December 15, 2011: Atomic weights of 10 elements on periodic table about to make an historic change -- Eurekalert
December 1, 2011: Solar observation mission celebrates 15 years -- NASA
December 1, 2011: Mercury serves up a nuclear surprise -- Nature
November 29, 2011: New particle links dark matter with missing antimatter -- Physics World
November 26, 2011: Flame nebula close-up -- APOD
November 17, 2011: Antimatter held for questioning -- Nature
November 11, 2011: LHC sees its first ZZ event -- Physics World
November 5, 2010: Neutral positronium scatters like a charged particle -- Physics World
November 2, 2010: What is quantum mechanics good for? -- Scientific American
October 31, 2010: Isotope near 'doubly magic' tin-100 flouts conventional wisdom -- Science Daily
October 29, 2010: 'Best evidence yet' for dark matter comes from Milky Way centre -- Physics World
October 22, 2010: NGC 7822 in Cepheus -- APOD
October 21, 2010: Sailing toward the island of stability -- Science News
October 8, 2010: Black hole blasts superheated early universe -- National Geographic
October 1, 2010: Just how small is the proton? -- Scientific American
September 23, 2010: Equinox and the iron sun -- APOD
September 12, 2010: Oklo: Ancient African nuclear reactors -- APOD
September 10, 2010: Searching the sun for dark matter -- Physics World
September 9, 2010: How can we use neutrinos to probe dark matter in the sun? -- Eurekalert
August 28, 2010: A strange solar flare connection -- Astrobiology
August 28, 2010: Mining for missing matter -- Science News
August 17, 2010: Lasers could make virtual particles real -- New Scientist
July 7, 2010: How Planck's pain could be the LHC's gain -- New Scientist
July 7, 2010: The proton shrinks in size -- Nature
July 7, 2010: Incredible shrinking proton raises eyebrows -- New Scientist
July 2, 2010: The coolest antiprotons -- Physical Review Focus
July 1, 2010: Ultra-precise test confirms photons are bosons -- Physics World
June 22, 2010: God particle signal is simulated as sound -- BBC
June 18, 2010: Neutrino surprise emerges from MINOS -- Physics World
June 16, 2010: "God particle" may be five distinct particles, new evidence shows -- National Geographic
June 8, 2010: Does dark matter come in two types? -- Physics World
May 26, 2010: Muon whose army? A tiny particle's big moment -- New Scientist
May 26, 2010: Why I love neutrinos -- Scientific American
May 23, 2010: Evidence for why we exist -- Astrobiology
May 17, 2010: Missing no more? -- HEAPOW
May 6, 2010: Dark matter 'no result' comes under fire -- Physics World
April 23, 2010: Decaying beauty spied for first time by LHC -- New Scientist
April 21, 2010: Wide angle: The Cat's Paw nebula -- APOD
April 17, 2010: What's the (dark) matter? -- Scientific American
April 15, 2010: Enceladus leaves plasma bubbles in its wake -- Astronomy
April 9, 2010: Exploring the island of superheavy elements -- Physics
April 2, 2010: Mass of the common quark finally nailed down -- Science
March 23, 2010: Black holes may hint at the nature of dark matter -- Astronomy
March 23, 2010: New method could revolutionize dating of ancient treasures -- Eurekalert
March 23, 2010: Dark energy: The biggest mystery in the Universe -- Smithsonian
March 22, 2010: Helium rain on Jupiter explains lack of neon in atmosphere -- Eurekalert
March 22, 2010: Process in big-screen plasma TVs can produce ultra-clean fuel -- Eurekalert
March 17, 2010: Fake dark matter could show what real stuff is like -- New Scientist
March 17, 2010: Scientists supersize quantum mechanics -- Nature
March 17, 2010: Hunt for the sterile neutrino heats up -- Nature
March 15, 2010: Seeking dark matter on a desktop -- SLAC
March 15, 2010: For kids: Heaviest named element is official -- Science News
March 12, 2010: Borexino bags geoneutrinos -- Physics World
March 5, 2010: Liquid metal stirs itself -- Physical Review Focus
March 4, 2010: Exotic antimatter detected at Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider -- Brookhaven National Lab
March 2, 2010: NASA's Fermi probes "dragons" of the gamma-ray sky -- NASA
March 1, 2010: Astornomically large lenses measure the age and size of the Universe -- SLAC
February 28, 2010: Pauli Exclusion Principle: Why you don't implode -- APOD
February 26, 2010: A CoGeNT result in the hunt for dark matter -- Nature
February 25, 2010: Naming an atomic heavyweight -- Science News
February 22, 2010: Making use of neutrons -- Chemical & Engineering News
February 9, 2010: A new 3D map of the interstellar gas within 300 parsecs from the Sun -- Astronomy & Astrophysics
January 31, 2010: Plasma experiments aboard International Space Station yielding better picture of liquids and solids -- Science Daily
January 27, 2010: Helium sell-off risks future supply -- Physics World
January 22, 2010: Millennium annular solar eclipse -- APOD
January 19, 2009: Painless plasma jets could replace dentist's drill -- Eurekalert
January 9, 2009: Dark matter and dark energy update -- Sky & Telescope
January 7, 2009: Why won't the supernova explode? -- Science@NASA
January 7, 2009: Astronomers map dark matter 'beach ball' -- NPR
January 2, 2009: Experiment detects particles of dark matter, maybe -- Science News
December 28, 2009: "Superatoms" mimic elements: Research reveals new perspective of periodic table -- Penn State
December 28, 2009: Atomic dogs: The making of an internet sensation -- New Scientist
December 18, 2009: Dark matter detected for first time? -- National Geographic
December 10, 2009: The colors of IC 1795 -- APOD
December 9, 2009: HUDF infrared: Dawn of the galaxies -- APOD
December 8, 2009: Suzaku spies treasure trove of intergalactic metal -- NASA's Imagine the Universe!
December 7, 2009: Heavy metal mine -- HEAPOW
December 2, 2009: Dust sculptures in the Rosette nebula -- APOD
December 2, 2009: Suzaku spies treasure trove of intergalactic metal -- NASA
November 26, 2009: Plasmas have healing powers -- Physics World
November 24, 2009: Neutrino experiment starts its search for the unknown -- Astronomy.com
November 20, 2009: Quarks influenced by their neighborhood -- Physical Review Focus
November 13, 2009: New experiment could reveal make-up of the Universe -- Science Daily
November 11, 2009: Exoplanets clue to Sun's curious chemistry -- Eurekalert
November 6, 2009: Signature of antimatter detected in lightning -- Science News
November 2, 2009: Ropes of plasma: Onset and stagnation of 3-D magnetic reconnection -- Eurekalert
October 19, 2009: Bright light hints at a dark centre to the Galaxy -- Nature
October 16, 2009: So close,yet so far -- Physical Review Focus
October 7, 2009: Dirty stars are popular hosts -- Astrobiology Magazine
September, 30, 2009: Galaxy study hints at cracks in dark matter theories -- New Scientist
September 21, 2009: Is dark matter mostly 'dark atoms'? -- Physics World
September 11, 2009: Aage Niels Bohr: 1922-2009 -- Physics World
September 8, 2009: Laser cooling may create "exotic" states of matter -- National Geographic
September 2, 2009: Researcher uses 100,000 degree heat to study plasma, what happens to matter around black holes -- Science Daily
September 2, 2009: Antimatter mystery -- New Scientist
September 2, 2009: The lithium problem -- New Scientist
August 26, 2009: Particle imbalance may upset the apple cart -- Science News
August 14, 2009: In search of antimatter galaxies -- Science@NASA
August 14, 2009: Isotope crisis threatens medical care -- Science News
August 11, 2009: New laser technique may help find supernova -- Eurekalert
August 10, 2009: Exploring the standard model of physics without the high-energy collider -- Eurekalert
August 6, 2009: New experiment could reveal make-up of the universe -- Eurekalert
July 24, 2009: Ray of hope in dark-matter hunt -- Nature
July 14, 2009: 'Copernicium' proposed as name for newly discovered element 112 -- Eurekalert
July 13, 2009: Dark matter helped early galaxies survive "massacre" -- National Geographic
July 8, 2009: Astrophysicists solve mystery in Milky Way galaxy -- UCSD
July 1, 2009: Mass mismatch makes mystery for proton's strange cousin -- Science News
June 30, 2009: Solar ghosts may haunt Earth's radioactive atoms -- New Scientist
June 29, 2009: NuTeV anomaly helps shed light on physics of the nucleus -- Science Daily
June 26, 2009: Magnetic 'superatoms' promise tuneable materials -- New Scientist
June 19, 2009: Quirky supernova could be something new -- New Scientist
June 19, 2009: A Higgs boson without the mess -- Physical Review Focus
June 15, 2009: First new element for five years makes periodic table -- New Scientist
June 15, 2009: Magnetic super-atoms discovered -- Science Daily
May 29, 2009: Dark-energy particle spotted? -- Nature
May 28, 2009: Great moments in GRIStory -- NASA
May 28, 2009: Particle physics -- it matters, say UK policy makers -- Physics World
April 14, 2009: 13 things that do not make sense (#5 Dark matter, #7 Tetraneutrons) -- New Scientist
March 31, 2009: Spooky mirror tricks -- Max Planck Institute
March 29, 2009: Signals of a strange universe -- APOD
March 23, 2009: SPICE will measure Sun's plasma properties -- Astronomy.com
March 18, 2009: Particle oddball surprises CDF physicists at Fermilab -- Fermilab
March 13, 2009: Lasers provide antimatter bonanza -- Physical Review Focus
March 9, 2009: Fermilab collider experiments discover rare single top quark -- Fermilab
February 20, 2009: Dark matter as a source of antiparticles -- APS Physics
February 10, 2009: Chameleon particle blends into the background -- Physics World
February 9, 2009: New forces in the dark sector -- APS Physics
February 5, 2009: PAMELA paper dampens dark-matter claim -- Physics World
February 4, 2009: High pressure yields novel single-element boron 'compound' -- Science Daily
January 31, 2009: Simeis 147: Supernova remnant -- APOD
January 15, 2009: Does dark matter encircle Earth? -- Scientific American
January 7, 2009: European boost for particle therapy -- Nature


Composition news from 2008 and earlier


Composition Activities

Grades 5 - 8: Cosmic Chemistry: Understanding Elements -- Genesis mission
Grades 5 - 12: Modeling the Periodic Table -- Genesis mission
Grades 9 - 12: Composition of Matter, Atomic Structure -- NASA GSFC
Grades 9 - 12: Cosmic Chemistry: An Elemental Question -- Genesis mission
Grades 9 - 12: From a Different Angle - World history related to the periodic table -- Genesis mission



BASICS .. COSMIC RAYS .. SUN .. SPACE WEATHER

TRACE sun mosaic Supernova 1006 (ASCA) 30
Doradus ACE
spacecraft TRACE solar flare IMAGE magnetosphere
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A service of the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA's GSFC

Questions and comments to: cosmicopia@cosmicra.gsfc.nasa.gov
Curator: Dr Eric R. Christian, NASA
Responsible NASA Official: Dr Eric R. Christian

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Last modified: May 10, 2012