Dr. Funk notes that cosmic rays not only influence the evolution of galaxies, some biologists suspect they influenced the evolution of life on Earth by introducing mutations into the genes of simple forms of life early in Earth's history. Cosmic rays hitting the top of the atmosphere also trigger a shower of other particles that elevate radiation levels encountered by airliners. The rays also would represent a serious hazard to astronauts en route to Mars.
A formal report of the results will appear in Friday's issue of the journal Science. Funk and Pat Slane, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., reviewed the results in a briefing Thursday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's 2013 annual meeting in Boston.
Cosmic rays were discovered by physicist Victor Hess in a series of balloon trips he conducted between 1911 and 1913. Filled with hydrogen, the balloons took him to altitudes as high as 17,400 feet.
Researchers had noted the presence of ionizing radiation at ground level, but thought it might have a terrestrial origin. Hess took sensitive detectors on his ascents and found that radiation levels increased with altitude, instead of decreased.
The discovery, confirmed 12 years later by US physicist Robert Millikan, earned Hess a Nobel prize in 1936. Thirteen years later, physicist Enrico Fermi would propose that cosmic rays were accelerated via collisions with moving magnetic fields in interstellar space.