the geiger-muller tube

We’ve examined the operation of a Geiger-Müller counter as part of the radiation topic.

image by Theresa Knott

The Geiger-Müller (GM) counter is used to detect ionising radiation such as alpha and beta particles or gamma rays.  The radiation enters through a very thin window at one end of the tube.  This window is usually made of mica.

Mica flakes.  Photo by Rpervinking

Mica is a mineral that forms in layers called sheets.  These sheets can be split apart into very thin layers, so thin that even an alpha particle can pass through it (remember that alpha particles can be stopped by something as thin as your skin or a sheet of paper).  The mica window prevents the argon inside the tube from escaping and also stops air from getting into the tube.

When radiation enters the tube and collides with an argon atom, an electron may be knocked off the atom – we call this process ionisation.  When ionisation occurs, a positively-charged argon ion and a negatively-charged electron are produced.  The argon ion is attracted to the outside wall of the tube, which is connected to the negative terminal of the power supply, while the electron is attracted to the central electrode, which is kept at a high positive voltage – typically 500V.

A small pulse of current is produced each time an electron reaches the central electrode.  These pulses can be counted by an electronic circuit and a displayed on a 7-segment display.  Sometimes a small speaker is added to the system to produce a click for each pulse.  On its own, the GM tube cannot tell the difference between alpha, beta and gamma radiation.  We need to place different materials (e.g. paper, aluminium, lead) in front of the mica window to discover which type of radiation is responsible for the reading.

Here is a short video demonstrating the use of a Geiger-Müller tube.

Newton’s third law of motion

Today we examined the importance of Newton’s 3rd law of motion. In our discussions, different explanations for the motion of jets and rockets were proposed and considered. The front runners were;

  1. at launch, the ground pushes back against a rocket
  2. during flight, air pushes back against a plane

Unfortunately, the lack of ground and air (or any other gas) meant that neither of these models were able to explain the propulsion of an object in space. It was at this point we remembered Newton’s 3rd law of motion (or here with non-rocket examples).

You’ve got to be careful with Newton’s 3rd law of motion, it’s easy to get confused. Bonus question: What’s wrong with this explanation?

I found a photograph that provides a stunning visualisation of Newton’s 3rd law in action during the launch of a DeltaIV rocket. You can read the details of setting up for this photo here.

Delta_4-Heavy_DSP-23

image courtesy of Ben Cooper, Launchphotography.com

The photo was taken at very short range (about 30m) from the launch site and clearly shows hot gases being forced out of the exhaust at high speed. When a rocket forces out gas, the expelled gas pushes back on the exhaust with an equal force. Since the exhaust is part of the rocket’s structure, the entire rocket is propelled in the opposite direction to the gas.

It is this pushing back on the exhaust that provides thrust for a rocket. It doesn’t matter if the rocket is on the launch pad, in mid air or outer space. As long as it can push gas out of the exhaust, it will be able to propel itself forwards using Newton’s 3rd law of motion.

We don’t normally get a clear view of the hot gases being forced out of a rocket in launch photographs. A lot of the smoke seen in images like the one shown below is actually steam.

NASA_launch_Mars_rovers

NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

There are two main sources of steam during launch. The most obvious is the burning of fuels but NASA also soaks launch platforms with water just before and after launch so that the massive sound waves don’t damage the vehicle being launched. There is a wikipedia article on the use of water during space shuttle launches.