NASA has launched a space-based probe that will study the origins of highly energetic particles, known as cosmic rays. Sent into space by a Space X rocket yesterday, the Cosmic Ray Energetics And Mass for the International Space Station (ISS-CREAM) will now be installed on the Japanese Experiment Module, where it will study cosmic rays for three years.

Cosmic rays zoom through space at nearly the speed of light and consist of a range of particles from protons to carbon atoms. When cosmic rays enter the Earth's atmosphere they collide with another particle setting off a cascade of secondary particles. While Earth-bound detectors only see the secondary particles, a probe that is above Earth's atmosphere will be able to spot the primary particles.

ISS-CREAM is a successor to six similar missions that have flown on long-duration balloons, which began in 2004 with the first flight of the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass mission. "The mysterious nature of cosmic rays serves as a reminder of just how little we know about our universe," says Eun-Suk Seo from the University of Maryland, who is the lead investigator for ISS-CREAM. "This is a very exciting time for us as well as others in the field of high-energy particle astrophysics."