Catching Rays: The Back Story

Perched on the flank of a dormant volcano high in the mountains of central Mexico, the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory takes a simple concept to its logical if somewhat extreme conclusion.

How do you detect gamma rays? Place more than 300 steel water tanks in a regular grid, fill them with purified water, then wait for showers of decaying rays to fall through the atmosphere and strike them. Photosensors at the bottom of each tank measure ultraviolet light produced when the rays zip through the tanks faster than light normally travels through water – an electromagnetic sonic boom called Cherenkov Radiation.

This is super cool science – at an altitude of over 4,000 meters in one of the most remote and spectacular areas of North America.

And it’s a perfect story for an informational graphic. But where to start?

Well, the extreme landscape is a big part of the story, so any illustration or infographic describing the science should also give a sense of the setting.

We could use a photograph. But finding the perfect high-resolution image might prove difficult. Provided you do find it, you’d also need to obtain publication rights. The entire process can take weeks, and you’d likely end up with a photo that works OK, but isn’t ideal.

Instead, we’ll create our own digital landscape based on real-world elevation data. We’ll be able to place the viewers exactly where we want them and specify the lighting and time of day – even the weather and cloud cover.

3D models of the water tanks and other buildings on site can be inserted into the landscape and called out as cutaway diagrams. Once built, the terrain and models can be repurposed for other publication platforms such as online and tablet editions.

A Google map search shows us the observatory and the surrounding terrain. Time to start doing a little research.