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Rock Insider

display of colored marbles on Rock'n'Roller Coaster

What if there was a way we could see into rocks without having to break them open? We could see every detail of earth's oldest matter without altering it.

Thanks to neutron tomography, we can! The process, which involves neutron beams from a nuclear reactor, allows for highly-detailed internal imaging. For example, scientists have used it to detect bacteria living inside rocks collected from Antarctica's dry valleys and Israel's Negev desert. This technique has also been used to see inside volcanic rocks and stones from deep within the ocean floor.

Like X-rays, neutrons can see the individual atoms that make up a thing. Though both X-rays and neutrons can both capture images of an object's interior, neutron beams produce more complete pictures. That's because neutrons can see deeper into materials and can detect smaller atoms than X-rays.

Neutron tomography allows us to see inside everything from small atoms to large rocks. Perhaps one day, neutrons will allow us to look for signs of life beyond the third rock from the sun.

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