Cherenkov radiation (also spelled Cerenkov or Čerenkov) is electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle (such as an electron) passes through an insulator at a constant speed greater than the speed of light in that medium. The charged particles polarize the molecules of that medium, which then turn back rapidly to their ground state, emitting radiation in the process. The characteristic blue glow of nuclear reactors is due to Cherenkov radiation. It is named after Russian scientist Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner who was the first to characterise it rigorously.
When a high-energy cosmic ray interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, it may produce an electron-positron pair with enormous velocities. The Cherenkov radiation from these charged particles is used to determine the source and intensity of the cosmic ray, which is used for example in the Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Technique (IACT), by experiments such as VERITAS, H.E.S.S., and MAGIC. Similar methods are used in very large neutrino detectors, such as the Super-Kamiokande, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) and IceCube. In the Pierre Auger Observatory and other similar projects tanks filled with water observe the Cherenkov radiation caused by muons, electrons and positrons of particle showers which are caused by cosmic rays.
Cherenkov radiation can also be used to determine properties of high-energy astronomical objects that emit gamma rays, such as supernova remnants and blazars. This is done by projects such as STACEE, a gamma ray detector in New Mexico.