An alpha particle is a particle made up of two protons and two neutrons. Since this configuration is similar to that of a helium nucleus, it’s often referred to as a helium nucleus. The term is commonly used in nuclear physics, and is one of the three particles commonly emitted during a radioactive decay, i.e., alpha, beta, and gamma particles.
Alpha particles gained prominence during the early days of particle physics when scientists used them as projectiles to bombard certain targets. One of the most widely celebrated experiments that made use of alpha particles was that of Ernest Rutherford’s that led to the discovery of the atom’s structure.
Using alpha particles as projectiles and gold foils as targets, Rutherford was able to come to the conclusion that atoms were made up of very dense positively charged cores with the much lighter negatively-charged electrons orbiting around it. His conclusion was based on the observation that the trajectories of the alpha particles were slightly deviated (as expected) at most times but in rare instances bounced off like ping-pong balls thrown against a wall.
The alpha particles went through the gold foils unhindered when they passed through the large but sparsely filled region around the nucleus. However, when, during much rarer instances, they happened to collide head on or even came close to the very dense and positively charged nucleus, they were deflected at very wide angles.
Through this information, there was no other option but for Rutherford to conclude that the atom must have a very dense nucleus which is very much smaller compared to the entire atom.
In terms of atomic proportions, alpha particles are considered very massive because of the existence of the two protons and two neutrons. Furthermore, they are also positively charged due to the protons. As such, they can easily wreak havoc to most targets. That is, they have high ionization properties.
Alpha particles are released during alpha decay processes which can happen most especially to ultra-heavy nuclei like uranium, thorium, actinium, and radium. Since they’re not as fast (due mainly to their masses) as betas and gammas, they can’t travel across large distances and can be easily stopped by a piece of paper or human skin.
However, again because of their huge masses, alpha particles can be very dangerous whenever they can somehow enter the body through inhalation or ingestion. Minus that possibility, you don’t have to worry much about this heavyweight of a particle.
Universe Today has some interesting related content that you might want to read. Want to know about how the Opportunity rover got sidelined by a charged particle hit? And here’s an article about alpha radiation.
There’s more about it at NASA. Here are a couple of sources there:
- MSL Science Corner: Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS)
- Mars Exploration Rover Mission: The Mission
Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well: