Beta particles are just electrons from the nucleus, the term "beta particle" being an historical term used in the early description of radioactivity. The high energy electrons have greater range of penetration than alpha particles, but still much less than gamma rays. The radiation hazard from betas is greatest if they are ingested.
Beta emission is accompanied by the emission of an electron antineutrino which shares the momentum and energy of the decay.
|The emission of the electron's antiparticle, the positron, is also called beta decay. Beta decay can be seen as the decay of one of the neutrons to a proton via the weak interaction. The use of a weak interaction Feynman diagram can clarify the process.|
Electron and Antineutrino
Early studies of beta decay revealed a continuous energy spectrum up to a maximum, unlike the predictable energy of alpha particles. Another anomaly was the fact that the nuclear recoil was not in the the direction opposite the momentum of the electron. The emission of another particle was a probable explanation of this behavior, but searches found no evidence of either mass or charge. Pauli in 1930 proposed a particle called a neutrino which could carry away the missing energy and momentum. With no charge and no mass, it was hard to detect, and not until 1953 was experimental detection of the neutrino achieved. For symmetry reasons, the particle emitted along with the electron from nuclei is called an antineutrino. The emission of a positron is accompanied by a neutrino.
Positron and Neutrino
The emission of a positron or an electron is referred to as beta decay. The positron is accompanied by a neutrino, a massless(?) and chargeless particle. Positrons are emitted with the same kind of energy spectrum as electrons in negative beta decay because of the emission of the neutrino.
Beta Energy Spectrum
In the process of beta decay, either an electron or a positron is emitted. Because either a neutrino or an antineutrino is emitted as well, there is a spectrum of energies for the electron or positron, depending upon what fraction of the reaction energy Q is carried by the massive particle. The shape of this energy curve can be predicted from the Fermi theory of beta decay.