Hailing Frequencies Open? Communication Via Neutrinos Tested Successfully

by Nancy Atkinson on April 11, 2012

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Lt. Uhura communicating on Star Trek. Image from Uhura.com

In science fiction – like in Star Trek, for example — interstellar communication was never a problem; all you needed was to have Urhura open up hailing frequencies to Starfleet Command. But in the real universe, communicating between star systems poses a dilemma with current radio technology. There’s also a very real problem today for operating spacecraft in that communications are impossible when a planetary body is blocking the signal. One of the more outlandish methods proposed for solving deep space communication problems has been to devise a technique using neutrinos. But now, it turns out, using neutrinos for communication might not be that crazy of an idea: communicating with neutrinos has, for the first time, been tested successfully.

Scientists of the MINERvA collaboration at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory successfully transmitted a message through 240 meters of rock using neutrinos. The team says their demonstration “illustrates the feasibility of using neutrino beams to provide a low-rate communications link, independent of any existing electromagnetic communications infrastructure.”

Layout of the NuMI beam line used as the neutrino source, and the MINERvA detector. Credit: Stancil, et al.

The scientists used the a 170-ton MINERvA detector at Fermilab and a NuMI beam line, a powerful, pulsed accelerator beam to produce neutrinos. They were able to manipulate the pulsed beam and turn it — for a couple of hours — into a sort of “neutrino telegraph,” according to R&D magazine.

“It’s impressive that the accelerator is flexible enough to do this,” said Fermilab physicist Debbie Harris, co-spokesperson of the MINERvA experiment.

The link achieved a decoded data rate of 0.1 bits/sec with a bit error rate of 1% over a distance of 1.035 km that included 240 m of earth, the scientists said.
For the test, scientists transmitted the word “neutrino.” The MINERvA detector decoded the message at 99 percent accuracy after just two repetitions of the signal.

However, given the limited range, low data rate, and extreme technologies required to achieve this goal, the team wrote in their paper that “significant improvements in neutrino beams and detectors are required for ‘practical’ application.”

So, while this first success offers hope for eventually being able to use neutrinos for deep space communication, until physicists create more intense neutrino beams, build better neutrino detectors or come up with a simpler technique, this method of communication will very likely remain in the realm of science fiction.

Read the team’s paper: Demonstration of Communication Using Neutrinos

Source: R&D

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Kevin Frushour April 11, 2012 at 10:13 PM

“significant improvements in neutrino beams and detectors are required for ‘practical’ application”

Which we all knew even before this was tested.

TheDirtBoy April 11, 2012 at 10:45 PM

It’s only a matter of time. Just compare the data transmission rate of our latest communication satellites to Voyager 1. In time, everything will be sent by neutrino beams. Perhaps we haven’t heard from E.T. because his new phone operates on neutrinos. That’s quite a step up from a saw blade on a record player.

TheDirtBoy April 11, 2012 at 10:45 PM

It’s only a matter of time. Just compare the data transmission rate of our latest communication satellites to Voyager 1. In time, everything will be sent by neutrino beams. Perhaps we haven’t heard from E.T. because his new phone operates on neutrinos. That’s quite a step up from a saw blade on a record player.

Ernie April 12, 2012 at 12:48 AM

The data transmission rates to Voyager now?

They’re low because of the size of the dish and the distance from earth. Probes working out at Saturn fare no better. Cassini for example, tops out at 249 Kbps with its high-gain antenna:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/files/space_probe_fact.pdf

Also, here’s a paper specifically about interplanetary communications:
http://www.tp.umu.se/space/Proj_05/Daniel.W.pdf

TheDirtBoy April 12, 2012 at 3:28 AM

I’m talking about the data transmission rate of the latest and greatest communication satellite compared to the data transmission rate of Voyager… at any point. Huge difference no matter how you look at it. My point is that we will see neutrino communication in the Gbps range eventually. My guess is it will happen within 50 years.

David Krauss April 12, 2012 at 4:37 AM

We’re still lacking fundamental knowledge about neutrinos. Efficient generation would take leaps forward in nuclear technology, which is a very slow moving field, and efficient detection would take entirely new physics. 50 years is completely impossible.

Just drawing a parallel between neutrinos and electromagnetism, which is probably very generous, our knowledge is maybe in the mid-late 19th century, and it’s 100 years more until a Voyager gets launched.

Chris Devriese April 12, 2012 at 11:58 AM

You think progress is improving linear in time. This is not the case. Technology is improving exponential. New technology will take only minutes, even seconds instead of years to develop in 100 years from now (read Ray Kurzweil?)

TheDirtBoy April 16, 2012 at 3:55 AM

All else being equal you would probably be right, how ever nothing drives human ingenuity like war and greed. Surely, I don’t have to point out what a strategic advantage a technology like this would give a military, global communication without the possibility of EMP disruption. How about a worldwide cable tv network without the need for expensive satellites? Inventors are nothing if not masters of improving on other people’s work and this flood gate is opening.

Olaf2 April 12, 2012 at 4:44 PM

Neutrino communication is a waste of investment and energy, unless you need to transmit through solid rock or a complete planet.

It is impossible to have Gbps transmission of neutrino’s, you would need a detector the size of our galaxy for this.

delphinus100 April 12, 2012 at 9:43 PM

“Neutrino communication is a waste of investment and energy, unless you need to transmit through solid rock or a complete planet.”

Submerged submarine communications. You’d want exactly that.

The current use of ELF radio signals involves painfully slow data rates of a few characters per second. Even if neutrino communication data rates equaled that of early telephone modems in this application, it would still be a major step up.

Sherri April 11, 2012 at 11:03 PM

A little bit closer each day…

Hematite April 11, 2012 at 11:48 PM

Sounds like a job for that Ring World stuff that stops 40% of incident neutrinos. Although if there really were such an unlikely material, it might serve as a free energy source as the joules from all those stopped leptons was deposited there.

Does anyone have a notion as to how much kinetic energy would be in all of those trillions of neutrinos coursing through us each second?

squidgeny April 12, 2012 at 12:21 PM

After a bit of searching, the only (and a somewhat dubious) source I can find on the energy of a solar neutrino puts it at 1MeV. Wikipedia claims a neutrino flux of 650 trillion (m^-2)(s^-1) at the Earth’s distance, which therefore works out at about 100W per square meter.

For comparison, eHow claims the highest output of a solar panel in the brightest sunlight is 10 times that.

Matthias Grun Von Jolk April 12, 2012 at 4:08 PM

Well, this can’t be, since the solar constant is about 1.4 kW/m² outside the atmosphere, and about 500-800 W/m² at the surface. Since the efficiency of a photo-voltaic solar panel is between 15 and 45% the output would be between 75 and 360 W peak. If solar-thermal devices can transform the solar energy more efficiently you could reach more. But the most important question would be for me: How can the neutrino flux energy be transformed into electricity? Do you know of any technical concept?

Hematite April 12, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Thanks!

squidgeny April 12, 2012 at 9:32 PM

Yeah that’s why I stated my source as being eHow – not really the most reliable but I had trouble finding better :)

To answer your question, I know of no method of harnessing the energy of neutrinos (neither real nor theoretical)

Peristroika April 12, 2012 at 12:19 AM

The neutrinos in the speed experiment traveled at light speed. Do all neutrinos, from all sources travel as fast? Is there such a thing as a slow neutrino?

squidgeny April 12, 2012 at 12:03 PM

Nuetrinos have mass; they never travel at the speed of light. Not sure what speed they typically travel at, though…

lcrowell April 12, 2012 at 12:59 PM

It is not hard to calculate or estimate about how fast neutrinos move. The most elementary process for producing a neutrino is the conversion of a proton to a neutron by absorbing an electron at sufficiently high energy. Diagrammatically the process is

p + e — > n + ?

The protons has a mass of 1938 MeV, the neutron mass is 1939 Mev and the electron is .51 Mev. Mev = million electron volts of mass-energy. This is a mass-energy excess of about .5Mev. The mass of the electron neutrino (neutrinos come in lepton varieties and this neutrino is deemed the electron neutrino or ?_e) is about .1 ev. The ratio of the mass-energy excess and the mass of the neutrino is E/m = 5×10^6. In special relativity this defines the gamma factor ? = 1/sqrt(1 – (v/c)^2), and so ? = E/m = 5×10^6. We now calculate the velocity

v/c = sqrt[1 – 1/?^2] = sqrt[1 – 10^{-14}] ~= 1 – 5×10^{-8}

or v/c = .99999995. This means that with respect to the frame this experiment is conducted the neutrino is moving about 99.999995% the speed of light.

LC

DarkGnat April 12, 2012 at 2:43 AM

So you could theoretically send a signal directly through the Earth, right?

squidgeny April 12, 2012 at 12:07 PM

Sending a neutrino beam through the Earth has already been done – the only remaining step is to put a message it in (which is what they did here, but only through 240m of earth)

So it should be relatively trivial. I doubt the technology will get the funding to make it practical on a widespread basis though, without some serious military or economic potential to back it up (and let’s face it, EM radiation gets the job done)

DarkGnat April 12, 2012 at 3:00 PM

But neutrino signals would be stealthy. No one can intercept it unless they have the correct equipment. That alone may justify the costs of R&D in DOD’s eyes.

Brad351 April 13, 2012 at 5:59 AM

Rubbish. The receiver does not intercept all the neutrinos therefore you’d need to ensure you have a very tight beam (no spread over 12000km diameter of the earth) and nothing with a detector was flying above the transmission, in the air or in space. It is in fact LESS stealthy than a laser beam, all of which can be intercepted by the detector.

lcrowell April 12, 2012 at 2:46 AM

This is curious, but detectors such as MINERvA and superKamiodande are massive and not exactly practicle.

LC

David Krauss April 12, 2012 at 4:39 AM

We need a practicle accelerator ;v)

lcrowell April 12, 2012 at 12:24 PM

Ooops. The problem of course is that neutrinos interact very weakly. It then requires many tons of matter to capture a few neutrinos out of trillions that pass through it.

LC

Nikolay Kulinich April 12, 2012 at 6:01 AM

Neutrino not suitable for interstellar communications. The speed is limited by the speed of light. Modern physics prohibits the movement of the masses with a speed greater than the speed of light.

Brad351 April 12, 2012 at 6:56 AM

The only problem that neutrinos solve is the one of matter between the sender and recipient. All of the other far more important problems remain the same.

Matthias Grun Von Jolk April 12, 2012 at 4:28 PM

Neutrino-based wireless communication through the Earth could one day become a secure back-up of satellite networks, which are complex, expensive to maintain and vulnerable to Space wheater. If the “range is limited” (why?) I doubt that deep-space communication is a viable application.

Jessica Frankie April 12, 2012 at 4:29 PM

What does this mean?
Interesting that people do something else than war and other stuff and do something really helpful for the world. Hurray for them.

astrojr1 April 12, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Don’t we have to figure out what exactly is happening with neutrino detection? They’re weakly interacting, they have very little mass, it takes a bunch of mass to detect them. Looking through/beyond probability, what occurs when that one massive atom in a detector actually gets hit just the right place in just the right way? Does the forward mass also have to interact with the neutrino in some way, to slow it down, or make it wobble a bit, so the rearward atoms in the detector have a better chance of hitting a neutrino? I thought of the difference between a rhodopsin molecule, and an elemental crystal lattice like iron or something. Photons will interact with both of course, but something special happens in the rhodopsin molecule. It has just the right shape and flex axes to do something important when a photon arrives.

If we could figure out what is really happening when a neutrino interacts with the nuclei or electron shells or both of hadrons, could we not then build a much smaller, less massive detector? We can look at this as our detector not being very good at interacting with neutrinos, so we have to have a bunch of it.

I’m sure this is already explained – and someone will explain it to me – but yet, here we are with our big ol’ non-pocket-sized neutrino detectors. What has to happen to make a detector get hit by just the sender’s neutrinos, AND filter out all the neutrinos that are not sent by the sender? And can the neutrino sender modulate the neutrinos to a large number of discrete frequencies or directionalities sufficient to have two conversations going on at the same time? I’m afraid I’m still thinking like a photon…

space_sailor April 12, 2012 at 8:53 PM

Interesting on Earth or Solar System but still not big move forward in interstellar communications. Are we going to wait years for answers?

Lord Haw-Haw. April 13, 2012 at 1:48 PM

Kern the Gnome has visited the neutrino physics laboratory SNOLAB in Canada:

http://www.quantumdiaries.org/2012/04/13/the-travelling-garden-gnome-an-instrument-of-science/

Duncan Ivry April 12, 2012 at 12:32 PM

There are more cases than just linear versus exponential. As far as I can see, some technology is moving forward in leaps.

And Ray Kurzweil? Well, not everbody thinks of him being a quality source — and this is the polite version ;-)

David Krauss April 13, 2012 at 5:15 AM

There’s an idea! It also helps that existing detectors are also submarine.

But, ELF at 100 bits/sec is still three orders of magnitude more than the 0.1 bits/sec the article quotes.

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