NOvA Experiment Nabs Its First Neutrinos

Neutrinos are some of the most abundant, curious, and elusive critters in particle physics. Incredibly lightweight — nigh massless, according to the Standard Model — as well as chargeless, they zip around the Universe at the speed of light and they don’t interact with any other particles. Some of them have been around since the Big Bang and, just as you’ve read this, trillions of them have passed through your body (and more are on the way.) But despite their ubiquitousness neutrinos are notoriously difficult to study precisely because they ignore pretty much everything made out of anything else. So it’s not surprising that weighing a neutrino isn’t as simple as politely asking one to step on a scale.

Thankfully particle physicists are a tenacious lot, including the ones at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab, and they aren’t giving up on their latest neutrino safari: the NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance experiment, or NOvA. (Scientists represent neutrinos with the Greek letter nu, or v.) It’s a very small-game hunt to catch neutrinos on the fly, and it uses some very big equipment to do the job. And it’s already captured its first neutrinos — even before their setup is fully complete.

Created by smashing protons against graphite targets in Fermilab’s facility just outside Chicago, Illinois, resulting neutrinos are collected and shot out in a beam 500 miles northwest to the NOvA far detector in Ash River, Minnesota, located along the Canadian border. The very first beams were fired in Sept. 2013, while the Ash River facility was still under construction.

One of the first detections by NOvA of Fermilab-made neutrinos (Image courtesy of NOvA collaboration)
One of the first detections by NOvA of Fermilab-made neutrinos (Image courtesy of NOvA collaboration)

“That the first neutrinos have been detected even before the NOvA far detector installation is complete is a real tribute to everyone involved,” said University of Minnesota physicist Marvin Marshak, Ash River Laboratory director. “This early result suggests that the NOvA collaboration will make important contributions to our knowledge of these particles in the not so distant future.”

The 500-mile (800 km) path of the NOvA neutrino beam (Fermilab)
The 500-mile (800 km) subterranean path of the NOvA neutrino beam (Fermilab)

The beams from Fermilab are fired in two-second intervals, each sending billions of neutrinos directly toward the detectors. The near detector at Fermilab confirms the initial “flavor” of neutrinos in the beam, and the much larger far detector then determines if the neutrinos have changed during their three-millisecond underground interstate journey.

Again, because neutrinos don’t readily interact with ordinary particles, the beams can easily travel straight through the ground between the facilities — despite the curvature of the Earth. In fact the beam, which starts out 150 feet (45 meters) below ground near Chicago, eventually passes over 6 miles (10 km) deep during its trip.

According to a press release from Fermilab, neutrinos “come in three types, called flavors (electron, muon, or tau), and change between them as they travel. The two detectors of the NOvA experiment are placed so far apart to give the neutrinos the time to oscillate from one flavor to another while traveling at nearly the speed of light. Even though only a fraction of the experiment’s larger detector, called the far detector, is fully built, filled with scintillator and wired with electronics at this point, the experiment has already used it to record signals from its first neutrinos.”

The 50-foot (15 m) tall detector blocks are filled with a liquid scintillator that’s made of 95% mineral oil and 5% liquid hydrocarbon called pseudocumene, which is toxic but “imperative to the neutrino-detecting process.”  The mixture magnifies any light that hits it, allowing the neutrino strikes to be more easily detected and measured. (Source)

“NOvA represents a new generation of neutrino experiments,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “We are proud to reach this important milestone on our way to learning more about these fundamental particles.”

One of NOvA's 28 detectors  (Fermilab)
One of NOvA’s 28 far detector blocks (Fermilab)

After completion this summer NOvA’s near and far detectors will weigh 300 and 14,000 tons, respectively.

The goal of the NOvA experiment is to successfully capture and measure the masses of the different neutrino flavors and also determine if neutrinos are their own antiparticles (they could be the same, since they lack  specific charge.) By comparing the oscillations (i.e., flavor changes) of muon neutrino beams vs. muon antineutrino beams fired from Fermilab, scientists hope to determine their mass hierarchy — and ultimately discover why the Universe currently contains much more matter than antimatter.

Read more: Neutrino Detection Could Help Paint an Entirely New Picture of the Universe

Once the experiment is fully operational scientists expect to catch a precious few neutrinos every day — about 5,000 total over the course of its six-year run. Until then, they at least now have their first few on the books.

“Seeing neutrinos in the first modules of the detector in Minnesota is a major milestone. Now we can start doing physics.”
– Rick Tesarek, Fermilab physicist

Learn more about the development and construction of the NoVA experiment below:


(Video credit: Fermilab)

Find out more about the NOvA research goals here.

Source: Fermilab press release

The NOvA collaboration is made up of 208 scientists from 38 institutions in the United States, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. The experiment receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies.

Tevatron Targets Higgs Mass

Today, researchers from Fermilab announced they have zeroed in further on the mass of the Higgs boson, the controversially-called “God particle”* that is thought to be the key to all mass in the Universe. This news comes just two days before a highly-anticipated announcement by CERN during the ICHEP physics conference in Melbourne, Australia (which is expected by many to confirm actual proof of the Higgs.)

Even after analyzing the data from 500 trillion collisions produced over the past decade at Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider the Higgs particle has not been identified directly. But a narrower range for its mass has been established with some certainty: according to the research the Higgs, if it exists, has a mass between 115 and 135 GeV/c2.

“Our data strongly point toward the existence of the Higgs boson, but it will take results from the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe to establish a discovery,” said Fermilab’s Rob Roser, cospokesperson for the CDF experiment at DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Researchers hunt for the Higgs by looking for particles that it breaks down into. With the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, scientists look for energetic photons, while at Fermilab CDF and DZero collaborators have been searching for bottom quarks. Both are viable results expected from the decay of a Higgs particle, “just as a vending machine might return the same amount of change using different combinations of coins.”

Fermilab’s results have a statistical significance of 2.9 sigma, meaning that there’s a 1-in-550 chance that the data was the result of something else entirely. While a 5-sigma significance is required for an official “discovery”, these findings show that the Higgs is running out of places to hide.

“We have developed sophisticated simulation and analysis programs to identify Higgs-like patterns,” said Luciano Ristori, co-spokesperson of the CDF experiment. “Still, it is easier to look for a friend’s face in a sports stadium filled with 100,000 people than to search for a Higgs-like event among trillions of collisions.”

“We achieved a critical step in the search for the Higgs boson. Nobody expected the Tevatron to get this far when it was built in the 1980s.”

– Dmitri Denisov, DZero cospokesperson and physicist at Fermilab

Nearly 50 years since it was proposed, physicists may now be on the edge of exposing this elusive and essential ingredient of… well, everything.

See the Fermilab press release here.

Read Fermilab’s FAQs on the Higgs boson

Top image: The Tevatron typically produced about 10 million proton-antiproton collisions per second. Each collision produced hundreds of particles. The CDF and DZero experiments recorded about 200 collisions per second for further analysis. Sub-image: The three-story, 6,000-ton CDF detector recorded snapshots of the particles that emerge when protons and antiprotons collide.(Fermilab)

*And why is it often called the God particle? Because of this book.

Galactic Gong – Milky Way Struck and Still Ringing After 100 Million Years

Small Magellanic Cloud

When galaxies collide, stars are thrown from orbits, spiral arms are stretched and twisted, and now scientists say galaxies ring like a bell long after the cosmic crash.

A team of astronomers from the United States and Canada say they have heard echoes of that ringing, possible evidence of a galactic encounter 100 million years ago when a small satellite galaxy or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way Galaxy; close to our position in the galaxy, as if a rock were thrown into a still pond causing the stars to bounce up and down on the waves. Their results were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“We have found evidence that our Milky Way had an encounter with a small galaxy or massive dark matter structure perhaps as recently as 100 million years ago,” said Larry Widrow, professor at Queen’s University in Canada. “We clearly observe unexpected differences in the Milky Way’s stellar distribution above and below the Galaxy’s midplane that have the appearance of a vertical wave — something that nobody has seen before.”

Astronomers took observations from about 300,000 nearby stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Stars move up and down at 20-30 kilometers per second while see-sawing around the galaxy at 220 kilometers per second. By comparison, the International Space Station putters around Earth at 7.71 kilometers per second; Voyager 1, the fastest man-made object, currently is leaving the solar system at about 17.46 kilometers per second. Widrow and colleagues at the University of Kentucky, The University of Chicago and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory found that the positions of nearby stars is not quite as regular as previously thought. The team noticed a small but statistically significant difference in the distribution of stars above and below the midplane of the Milky Way.

“Our part of the Milky Way is ringing like a bell,” said Brian Yanny, of the Department of Energy’s Fermilab. “But we have not been able to identify the celestial object that passed through the Milky Way. It could have been one of the small satellite galaxies that move around the center of our galaxy, or an invisible structure such as a dark matter halo.”

Susan Gardner, professor of physics at the University of Kentucky added, “The perturbation need not have been a single isolated event in the past, and it may even be ongoing. Additional observations may well clarify its origin.”

Other possibilities considered for the variations were the effect of interstellar dust or simply the way the stars were selected in the survey. But as those events failed to explain fully the observations, the astronomers began to explore possible recent events in the history of the galaxy.

More than 20 visible satellite galaxies circle the Milky Way. Invisible satellites made up of dark matter, hypothetical matter that cannot be seen but is thought to make up a majority of the mass of the Universe, might also orbit our galaxy. Scientists believe that most of the mass orbiting the galaxy is in the form of dark matter. Using computer simulations to explore the effects of a small galaxy or dark matter structure passing through the disk of the Milky Way, the scientists developed a clearer picture of the see-saw effects they were seeing.

In terms of the nine-billion lifetime of the Milky Way Galaxy, the effects are short-lived. This part of the galaxy has been “ringing” for 100 million years and will continue for 100 million years more as the up-and-down motion dissipates, say the astronomers – unless we are hit again.

Image caption: The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of 20 visible satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomers report that a smaller counterpart or dark matter object passed through the Milky Way near our position about 100 million years ago.

Hailing Frequencies Open? Communication Via Neutrinos Tested Successfully

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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

Particle Physicists See Something Little That Could be Really Big

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Physicists from Fermilab have seen a “bump” in their data that could indicate a brand new particle unlike any ever seen before. If verified, this could re-write particle physics as we know it. “Essentially, the Tevatron has seen evidence for a new particle, 150 times mass of proton, that doesn’t behave like a standard Higgs particle,” said physicist Brian Cox on Twitter. “If this stands up to scrutiny and more data (there is not yet enough data for a “discovery”), then it is RIP Standard Model.”

“It was hard for us to not go crazy when we saw the results,” said Viviana Cavaliere from the University of Illinois (UIUC), one of the 500-member team working with the CDF particle detector at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, speaking on a webcast on April 6. “But for now, we need to stay focused on what we do know.”

The result comes from CDF’s (the Collider Detector at Fermilab) analysis of billions of collisions of protons and antiprotons produced by Fermilab’s Tevatron collider. In high energy collisions, subatomic particles can be detected that otherwise can’t be seen. Physicists try to identify the particles they see by studying the combinations of more-familiar particles into which they decay, while trying to find new particles, such as the theoretical Higgs Boson which is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.

The Standard Model contains a description of the elementary particles and forces inside atoms which make up everything around us. The model has been successful at making predictions that have been subsequently verified. There are sixteen named particles in the Standard Model, and the last particles discovered were the W and Z bosons in 1983, the top quark in 1995, and the tauon neutrino in 2000. But most physicists agree the Standard Model is probably not the final word in particle physics.

The researchers at Fermilab were searching for collisions that produced a W boson, which weighs about 87 times as much as a proton, as well as some other particles that disintegrate into two sprays of particles called “jets,” which are produced when a collision scatters out a particle called a quark.

Instead, they saw about 250 events which indicate a new particle weighing about 150 times as much as a proton, the team said at the webcast from Fermilab and in their paper on arXiv.

The researchers estimate the statistical chances of random jets or jet pairs from other sources producing a fake signal that strong at 1 in 1300.

The Standard Model does not predict anything like what was seen in the CDF experiment, and since this particle has not been seen before and appears to have some strange properties, the physicists want to verify and retest before claiming a discovery.

“If it is not a fluctuation, it is a new particle,” Cox said.

The Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab is scheduled to be shut down later this year, due to lack of funding and because of sentiments that it would be redundant to the Large Hadron Collider.

You can see more complete discussions and interpretations of the results at:

Cosmic Variance

Science News

MSNBC