The Earth Does Stop the Occasional Neutrino

At the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica lies the IceCube Neutrino Observatory – a facility dedicated to the study of elementary particles known as neutrino. This array consists of 5,160 spherical optical sensors – Digital Optical Modules (DOMs) – buried within a cubic kilometer of clear ice. At present, this observatory is the largest neutrino detector in the world and has spent the past seven years studying how these particles behave and interact.

The most recent study released by the IceCube collaboration, with the assistance of physicists from Pennsylvania State University, has measured the Earth’s ability to block neutrinos for the first time. Consistent with the Standard Model of Particle Physics, they determined that while trillions of neutrinos pass through Earth (and us) on a regular basis, some are occasionally stopped by it.

The study, titled “Measurement of the Multi-TeV Neutrino Interaction Cross-Section with IceCube Using Earth Absorption“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study team’s results were based on the observation of 10,784 interactions made by high-energy, upward moving neutrinos, which were recorded over the course of a year at the observatory.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole. Credit: Emanuel Jacobi/NSF

Back in 2013, the first detections of high-energy neutrinos were made by IceCube collaboration. These neutrinos – which were believed to be astrophysical in origin – were in the peta-electron volt range, making them the highest energy neutrinos discovered to date. IceCube searches for signs of these interactions by looking for Cherenkov radiation, which is produced after fast-moving charged particles are slowed down by interacting with normal matter.

By detecting neutrinos that interact with the clear ice, the IceCube instruments were able to estimate the energy and direction of travel of the neutrinos. Despite these detections, however, the mystery remained as to whether or not any kind of matter could stop a neutrino as it journeyed through space. In accordance with the Standard Model of Particle Physics, this is something that should happen on occasion.

After observing interactions at IceCube for a year, the science team found that the neutrinos that had to travel the farthest through Earth were less likely to reach the detector. As Doug Cowen, a professor of physics and astronomy/astrophysics at Penn State, explained in a Penn State press release:

“This achievement is important because it shows, for the first time, that very-high-energy neutrinos can be absorbed by something – in this case, the Earth. We knew that lower-energy neutrinos pass through just about anything, but although we had expected higher-energy neutrinos to be different, no previous experiments had been able to demonstrate convincingly that higher-energy neutrinos could be stopped by anything.”

The Icetop Tank, the neutrino detectors at the heart of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Credit: Dan Hubert

The existence of neutrinos was first proposed in 1930 by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who postulated their existence as a way of explaining beta decay in terms of the conservation of energy law. They are so-named because they are electrically neutral, and only interact with matter very weakly – i.e. through the weak subatomic force and gravity. Because of this, neutrinos pass through normal matter on a regular basis.

Whereas neutrinos are produced regularly by stars and nuclear reactors here on Earth, the first neutrinos were formed during the Big Bang. The study of their interaction with normal matter can therefore tell us much about how the Universe evolved over the course of billions of years. Many scientists anticipate that the study of neutrinos will indicate the existence of new physics, ones which go beyond the Standard Model.

Because of this, the science team was somewhat surprised (and perhaps disappointed) with their results. As Francis Halzen – the principal investigator for the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – explained:

“Understanding how neutrinos interact is key to the operation of IceCube. We were of course hoping for some new physics to appear, but we unfortunately find that the Standard Model, as usual, withstands the test.

Looking down one of IceCube’s detector bore holes. Credit: IceCube Collaboration/NSF

For the most part, the neutrinos selected for this study were more than one million times more energetic than those that are produced by our Sun or nuclear power plants. The analysis also included some that were astrophysical in nature – i.e. produced beyond Earth’s atmosphere – and may have been accelerated towards Earth by supermassive black holes (SMBHs).

Darren Grant, a professor of physics at the University of Alberta, is also the spokesperson for the IceCube Collaboration. As he indicated, this latest interaction study opens doors for future neutrino research. “Neutrinos have quite a well-earned reputation of surprising us with their behavior,” he said. “It is incredibly exciting to see this first measurement and the potential it holds for future precision tests.”

This study not only provided the first measurement of the Earth’s absorption of neutrinos, it also offers opportunities for geophysical researchers who are hoping to use neutrinos to explore Earth’s interior. Given that Earth is capable of stopping some of the billions of high-energy particles that routinely pass through it, scientists could develop a method for studying the Earth’s inner and outer core, placing more accurate constraints on their sizes and densities.

It also shows that the IceCube Observatory is capable of reaching beyond its original purpose, which was particle physics research and the study of neutrinos. As this latest study clearly shows, it is capable of contributing to planetary science research and nuclear physics as well. Physicists also hope to use the full 86-string IceCube array to conduct a multi-year analysis, examining even higher ranges of neutrino energies.

This event display shows “Bert,” one of two neutrino events discovered at IceCube whose energies exceeded one petaelectronvolt (PeV). Credit: Berkeley Labs.

As James Whitmore – the program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) physics division (which provides support for IceCube) – indicated, this could allow them to truly search for physics that go beyond the Standard Model.

“IceCube was built to both explore the frontiers of physics and, in doing so, possibly challenge existing perceptions of the nature of universe. This new finding and others yet to come are in that spirit of scientific discovery.”

Ever since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, physicists have been secure in the knowledge that the long journey to confirm the Standard Model was now complete. Since then, they have set their sets farther, hoping to find new physics that could resolve some of the deeper mysteries of the Universe – i.e. supersymmetry, a Theory of Everything (ToE), etc.

This, as well as studying how physics work at the highest energy levels (similar to those that existed during the Big Bang) is the current preoccupation of physicists. If they are successful, we might just come to understand how this massive thing known as the Universe works.

Further Reading: Penn State, Nature

Experiment Detects Mysterious Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering For the First Time

Neutrinos are one of the fundamental particles that make up the Universe. Compared to other types of particles, they have very little mass, no charge, and only interact with others via the weak nuclear force and gravity. As such, finding evidence of heir interactions is extremely difficult, requiring massive instruments located deep underground to shield them from any interference.

However, using the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), a research facility located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) – a international team of researchers recently made an historic discovery about neutrinos using an entirely different method. As part of the COHERENT experiment, these results confirm a prediction made 43 years ago and offers new possibilities for neutrino research.

The study that details their findings, titled “Observation of coherent elastic neutrino-nucleus scattering“, was recently published in the journal Science. The research was conducted as part of the COHERENT experiment, a collaboration of 80 researchers from 19 institutions from more 4 nations that has been searching for what is known as Coherent Elastic Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering (CEvNS) for over a year.

The COHERENT collaboration is the first experiment to observe coherent elastic neutrino–nucleus scattering. Their results confirm a prediction of the Standard Model and establish constraints on alternative theoretical models. Credit: COHERENT Collaboration

In finding evidence of this behavior, COHERENT has essentially made history. As Jason Newby, an ORNL physicist and the technical coordinator for COHERENT, said in a ORNL press statement:

“The one-of-a-kind particle physics experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory was the first to measure coherent scattering of low-energy neutrinos off nuclei.”

To break it all down, the Standard Model of particle physics indicates that neutrinos are leptons, a particle that interacts with other matter very weakly. They are created through radioactive decay, the nuclear reactions that power stars, and from supernovae. The Big Bang model of cosmology also predicts that neutrinos are the most abundant particles in existence, since they are a byproduct of the creation of the Universe.

As such, their study has been a major focal point for theoretical physicists and cosmologists. In previous studies, neutrino interactions were detected by using literally tons of target material and then examining the particle transformations that resulted from neutrinos hitting them.

Examples include the Super-Kamiokande Observatory in Japan, an underground facility where the target material is 50,000 tons of ultrapure water. In the case of SNOLAB’s Sudbury Neutrino Observatory – which is located in a former mine complex near Sudbury, Ontario – the SNO neutrino detector relies on heavy water for neutrino detection while the SNO+ experiment will use a liquid scintillator.

Super-Kamiokande, a neutrino detector in Japan, holds 50,000 tons of ultrapure water surrounded by light tubes. Credit: Super-Kamiokande Observatory

And the IceCube Neutrino Observatory– the largest neutrino detector in the world, located at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica – relies on Antarctic ice to detect neutrino interactions.  In all cases, the facilities are extremely isolated and rely on a very expensive equipment.

The COHERENT experiment, however, is immensely smaller and more economical by comparison, weighing a mere 14.5 kg (32 lbs) and occupying far less in the way of space. The experiment was created to take advantage of the existing SNS accelerator-based system, which produces the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world in order to smash mercury atoms with beams of protons.

This process creates massive amounts of neutrons which are used for various scientific experiments. However, the process also creates a significant amount of neutrinos as a byproduct. To take advantage of this, the COHERENT team began developing a neutrino experiment known as “neutrino alley”. Located in a basement corridor just 20 meters (45 feet) from the mercury tank, the thick concrete walls and gravel provide natural shielding.

The corridor is also fitted with large water tanks to block out additional neutrinos, cosmic rays and other particles. But unlike other experiments, the COHERENT detectors look for signs of neutrinos bumping into the nuclei of other atoms. To do this, the team outfitted the corridor with detectors that rely on a cesium iodide scintillator crystal, which also uses odium to increase the prominence of light signals caused by neutrino interactions.

SNS Beamline 13, where protons are slammed into atoms of mercury to release a slew of energetic particles. Credit: ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy/Genevieve Martin

Juan Collar, a physicist from the University of Chicago, led the design team that created the detector used at SNS. As he explained, this was a “back-to-basics” approach that did away with more expensive and massive detectors:

“They are arguably the most pedestrian kind of radiation detector available, having been around for a century. Sodium-doped cesium iodide merges all of the properties required to work as a small, ‘handheld’ coherent neutrino detector. Very often, less is more.”

Thanks to their experiment and the sophistication of the SNS, the researchers were able to determine that neutrinos are capable of coupling to quarks through the exchange of neutral Z bosons. This process, which is known as Coherent Elastic Neutrino-Nucleus Scattering (CEvNS), was first predicted in 1973. But until now, no experiment or research team has been able to confirm it.

As Jason Newby indicated, the experiment succeeded in large part thanks to the sophistication of the existing facility. “The energy of the SNS neutrinos is almost perfectly tuned for this experiment—large enough to create a detectable signal, but small enough to take advantage of the coherence condition,” he said. “The only smoking gun of the interaction is a small amount of energy imparted to a single nucleus.”

The data it produced was also cleaner than with previous experiments, since the neutrinos (like the SNS neutron beam that produced them) were also pulsed. This allowed for the easy separation of the signal from background signals, which offered an advantage over steady-state neutrino sources – such as those that are produced by nuclear reactors.

Professor Yuri Efremenko of the University of Tennessee–Knoxville and Jason Newby of ORNL – two members of COHERENT. Credit: ORNL/U.S. Dept. of Energy/Genevieve Martin

The team also detected three “flavors” of neutrinos, which included muon neutrinos, muon antineutrinos, and electron neutrinos. Whereas the muon neutrinos emerged instantaneously, the others were detected a few microseconds later. From this, the COHERENT team not only validated the theory of CEvNS, but also the Standard Model of particle physics. Their findings also have implications for astrophysics and cosmology.

As Kate Scholberg, a physicist from Duke University and COHERENT’s spokesperson, explained:

“When a massive star collapses and then explodes, the neutrinos dump vast energy into the stellar envelope. Understanding the process feeds into understanding of how these dramatic events occur… COHERENT’s data will help with interpretation of measurements of neutrino properties by experiments worldwide. We may also be able to use coherent scattering to better understand the structure of the nucleus.”

While there is no need for further confirmation of their results, the COHERENT researchers plan to conduct additional measurements in order to observe coherent neutrino interactions at distinct rates (another signature of the process). From this, they hope to expand their knowledge of the nature of CEvNS, as well as other basic neutrino properties – such as their intrinsic magnetism.

This discovery was certainly impressive in its own right, given that it validates an aspect of both the Standard Model of particle physics and Big Bang cosmology. But the fact that the method offers cleaner results and relies on instruments that are significantly smaller and less expensive than other experiments – that is very impressive!

The implications of this research are sure to be far-reaching, and it will be interesting to see what other discoveries it enables in the future!

Further Reading: ScienceOak Ridge National Laboratory

We’re One Step Closer to Knowing Why There’s More Matter Than Antimatter in the Universe

The Standard Model of particle physics has been the predominant means of explaining what the basic building blocks of matter are and how they interact for decades. First proposed in the 1970s, the model claims that for every particle created, there is an anti-particle. As such, an enduring mystery posed by this model is why the Universe can exist if it is theoretically made up of equal parts of matter and antimatter.

This seeming disparity, known as the charge-parity (CP) violation, has been the subject of experiments for many years. But so far, no definitive demonstration has been made for this violation, or how so much matter can exist in the Universe without its counterpart. But thanks to new findings released by the international Tokai-to-Kamioka (T2K) collaboration, we may be one step closer to understanding why this disparity exists.

First observed in 1964, CP violation proposes that under certain conditions, the laws of charge-symmetry and parity-symmetry (aka. CP-symmetry) do not apply. These laws state that the physics governing a particle should be the same if it were interchanged with its antiparticle, while its spatial coordinates would be inverted. From this observation, one of the greatest cosmological mysteries emerged.

If the laws governing matter and antimatter are the same, then why is it that the Universe is so matter-dominated? Alternately, if matter and antimatter are fundamentally different, then how does this accord with our notions of symmetry? Answering these questions is not only important as far as our predominant cosmological theories go, they are also intrinsic to understanding how the weak interactions that govern particles work.

Established in June of 2011, the international T2K collaboration is the first experiment in the world dedicated to answering this mystery by studying neutrino and anti-neutrino oscillations. The experiment begins with high-intensity beams of muon neutrinos (or muon anti-neutrinos) being generated at the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC), which are then fired towards the Super-Kamiokande detector 295 km away.

This detector is currently one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated, dedicated to the detection and study of solar and atmospheric neutrinos. As neutrinos travel between the two facilities, they change “flavor” – going from muon neutrinos or anti-neutrinos to electron neutrinos or anti-neutrinos. In monitoring these neutrino and anti-neutrino beams, the experiment watches for different rates of oscillation.

This difference in oscillation would show that there is an imbalance between particles and antiparticles, and thus provide the first definitive evidence of CP violation for the first time. It would also indicate that there are physics beyond the Standard Model that scientists have yet to probe. This past April, the first data set produced by T2K was released, which provided some telling results.

The detected pattern of an electron neutrino candidate event observed by Super-Kamiokande. Credit: Kavli IMPU

As Mark Hartz, a T2K collaborator and the Kavli IPMU Project Assistant Professor, said in a recent press release:

“While the data sets are still too small to make a conclusive statement, we have seen a weak preference for large CP violation and we are excited to continue to collect data and make a more sensitive search for CP violation.”

These results, which were recently published in the Physical Review Letters, include all data runs from between January 2010 to May 2016. In total, this data comprised 7.482 x 1020 protons (in neutrino mode), which yielded 32 electron neutrino and 135 muon neutrino events, and 7.471×1020 protons (in antineutrino mode), which yielded 4 electron anti-neutrino and 66 muon neutrino events.

In other words, the first batch of data has provided some evidence for CP violation, and with a confidence interval of 90%. But this is just the beginning, and the experiment is expected to run for another ten years before wrapping up. “If we are lucky and the CP violation effect is large, we may expect 3 sigma evidence, or about 99.7% confidence level, for CP violation by 2026,” said Hartz.

If the experiment proves successful, physicists may finally be able to answer how it is that the early Universe didn’t annihilate itself. It is also likely help to reveal aspects of the Universe that particle physicists are anxious to get into! For it here that the answers to the deepest secrets of the Universe, like how all of its fundamental forces fit together, are likely to be found.

Further Reading: Kavli IMPU, Physical Review Letters

Are Aliens Communicating with Neutrino Beams?

It is no easy thing to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our Solar System. In addition to the incredible distances involved and the fact that we really only have indirect methods at our disposal, there is also the small problem of not knowing exactly what to look for. If intelligent life does exist beyond our Solar System, would they even communicate as we do, using radio transmitters and similar forms of technology?

Such has been the preoccupation of groups like the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and, more recently, organizations like Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International. A non-profit dedicated to communicating with extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI), the organization recently suggested that looking for neutrinos and other exotic particles could help us find signals as well.

First, some clarification should be made as to what SETI and METI are all about it and what sets them apart. The term METI was coined by Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev, who sought to draw a distinction between SETI and METI. As he explained in a 2006 paper on the subject:

“The science known as SETI deals with searching for messages from aliens. METI science deals with the creation of messages to aliens. Thus, SETI and METI proponents have quite different perspectives. SETI scientists are in a position to address only the local question “does Active SETI make sense?” In other words, would it be reasonable, for SETI success, to transmit with the object of attracting ETI’s attention? In contrast to Active SETI, METI pursues not a local and lucrative impulse, but a more global and unselfish one – to overcome the Great Silence in the Universe, bringing to our extraterrestrial neighbors the long-expected annunciation ‘You are not alone!'”

One of the 42 dishes in the Allen Telescope Array that searches for signals from space. Credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute.

In short, METI looks for ways in which we might be able to contact aliens instead of waiting to hear from them. However, this does not mean that organizations like METI International are without ideas on how me might better listen to our (potential) alien neighbors. After all, communication goes beyond mere messages, and also requires that a medium exist with which to convey the message.

Such is the recommendation put forth by Dr. Morris Jones, a space analyst and writer who serves on the METI advisory council. In a recent article published on METI International’s website, he addressed the two main challenges when it comes to looking for ETI. On the one hand, you have the need for multiple methodologies to increase the odds of finding something. But as he indicates, there’s also the problem of knowing what to look for:

“We are not really sure of how extraterrestrials would communicate with us. Would they use radio waves, lasers, or something more exotic? Perhaps the universe is awash in extraterrestrial signals that we cannot even receive. SETI and METI practitioners spend a lot of time wondering how a message would be encoded in terms of language and content. It’s also important to consider the medium of transmission.”

In the past, says Jones, SETI searches were based on radio astronomy because that was the only practical means of doing so. Since then, efforts have expanded to include optical telescopes and the search for laser signals. This is due to the fact that in the past few decades, human beings have developed the technology to use laser for the sake of communications.

An artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. Could the part of the beam that misses the sail be our mysterious Fast Radio Bursts? Image Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

In a 2016 SETI paper, Dr. Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained how the development of directed-energy propulsion could help us search for evidence of aliens. As one of the scientific minds behind Breakthrough Starshot – a laser-driven lightsail that would be fast enough to make the trip to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years – he believes it’s a safe bet that ETI could be using similar technology to travel or communicate.

In addition, Dr. Avi Loeb from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (also one of the minds behind Starshot) has also suggested that fast-radio bursts (FRBs) could be evidence of alien activity. FRBs have been a subject of fascination to scientists since they were first detected in 2007 (the “Lorimer Burst“), and could also be a sign of alien communications or a means of propulsion.

Another means involves searching for artefacts – i.e. looking for evidence of physical infrastructure in other star systems. Case in point, since 2015, astronomers have been seeking to determine what is responsible for the periodic dimming of KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star). Whereas most studies have sought to explain this in terms of natural causes, others have suggested it could be evidence of an alien megastructure.

To this array of search methods, Dr. Jones offers a few other possibilities. One way is to look for neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle that is produced by the decay of radioactive elements and interacts with matter very weakly. This allows them to pass through solid matter and also makes them very difficult to detect. Neutrinos are produced in large quantities by our Sun and astronomical sources, but they can also be produced artificially by nuclear reactors.

Ever since it was first announced in 2015, there has been speculation as to what could account for the dimming of KIC 8462852. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com

These, claims Jones, could be used for the sake of communications. The only problem is that looking for them would require some specialized equipment. Currently, all means of detecting neutrinos involve expensive facilities that have to be built either underground or in extremely isolated locations to ensure that they are not subject to any kind of electromagnetic interference.

These include the Super-Kamiokande facility, the world’s largest neutrino detector which is located under Mt. Ikeno in Japan. There’s also the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, located at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica and operated by the University of Wisconsin–Madison; and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, located in a former mine complex near Sudbury, Ontario, and operated by SNOLAB.

Another possibility is searching for evidence of communications that rely on gravitational waves. Predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the first detection of these mysterious waves was first made in February 2016. And in the coming years and decades, it is expected that gravitational wave observatories will be established so the presence of these “ripples” in spacetime can be visualized.

However, compared to neutrinos, Jones admits that this seems like a long shot. “It’s hard to conceive with our current grasp of physics,” he writes. “They are extremely difficult to generate at a detectable level. You would need abilities similar to those of superheroes, and be able to smash neutron stars and black holes together at will. There are probably easier ways to get a message across the stars.”

Breakthrough Listen will monitor the 1 million closest stars to Earth over a ten year period. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Beyond these, there is the even more exotic possibility of “Zeta Rays”, which Dr. Jones is not prepared to rule out. Basically, “Zeta Rays” is a term used by physicists to describe physics that go beyond the Standard Model. As scientists are currently looking for evidence of new particles with the Large Hadron Collider and other particle accelerators, it stands to reason that anything they discover will be the added to the SETI and METI search manifest.

But could such physics entail new forms of communication? Hard to say, but definitely worth considering. After all, the physics that power our current technology certainly existed before we did. Or as Jones put it:,

“Is it possible to transmit with something better than we already have? Until we know a lot more physics, we just won’t know. Humanity in the twenty-first century could be like an isolated tribe in the Amazon jungle a century ago, unaware that the air around them was filled with radio signals. SETI uses the science and technology provided to us by other disciplines. Thus, we must wait until physics itself makes some more major breakthroughs. Only then can we consider such exotic methods of searching. We think a lot about the message. But we should also think about the medium.”

Other projects that are dedicated to METI include Breakthrough Listen, a ten-year initiative launched by Breakthrough Initiatives to conduct the largest survey to date for extraterrestrial communications – encompassing the 1,000,000 closest stars and 100 closest galaxies. Back in April of 2017, the scientists behind this project shared their analysis of the first year of Listen data. No definitive results have been announced yet, but they are just getting started!

Ever since Drake proposed his famous equation, human beings have eagerly sought to find evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Unfortunately, all of our efforts have been haunted by Fermi’s equally-famous paradox! But of course, as space exploration goes, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of our Universe. And the only way we can ever expect to find evidence of intelligent life out there is to keep looking.

And with greater knowledge and increasingly sophisticated methods at our disposal, we can be sure that if intelligent life is out there somewhere, we will find it eventually. One can always hope, right? And be sure to check out this video of Dr. Jones 2014 presentation at the SETI Institute, titled “A Journalistic Perspective on SETI-Related Message Composition“:

Further Reading: METI

Detector With Real-time Alert Capability Waits Patiently For Supernova Neutrinos

Under Mount Ikeno, Japan, in an old mine that sits one-thousand meters (3,300 feet) beneath the surface, lies the Super-Kamiokande Observatory (SKO). Since 1996, when it began conducting observations, researchers have been using this facility’s Cherenkov detector to look for signs of proton decay and neutrinos in our galaxy. This is no easy task, since neutrinos are very difficult to detect.

But thanks to a new computer system that will be able to monitor neutrinos in real-time, the researchers at the SKO will be able to research these mysteries particles more closely in the near future. In so doing, they hope to understand how stars form and eventually collapse into black holes, and sneak a peak at how matter was created in the early Universe.

Neutrinos, put simply, are one of the fundamental particles that make up the Universe. Compared to other fundamental particles, they have very little mass, no charge, and only interact with other types of particles via the weak nuclear force and gravity. They are created in a number of ways, most notably through radioactive decay, the  nuclear reactions that power a star, and in supernovae.

The Big Bang timeline of the Universe. Cosmic neutrinos affect the CMB at the time it was emitted, and physics takes care of the rest of their evolution until today. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / A. Kashlinsky (GSFC).
Timeline of the Big Bang, which unleashed cosmic neutrinos that can still be detected today. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / A. Kashlinsky (GSFC).

In accordance with the standard Big Bang model, the neutrinos left over from the creation of the Universe are the most abundant particles in existence. At any given moment, trillions of these particles are believed to be moving around us and through us. But because of the way they interact with matter (i.e. only weakly) they are extremely difficult to detect.

For this reason, neutrino observatories are built deep underground to avoid interference from cosmic rays. They also rely on Cherenkov detectors, which are essentially massive water tanks that have thousands of sensors lining their walls. These attempt to detect particles as they are slowed down to the local speed of light (i.e. the speed of light in water), which is made evident by the presence of a glow – known as Cherenkov radiation.

The detector at the SKO is currently the largest in the world. It consists of a cylindrical stainless steel tank that is 41.4 m (136 ft) tall and 39.3 m (129 ft) in diameter, and holds over 45,000 metric tons (50,000 US tons) of ultra-pure water. In the interior, 11,146 photomultiplier tubes are mounted, which detect light in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum with extreme sensitivity.

For years, researchers at the SKO have used the facility to examine solar neutrinos, atmospheric neutrinos and man-made neutrinos. However, those that are created by supernovas are very difficult to detect, since they appear suddenly and difficult to distinguish from other kinds. However, with the newly-added computer system, the Super Komiokande researchers are hoping that will change.

Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Argonne National Laboratory
Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of the Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Argonne National Laboratory

As Luis Labarga, a physicist at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain) and a member of the collaboration, explained in a recent statement to the Scientific News Service (SINC):

“Supernova explosions are one of the most energetic phenomena in the universe and most of this energy is released in the form of neutrinos. This is why detecting and analyzing neutrinos emitted in these cases, other than those from the Sun or other sources, is very important for understanding the mechanisms in the formation of neutron stars –a type of stellar remnant– and black holes”.

Basically, the new computer system is designed to analyze the events recorded in the depths of the observatory in real-time. If it detects an abnormally large flows of neutrinos, it will quickly alert the experts manning the controls. They will then be able to assess the significance of the signal within minutes and see if it is actually coming from a nearby supernova.

“During supernova explosions an enormous number of neutrinos is generated in an extremely small space of time – a few seconds – and this why we need to be ready,” Labarga added. “This allows us to research the fundamental properties of these fascinating particles, such as their interactions, their hierarchy and the absolute value of their mass, their half-life, and surely other properties that we still cannot even imagine.”

The Super-Kamiokande experiment is located at the Kamioka Observatory, 1,000 m below ground in a mine near the Japanese city of Kamioka. Credit: Kamioka Observatory/ICRR/University of Tokyo
The Super-Kamiokande experiment is located at the Kamioka Observatory, 1,000 m below ground in a mine near the Japanese city of Kamioka. Credit: Kamioka Observatory/ICRR/University of Toky

Equally as important is the fact this system will give the SKO the ability to issue early warnings to research centers around the world. Ground-based observatories, where astronomers are keen to watch the creation of cosmic neutrinos by supernova, will then be able to point all of their optical instruments towards the source in advance (since the electromagnetic signal will take longer to arrive).

Through this collaborative effort, astrophysicists may be able to better understand some of the most elusive neutrinos of all. Discerning how these fundamental particles interact with others could bring us one step closer to a Grand Unified Theory – one of the major goals of the Super-Kamiokande Observatory.

To date, only a few neutrino detectors exist in the world. These include the Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven (IMB) detector in Ohio, the Subdury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) in Ontario, Canada, and the Super Kamiokande Observatory in Japan.

Further Reading: SINC

How Do Supernovae Fail?

We’ve written quite a few articles on what happens when massive stars fail as supernovae. Here’s a quick recap.

A star with more than 8 times the mass of the Sun runs out of usable fuel in its core and collapses in on itself. The enormous amount of matter falling inward creates a dense remnant, like a neutron star or a black hole. Oh, and an insanely powerful explosion, visible billions of light-years away.

There are a few other classes of supernovae, but that’s the main way they go out.

But it turns out some supernovae just don’t bring their A-game. Instead hitting the ball out of the park, they choke up at the last minute.

They’re failures. They’ll never amount to anything. They’re a complete and utter disappointment to me and your mother. Oh wait, we were talking about stars, right.

So, how does a supernova fail?

New research shows that some old stars known as white dwarfs might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as Type Ia supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy. In this artist's conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet.   Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
In this artist’s conception, a supernova explosion is about to obliterate an orbiting Saturn-like planet. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

In a regular core collapse supernova, the infalling material pushes the star denser and denser until it reaches the density of 5 billion tons per teaspoon of matter. The black hole forms, and a shockwave ripples outward creating the supernova.

It turns out that the density and energy of the shockwave on its own isn’t enough to actually generate the supernova, and overcome the gravitational force pulling it inward. Instead, it’s believed that neutrinos created at the core pile up behind the shockwave, and give it the push it needs to blast outward into space.

In some cases, though, it’s believed that this additional energy doesn’t show up. Instead of rebounding from the core of the star, the black hole just gobbles it all up. In a fraction of a second, the star is just… gone.

According to astronomers, it might be the case that 1/3rd of all core collapse supernovae die this way, which means that a third of the supergiant stars are just disappearing from the sky. They’re there, and then a moment later, they’re not there.

Artist's rendering of a black hole. Image Credit: NASA
And this is all that remains. Image Credit: NASA

Seriously, imagine the forces and energy it must take to swallow an entire red supergiant star whole. Black holes are scary.

Astronomers have gone looking for these things, and they’ve actually been pretty tricky to find. It’s like one of those puzzles where you try to figure out what’s missing from a picture. They studied images of galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, looking for bright supergiant stars which disappeared. In one survey, studying a large group of galaxies, they only turned up a single candidate.

But they only surveyed a handful of galaxies. To really get serious about searching for them, they’ll need better tools, like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope due for first light in just a few years. This amazing instrument will survey the entire sky every few nights, searching for anything that changes. It’ll find asteroids, comets, variable stars, supernovae, and now, supergiant stars that just disappeared.

We’ve talked about failed supernovae. Now let’s take a few moments and talk about the complete opposite: super successful supernovae.

When a star with more than 8 times the mass of the Sun explodes as a supernova, it leaves behind a remnant. For the lower mass star explosions, they leave behind a neutron star. If it’s a higher mass star, they leave behind a black hole.

But for the largest explosions, where the star had more than 130 times the mass of the Sun, the supernova is so powerful, so complete, there’s no remnant behind. There’s an enormous explosion, and the star is just gone.

No black hole ever forms.

Artist's impression of a Type II supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of a supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO

Astronomers call them pair instability supernovae. In a regular core collapse supernova, the layers of the star collapse inward, producing the highly dense remnant. But in these monster stars, the core is pumping out such energetic gamma radiation that it generates antimatter in the core. The star explodes so quickly, with so much energy, it totally overpowers the gravity pulling it inward.

In a moment, the star is completely and utterly gone, just expanding waves of energy and particles.

Only a few of these supernovae have ever been observed, and they might explain some hypernovae and gamma ray bursts, the most powerful explosions in the Universe.

Beyond 250 times the mass of the Sun, however, gravity takes over again, and you get enormous black holes.

As always, the Universe behaves more strangely than we ever thought possible. Some supernova fail, completely imploding as a black hole. And others detonate entirely, leaving no remnant behind. Trust the Universe to keep mixing it up on us.

Fermi Links Neutrino Blast To Known Extragalactic Blazar

This image shows the galaxy PKS B1424-418, and the blazar that lives there. The dotted circle is the area in which Fermi detected the neutrino Big Bird. Image: NASA/DOE/LAT Collaboration.

A unique observatory buried deep in the clear ice of the South Pole region, an orbiting observatory that monitors gamma rays, a powerful outburst from a black hole 10 billion light years away, and a super-energetic neutrino named Big Bird. These are the cast of characters that populate a paper published in Nature Physics, on Monday April 18th.

The observatory that resides deep in the cold dark of the Antarctic ice has one job: to detect neutrinos. Neutrinos are strange, standoffish particles, sometimes called ‘ghost particles’ because they’re so difficult to detect. They’re like the noble gases of the particle world. Though neutrinos vastly outnumber all other atoms in our Universe, they rarely interact with other particles, and they have no electrical charge. This allows them to pass through normal matter almost unimpeded. To even detect them, you need a dark, undisturbed place, isolated from cosmic rays and background radiation.

This explains why they built an observatory in solid ice. This observatory, called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, is the ideal place to detect neutrinos. On the rare occasion when a neutrino does interact with the ice surrounding the observatory, a charged particle is created. This particle can be either an electron, muon, or tau. If these charged particles are of sufficiently high energy, then the strings of detectors that make up IceCube can detect it. Once this data is analyzed, the source of the neutrinos can be known.

The next actor in this scenario is NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Fermi was launched in 2008, with a specific job in mind. Its job is to look at some of the exceptional phenomena in our Universe that generate extraordinarily large amounts of energy, like super-massive black holes, exploding stars, jets of hot gas moving at relativistic speeds, and merging neutron stars. These things generate enormous amounts of gamma-ray energy, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that Fermi looks at exclusively.

Next comes PKS B1424-418, a distant galaxy with a black hole at its center. About 10 billion years ago, this black hole produced a powerful outburst of energy, called a blazar because it’s pointed at Earth. The light from this outburst started arriving at Earth in 2012. For a year, the blazar in PKS B1424-418 shone 15-30 times brighter in the gamma spectrum than it did before the burst.

Detecting neutrinos is a rare occurrence. So far, IceCube has detected about a hundred of them. For some reason, the most energetic of these neutrinos are named after characters on the popular children’s show called Sesame Street. In December 2012, IceCube detected an exceptionally energetic neutrino, and named it Big Bird. Big Bird had an energy level greater than 2 quadrillion electron volts. That’s an enormous amount of energy shoved into a particle that is thought to have less than one millionth the mass of an electron.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is a series of strings of detectors, drilled deep into the Antarctic ice. Image:  Nasa-verve - IceCube Science Team - Francis Halzen, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26350372
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is a series of strings of detectors, drilled deep into the Antarctic ice. Image: Nasa-verve – IceCube Science Team – Francis Halzen, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26350372

Big Bird was clearly a big deal, and scientists wanted to know its source. IceCube was able to narrow the source down, but not pinpoint it. Its source was determined to be a 32 degree wide patch of the southern sky. Though helpful, that patch is still the size of 64 full Moons. Still, it was intriguing, because in that patch of sky was PKS B1424-418, the source of the blazar energy detected by Fermi. However, there are also other blazars in that section of the sky.

The scientists looking for Big Bird’s source needed more data. They got it from TANAMI, an observing program that used the combined power of several networked terrestrial telescopes to create a virtual telescope 9,650 km(6,000 miles) across. TANAMI is a long-term program monitoring 100 active galaxies that are located in the southern sky. Since TANAMI is watching other active galaxies, and the energetic jets coming from them, it was able to exclude them as the source for Big Bird.

The team behind this new paper, including lead author Matthias Kadler of the University of Wuerzberg in Germany, think they’ve found the source for Big Bird. They say, with only a 5 percent chance of being wrong, that PKS B1424-418 is indeed Big Bird’s source. As they say in their paper, “The outburst of PKS B1424–418 provides an energy output high enough to explain the observed petaelectronvolt event (Big Bird), suggestive of a direct physical association.”

So what does this mean? It means that we can pinpoint the source of a neutrino. And that’s good for science. Neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect, and they’re not that well understood. The new detection method, involving the Fermi Telescope in conjunction with the TANAMI array, will not only be able to locate the source of super-energetic neutrinos, but now the detection of a neutrino by IceCube will generate a real-time alert when the source of the neutrino can be narrowed down to an area about the size of the full Moon.

This promises to open a whole new window on neutrinos, the plentiful yet elusive ‘ghost particles’ that populate the Universe.

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 9, 2015: Nobel Prizes, Private Moon Launches & Water on Pluto!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Oct. 9, 2015: Nobel Prizes, Private Moon Launches & Water on Pluto!”

How Massive Is A Neutrino? Cosmology Experiment Gives A Clue

There have been a lot of attempts over the years to figure out the mass of a neutrino (a type of elementary particle). A new analysis not only comes up with a number, but also combines that with a new understanding of the universe’s evolution.

The research team investigated the mass further after observing galaxy clusters with the Planck observatory, a space telescope with the European Space Agency. As the researchers examined the cosmic microwave background (the afterglow of the Big Bang), they saw a difference between their observations and other predictions.

“We observe fewer galaxy clusters than we would expect from the Planck results and there is a weaker signal from gravitational lensing of galaxies than the CMB would suggest. A possible way of resolving this discrepancy is for neutrinos to have mass. The effect of these massive neutrinos would be to suppress the growth of dense structures that lead to the formation of clusters of galaxies,” the researchers stated.

The HST WFPC2 image of gravitational lensing in the galaxy cluster Abell 2218, indicating the presence of large amount of dark matter (credit Andrew Fruchter at STScI).
The HST WFPC2 image of gravitational lensing in the galaxy cluster Abell 2218, indicating the presence of large amount of dark matter (credit Andrew Fruchter at STScI).

Neutrinos are a tiny piece of matter (along with other particles such as quarks and electrons). The challenge is, they’re hard to observe because they don’t react very easily to matter. Originally believed to be massless, newer particle physics experiments have shown that they do indeed have mass, but how much was not known.

There are three different flavors or types of neutrinos, and previous analysis suggested the sum was somewhere above 0.06 eV (less than a billionth of a proton’s mass.) The new result suggests it is closer to 0.320 +/- 0.081 eV, but that still has to be confirmed by further study. The researchers arrived at that by using the Planck data with “gravitational lensing observations in which images of galaxies are warped by the curvature of space-time,” they stated.

“If this result is borne out by further analysis, it not only adds significantly to our understanding of the sub-atomic world studied by particle physicists, but it would also be an important extension to the standard model of cosmology which has been developed over the last decade,” the researchers stated.

The research was done by the University of Manchester’s Richard Battye and the University of Nottingham’s Adam Moss. A paper on the work is published in Physical Review Letters and is also available in preprint version on Arxiv.