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.

Neutron Stars: A Cataclysmic Conception

It’s one of the most intense and violent of all events in space – a supernova. Now a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics have been taking a very specialized look at the formation of neutron stars at the center of collapsing stars. Through the use of sophisticated computer simulations, they have been able to create three-dimensional models which show the physical effects – intense and violent motions which occur when stellar matter is drawn inward. It’s a bold, new look into the dynamics which happen when a star explodes.

As we know, stars which have eight to ten times the mass of the Sun are destined to end their lives in a massive explosion, the gases blown into space with incredible force. These cataclysmic events are among the brightest and most powerful events in the Universe and can outshine a galaxy when they occur. It is this very process which creates elements critical to life as we know it – and the beginnings of neutron stars.

Neutron stars are an enigma unto themselves. These highly compact stellar remnants contain as much as 1.5 times the mass of the Sun, yet are compressed to the size of a city. It is not a slow squeeze. This compression happens when the stellar core implodes from the intense gravity of its own mass… and it takes only a fraction of a second. Can anything stop it? Yes. It has a limit. Collapse ceases when the density of the atomic nuclei is exceeded. That’s comparable to around 300 million tons compressed into something the size of a sugar cube.

Studying neutron stars opens up a whole new dimension of questions which scientists are keen to answer. They want to know what causes stellar disruption and how can the implosion of the stellar core revert to an explosion. At present, they theorize that neutrinos may be a critical factor. These tiny elemental particles are created and expelled in monumental numbers during the supernova process and may very well act as heating elements which ignite the explosion. According to the research team, neutrinos could impart energy into the stellar gas, causing it to build up pressure. From there, a shock wave is created and as it speeds up, it could disrupt the star and cause a supernova.

As plausible as it might sound, astronomers aren’t sure if this theory could work or not. Because the processes of a supernova cannot be recreated under laboratory conditions and we’re not able to directly see into the interior of a supernovae, we’ll just have to rely on computer simulations. Right now, researchers are able to recreate a supernova event with complex mathematical equations which replicate the motions of stellar gas and the physical properties which happen at the critical moment of core collapse. These types of computations require the use of some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, but it has also been possible to use more simplified models to get the same results. “If, for example, the crucial effects of neutrinos were included in some detailed treatment, the computer simulations could only be performed in two dimensions, which means that the star in the models was assumed to have an artificial rotational symmetry around an axis.” says the research team.

With the support of the Rechenzentrum Garching (RZG), scientists were able to create in a singularly efficient and fast computer program. They were also given access to most powerful supercomputers, and a computer time award of nearly 150 million processor hours, which is the greatest contingent so far granted by the “Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE)” initiative of the European Union, the team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) in Garching could now for the first time simulate the processes in collapsing stars in three dimensions and with a sophisticated description of all relevant physics.

“For this purpose we used nearly 16,000 processor cores in parallel mode, but still a single model run took about 4.5 months of continuous computing”, says PhD student Florian Hanke, who performed the simulations. Only two computing centers in Europe were able to provide sufficiently powerful machines for such long periods of time, namely CURIE at Très Grand Centre de calcul (TGCC) du CEA near Paris and SuperMUC at the Leibniz-Rechenzentrum (LRZ) in Munich/Garching.

Turbulent evolution of a neutron star for six moments (0.154, 0.223, 0.240, 0.245, 0.249 and 0.278 seconds) after the beginning of the neutron star formation in a threedimensional computer simulation. The mushroom-like bubbles are characteristic of "boiling" neutrino-heated gas, whereas simultaneously the "SASI" instability causes wild sloshing and rotational motions of the whole neutrino-heated layer (red) and of the enveloping supernova shock (blue) . (Images by Elena Erastova and Markus Rampp, RZG)
Turbulent evolution of a neutron star for six moments (0.154, 0.223, 0.240, 0.245, 0.249 and 0.278 seconds) after the beginning of the neutron star formation in a threedimensional computer simulation. The mushroom-like bubbles are characteristic of “boiling” neutrino-heated gas, whereas simultaneously the “SASI” instability causes wild sloshing and rotational motions of the whole neutrino-heated layer (red) and of the enveloping supernova shock (blue) . (Images by Elena Erastova and Markus Rampp, RZG)
Given several thousand billion bytes of simulation data, it took some time before researchers could fully understand the implications of their model runs. However, what they saw both elated and surprised them. The stellar gas performed in a manner very much like ordinary convection, with the neutrinos driving the heating process. And that’s not all… They also found strong sloshing motions which transiently change to rotational motions. This behavior has been observed before and named Standing Accretion Shock Instability. According to the news release, “This term expresses the fact that the initial sphericity of the supernova shock wave is spontaneously broken, because the shock develops large-amplitude, pulsating asymmetries by the oscillatory growth of initially small, random seed perturbations. So far, however, this had been found only in simplified and incomplete model simulations.”

“My colleague Thierry Foglizzo at the Service d’ Astrophysique des CEA-Saclay near Paris has obtained a detailed understanding of the growth conditions of this instability”, explains Hans-Thomas Janka, the head of the research team. “He has constructed an experiment, in which a hydraulic jump in a circular water flow exhibits pulsational asymmetries in close analogy to the shock front in the collapsing matter of the supernova core.” Known as Shallow Water Analogue of Shock Instability, the dynamic process can be demonstrated in less technicalized manners by eliminating the important effects of neutrino heating – a reason which causes many astrophysicists to doubt that collapsing stars might go through this type of instability. However, the new computer models are able to demonstrate the Standing Accretion Shock Instability is a critical factor.

“It does not only govern the mass motions in the supernova core but it also imposes characteristic signatures on the neutrino and gravitational-wave emission, which will be measurable for a future Galactic supernova. Moreover, it may lead to strong asymmetries of the stellar explosion, in course of which the newly formed neutron star will receive a large kick and spin”, describes team member Bernhard Müller the most significant consequences of such dynamical processes in the supernova core.

Are we finished with supernova research? Do we understand everything there is to know about neutron stars? Not hardly. At the present time, the scientist are ready to further their investigations into the measurable effects connected to SASI and refine their predictions of associated signals. In the future they will further their understanding by performing more and longer simulations to reveal how instability and neutrino heating react together. Perhaps one day they’ll be able to show this relationship to be the trigger which ignites a supernova explosion and conceives a neutron star.

Original Story Source: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics News Release.

Hailing Frequencies Open? Communication Via Neutrinos Tested Successfully

[/caption]

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

Neutrinos Obey The Speed Limit, After All

[/caption]

Neutrinos have been cleared of allegations of speeding, according to an announcement issued today by CERN and the ICARUS experiment at Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Turns out they travel exactly as fast as they should, and not a nanosecond more.

The initial announcement in September 2011 from the OPERA experiment noted a discrepancy in the measured speed of neutrinos traveling in a beam sent to the detectors at Gran Sasso from CERN in Geneva. If their measurements were correct, it would have meant that the neutrinos had arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows. This, understandably, set the world of physics a bit on edge as it would effectually crumble the foundations of the Standard Model of physics.

As other facilities set out to duplicate the results, further investigations by the OPERA team indicated that the speed anomaly may have been the result of bad fiberoptic wiring between the detectors and the GPS computers, although this was never officially confirmed to be the exact cause.

Now, a a statement from CERN reports the results of the ICARUS experiment — Imaging Cosmic and Rare Underground Signals — which is stationed at the same facilities as OPERA. The ICARUS data, in measuring neutrinos from last year’s beams, show no speed anomaly — further evidence that OPERA’s measurement was very likely a result of error.

The full release states:

__________________

The ICARUS experiment at the Italian Gran Sasso laboratory has today reported a new measurement of the time of flight of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso. The ICARUS measurement, using last year’s short pulsed beam from CERN, indicates that the neutrinos do not exceed the speed of light on their journey between the two laboratories. This is at odds with the initial measurement reported by OPERA last September.

What neutrinos look like to ICARUS. (LNGS)

“The evidence is beginning to point towards the OPERA result being an artefact of the measurement,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci, “but it’s important to be rigorous, and the Gran Sasso experiments, BOREXINO, ICARUS, LVD and OPERA will be making new measurements with pulsed beams from CERN in May to give us the final verdict. In addition, cross-checks are underway at Gran Sasso to compare the timings of cosmic ray particles between the two experiments, OPERA and LVD. Whatever the result, the OPERA experiment has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening their measurement to broad scrutiny, and inviting independent measurements. This is how science works.” 

The ICARUS experiment has independent timing from OPERA and measured seven neutrinos in the beam from CERN last year. These all arrived in a time consistent with the speed of light.

“The ICARUS experiment has provided an important cross check of the anomalous result reports from OPERA last year,” said Carlo Rubbia, Nobel Prize winner and spokesperson of the ICARUS experiment. “ICARUS measures the neutrino’s velocity to be no faster than the speed of light. These are difficult and sensitive measurements to make and they underline the importance of the scientific process. The ICARUS Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber is a novel detector which allows an accurate reconstruction of the neutrino interactions comparable with the old bubble chambers with fully electronics acquisition systems. The fast associated scintillation pulse provides the precise  timing of each event, and has been exploited for the neutrino time-of-flight measurement. This technique is now recognized world wide as the most appropriate for future large volume neutrino detectors”.

__________________

An important note is that, although further research points more and more to neutrinos behaving as expected, the OPERA team had proceeded in a scientific manner right up to and including the announcement of their findings.

“Whatever the result, the OPERA experiment has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening their measurement to broad scrutiny, and inviting independent measurements,” the ICARUS team reported. “This is how science works.”

See more news from CERN here.