IceCube neutrinos point to long-sought cosmic ray accelerator

16 July, 2018, 00:45 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • In this artistic composition a distant source emits neutrinos that are detected below the Antarctic ice by Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory sensors called DOMs

"The intriguing results also represent the remarkable culmination of thousands of human years of intensive activities by the IceCube Collaboration to bring the dream of neutrino astronomy to reality", said Daren Grant, a professor of physics at the University of Alberta and the spokesperson of the IceCube Collaboration, an global team with over 300 scientists in 12 countries. The neutrino struck the ice with the energy of about 300 trillion electron volts, according to NASA, which is more than 45 times the energy that is generated by the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth.

Despite this, researchers have worked out that many are created by the Sun and even in our own atmosphere. "For 20 years, one of our dreams as a collaboration was to identify the sources of high-energy cosmic neutrinos, and it looks like we've finally done it!" In 2016, scientists using data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the United States said they had detected ripples in the fabric of spacetime produced by a black hole collision some 1.3 billion light-years away.

In this artistic rendering, based on a real image of the IceCube Lab at the South Pole, a distant source emits neutrinos that are detected below the ice by IceCube sensors, called DOMs.

Acting as "messengers", neutrinos directly carry astronomical information from the far reaches of the Universe.

But on 22 September 2017, one of these neutrinos showed up near IceCube's cubic kilometre array and chose to interact with the surrounding material, creating another particle called a muon.

IceCube continuously monitors the sky, including through the Earth to the northern hemisphere, and detects a neutrino every few minutes.

When a neutrino slams into the nucleus of an atom, it creates one or more secondary charged particles, which, in turn, create the blue light. "We can do that quite precisely, so that we can measure the direction of [the neutrino's] track".

Within 43 seconds, an alert was dispatched for telescopes to join in the hunt.

Through the IceCube particle detector, Naoko Kurahashi Neilson, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel's College of Arts and Sciences, and her team were able to show that neutrinos originate from blazars. "This really is the dawn of a new type of astronomy". All the time there are flashes and things moving and happening.

Eight other observatories trained their eyes and ears on the neutrino's point of origin.

"Maybe there are sources out there that we can't see in any other ways other than neutrinos", says Professor Neilson.

However this time, there was good news.

When the sun was young and faint and the Earth was barely formed, a big black hole in a distant, brilliant galaxy spat out a powerful jet of radiation. They don't interact much with anything and travel close to the speed of light.

Neutrinos arrive on Earth at varying energy levels, which are signatures of the processes that created them. If that jet happens to be pointed toward Earth, the light from the jet outshines all other emission from the host galaxy and the highly accelerated particles are launched toward the Milky Way.

The work is also in a long way towards finding the solution of a long-standing mystery: What massive energy source could possibly be blasting rays of these energetic particles across the expanse of everything that is?

The crystal-clear ice beneath the South Pole provides the medium that allows NSF's IceCube to document the interaction of neutrinos with terrestrial matter.

"The chance of this excess of neutrinos arising by chance is less than 0.03%", Dr Cartwright adds.

By tracing the origin of the neutrino, the IceCube researchers have opened a new era of space exploration where celestial bodies and materials can also be observed using neutrino detectors and not just conventional telescopes and observatories.

Follow Mary on Twitter.


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