Icy Telescope Detects Neutrinos From Beyond Our Solar System

By Guest Blogger | November 21, 2013 1:03 pm

By D. Setton

The IceCube Laboratory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Sven Lidstrom, IceCube/NSF

The IceCube Laboratory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Sven Lidstrom, IceCube/NSF

A mammoth neutrino experiment near the South Pole has, for the first time, detected high-energy neutrinos from beyond our solar system. The 28 neutrinos captured by the IceCube detector had a billion times more energy than the neutrinos generated by an exploding star, hinting at an astronomical source beyond our galaxy of unfathomable power.

The neutrinos mark the beginning of an exciting new field of high-energy neutrino astrophysics. “I cannot predict the future but I hope that this may someday be as successful as all the other times when we found new ways to study the universe, like radio astronomy and X-ray astronomy,” says University of Wisconsin physicist Francis Halzen, principal investigator on the experiment.

Ghost Particles

A digital optical module (DOM) being lowered into the hole of an IceCube string. The IceCube detector consists of 86 strings of DOMs -- which look for light when neutrinos strike the ice – vertically spaced about 17 meters apart. Image courtesy Jim Haugen, IceCube/NSF

A digital optical module (DOM) being lowered into the hole of an IceCube string. The IceCube detector consists of 86 strings of DOMs, which look for light when neutrinos strike the ice. Courtesy Jim Haugen, IceCube/NSF

Because they lack charge and have very little mass (and also are immune to the strong force, the interaction that binds protons and neutrons together in the nuclei of atoms), neutrinos can reach us unimpeded from the inner reaches of exploding stars and near black holes. For that reason, they carry information about distant reaches of the cosmos that would otherwise be lost in particle reactions.

IceCube uses thousands of digital sensors buried a mile beneath the Antarctic ice to detect the light emitted on the rare occasions that a neutrino crashes into a molecule of ice. Its first sighting of its quarry occurred in May 2012, when two neutrinos were detected, each with 1000 times more energy than any neutrino ever detected before.

Nicknamed Bert and Ernie after the Sesame Street Muppet characters (because of the oblong and round shapes of their light signals), these two neutrinos spurred the IceCube team to reexamine the rest of their data at the same energy level. In the end, the IceCube team found 26 additional high-energy neutrinos, most of which come from beyond the galaxy. Their exact source has not been pinpointed.

Cosmic Question

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory’s sensors are distributed over a volume of roughly one cubic kilometer of clear Antarctic ice. Under the ice, 5,160 DOM sensors operate at depths between 1,450 and 2,450 meters. The observatory includes a densely instrumented subdetector, DeepCore, and a surface air shower array, IceTop. [Image courtesy of IceCube/NSF]

IceCube’s sensors are distributed over a volume of roughly one cubic kilometer of clear Antarctic ice. Courtesy IceCube/NSF

As IceCube likely continues to catch high-energy neutrinos in the years ahead, it should help solve a 100-year-old mystery in astrophysics: where do high-energy cosmic rays come from? Consisting mostly of highly energetic protons and other nuclei, cosmic ‘rays’ continually bombard the Earth from deep space. Some attain energies 100 million times higher than the most powerful particle accelerator on Earth.

Where do these particles come from? What powerful cosmic engine could possibly accelerate a particle that fast? No one knows. Magnetic fields scramble the paths of the cosmic rays en route to Earth, making it impossible to trace their source.

Here’s where high-energy neutrinos may be key. Once IceCube has captured enough such neutrinos, scientists should be able track down their source. The neutrinos can in principle travel across billions of light years in a straight line to Earth and point back to whatever made them.

And that source could also be the source of high-energy cosmic rays. While some suspect active galactic nuclei, and others gamma ray bursts or even decaying dark matter, “we may be surprised and find sources that nobody has thought of,” says Halzen.

Looking forward, he says, “Things may move fast, they may move very slow.” In any case, the dawn of high-energy neutrino astronomy, long promised and hoped for, has finally arrived.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: neutrinos, physics
  • …And Justice for AL

    So your saying, once we figure neutrinos out we will be able to use them to communicate with extraterrestrials from alien worlds?

    • TheTruth

      It seems to me like the article makes note of a one way flow of information previously unknown to us. I’m guessing the neutrinos eminate from stars, exotic matter or energy, or maybe even the big bang.

  • James38

    Finally, proof of the existence of God, who obviously sweats these high energy neurtrinos when he/she/it is in a creative mood.

  • Julieta Zevallos Petroni

    Higgs boson and ,neutrinos :Are we finally explaining, maybe with quantum Physics discoveries,; which matters the most?? Human Consciousness in the microtubules cytoskeleton of our neurons??? Re:.Penrose)Shadows of the Mind 1994

    • James38

      Julieta, one of the nearly universal unchecked assumptions is that “Human Consciousness” (or consciousness in general) originates in the brain. But we have another theory, largely ignored in the technophile community, that says the “soul” is independent of the body. Ask around for friends who may have had an OOBE (out of body experience). One good clear one of these will knock the idea of the brain being the source of consciousness right “out of your head”.

      You can also meditate on what could have emerged from absolute nothing to get the whole thing (universe) started anyway? Something material? Really?

      • Julieta Zevallos Petroni

        Could be you’re right.The matter of fact is We don’t know!!
        I’ve got a scientific Mind.And I’m happy Science is explaining the never,ever explained before,with proofs of Science.
        Nevertheless,I’m also sure,we’ll never be capable of use our mental capabilities to demonstrate with science, something which goes beyond our own minds

        • James38

          See my comment just below – and remember “We don’t know!!” is an assumption about “we”. Probably better to keep it to what you at least know more about, and say “I don’t know”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/robertolebroncreative Roberto Lebron

        Yes, really. There is nothing beyond what is material. I’ve had what you’d call an out of body experience. It’s an illusion. It doesn’t make me believe in supernatural nonsense. Every old bit of hoodoo has been explained by science, and we keep making up more nonsense to believe. The soul is an illusion created by the brain.

        • Virtuous2012

          Check out the magazine of the Skeptics Society which has addressed these OBEs in true scientific fashion.

          • http://www.facebook.com/robertolebroncreative Roberto Lebron

            Thanks for the reference. I’ll check it out.

        • James38

          No, you have NOT had what I would call an out of body experience. You are continuing the process of assuming that what you think is a fact, is the only possible fact, and that others experience only what you have experienced.

          Your absolute assertion that “There is nothing beyond what is material” fails to consider several things, one of which is how “material” is defined.

          You are wrong on all counts, and couldn’t possibly prove what you say. All you can do is say “but that is what everybody I respect thinks.”

          I used to be quite convinced that I was nothing more than a body, and was satisfied with the idea. It took considerable thought and some experiences unlike anything you have ever encountered to change my ideas.

          Continuing to limit your idea of what might be possible is both typical and hard to avoid. You might want to consider that your attitudes are “faith based” and not proven or factual. You are confusing your opinions with established fact.

          This is quite common. Much of the “scientific world” is actually religious in nature, being based on widespread shared beliefs that are actually unchecked assumptions.

          There are two examples of this that stand out among many. One is the origin of consciousness. The other has to do with the speed of light, which actually is a boundary phenomenon between two distinct levels of the universe. Ask yourself “what is on the “other side” of the speed of light?” noting that everything we perceive can be considered a three dimensional space defined by the speed of light. The room you are in, the galaxy you may see, the “universe” as we know it, etc.

          The confusion of the theory that “consciousness originates in the brain” with fact is very prevalent. However, widespread agreement does not determine factuality. If it did, popular religious beliefs would all be facts.

          • http://www.facebook.com/robertolebroncreative Roberto Lebron

            Thank you for your reply. I had thought you were mistaken, but now that you have clarified your position I can only offer you my best wishes for a safe journey and a speedy return to planet earth.

          • James38

            Funny, Roberto. But it really just shows how concrete your ideas are. Like stuck.

          • http://www.about.me/robertogonzalezrivera Roberto Gonzalez

            Well, you certainly showed me, didn’t you? Happy New Year out there on Planet X.

  • Humfree1859@yahoo.com

    The pythagorean theorem was once considered evidence of the wisdom of the gods. Electricity was once thought to emanate from the power of gods. Imaginary supernatural entities have been proposed by a lot of people over quite a few years. The unity of a self merges into personhood, and then to a wish fulfilling everlasting life as ghosts or souls. There, so far, doesn’t appear to be any evidence of the existence of deities, or human souls. Our experiences have proven unreliable sources of convincing testable hypotheses. Out of body and other personal experiences can be replicated using suggestion, as well as drugs. Meditation is interesting and can help us understand brain integration as a process. However, nothing, thus far, even gets close to a testable hypothesis that god or soul exists..

  • Donna Leichtenberger

    Saturn is the black hole sun and we are on saturns accretion disk. Our sun bends light into the hole and the astral light shoots out. There ya go. Nobody tell me im wrong because im not. Bye bye.

    • James38

      No, you are not wrong, Donna. You are either quite the joker or you are nuts.

      • Donna Leichtenberger

        No….neither of those things. Even the jews know this. I suppose you think you live on a spinning ball. Haha. Ridiculous. So….that would make you the joker or nuts in reality.

  • James38

    “235-Uranium fission seems to cause Sunlight.”

    Seems? You have no idea what you are talking about.



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