Astronomers Trace the Source of Cosmic Neutrinos For the First Time

Katie Ramirez
July 15, 2018

A team of global scientists have, for the first time, pinpointed the cosmic source of a ghostly subatomic particle called a neutrino, marking the beginning of a new era in astronomy.

An artist's impression of the IceCube optical module array interacting with a neutrino. The only visible equipment is the IceCube Lab, also called the ICL, which hosts the computers that collect data from the sensors buried in the ice.

The perceptions were made by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen- Scott South Pole Station, and affirmed by telescopes the world over and in Earth's orbit. That means neutrinos fly right through planets, stars, and even you at almost the speed of light.

As for the significance, neutrinos despite being weak in interactions, are known to 'do very interesting things along their path.' They are produced in one of three flavor types, and they even change flavors in their travels, thanks to neutrino oscillations that's a quantum mechanical effect.

In September 2017, scientists spotted a high-energy neutrino that hit the Antarctic ice. 5,160 light sensors were lowered into those holes and spread out over one cubic kilometer. IceCube is an array of more than 5,000 light sensors created to pick up these flashes.

Neutrinos arrive on Earth at varying energy levels, which are signatures of the processes that created them.

On Sept. 23, only 13 hours after the initial alert, the recently commissioned ASAS-SN unit at McDonald Observatory in Texas mapped the sky in the area of the neutrino detection.

Experts also indicate that the blazar, the origin of the detected neutrino, is capable of accelerating protons at very high energies, so it could be a source of cosmic radiation. This emerging field is dubbed "multi-messenger astrophysics".

Not all neutrinos are the high-energy variety.

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Astrophysical neutrinos are fascinating mysteries. However, in 2013, researchers discovered a new type of neutrino known as a high-energy neutrino, and no one had been able to identify a source for those - until now. "While IceCube has seen neutrinos from outside our galaxy before, we have never been able to attribute them to a specific source", explains Karen Andeen, a team member from Marquette University.

Detecting the highest energy neutrinos requires a massive particle detector, and the National Science Foundation-supported IceCube observatory is the world's largest.

Scientists now have the capability to detect a plethora of "cosmic messengers" travelling vast distances at extremely high speeds, in the form of light, neutrinos, cosmic rays, and even gravitational waves. We know they originate outside our galaxy, but because they are deflected along the way, it's been impossible to trace their source.

Two gamma-ray telescopes, NASA's orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope - which had already observed enhanced gamma-ray activity from the direction of the blazar during its regular scans of the entire sky every three hours - and the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes (MAGIC) in the Canary Islands, looed in the direction provided by NSF's IceCube.

The bottom line: It's bright across the spectrum. A spirited little particle has been detected back to its cosmic trampling grounds scintillating galaxy 4 billion light-years away solving for the premiere time a celestial enigma.

Regarding the neutrinos' journey, she says that the magnetic fields of the earth and the blazar will not inspire neutrinos to affect the earth's surface. This evidence made the scientists believe that the neutrino actually belongs to some place outside our galaxy.

With a roughly one in 740 probability that the neutrino just happened to coincidentally come from the blazer location I.e it looked like it came from the blazer, but really it came from elsewhere, the link between the two isn't yet guaranteed. "This is not a slam dunk, but it is certainly compelling", says Andeen.

The discovery also marks a turning point in astronomy. "W$3 e need each other to make the next big leaps in understanding".

We are ready to move forward with an extension of IceCube, with seven new strings placed on a denser grid than the main detector.

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