Ghost particles crash in Antarctica could change astronomy forever

About 47 million light-years away from where you’re sitting, the center of a black-hole-filled galaxy called NGC 1068 emits streams of mysterious particles. These “neutrinos” are also known as the elusive “ghost particles” that haunt our universe but leave little trace of their existence.

As they appear, packets of these invisible bits rush through the cosmic expanse. They navigate through the bright stars we can see and bypass pockets of space teeming with marvels we have yet to discover. It flies and flies and flies until sometimes it collides with a detector deep under the earth’s surface.

The flight of neutrinos is smooth. But scientists are patiently waiting for their arrival.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is located in about a billion tons of ice, more than two kilometers (1.24 miles) below Antarctica. A neutrino hunter, you might call it. When any neutrinos transport their party to the frozen continent, the IceCube is ready.

In a research paper published Friday in Science, the international team behind this ambitious experiment confirms that it has found evidence of 79 “high-energy neutrino emissions” coming from the whereabouts of NGC 1068, opening the door to novel – and endlessly fascinating – kinds of physics. Scientists call it “neutrino astronomy.”

It would be a branch of astronomy that could do what current branches could not.

The starry sky shows the heart of the Milky Way.  On Earth is the snow-covered Antarctic surface on which the structure rests.

Front view of the IceCube Laboratory at dusk, with a starry sky showing a glimpse of the Milky Way above and sunlight lingering on the horizon.

Martin Wolf, IceCube / NSF

Before today, physicists showed that neutrinos only come from the Sun. The atmosphere of our planet. a chemical mechanism called radioactive decay; Supernovae. And — thanks to the first IceCube hack in 2017 — a supermassive, or voracious, black hole has been pointed at Earth. An invalid TXS file called TXS 0506 + 056.

With this newly discovered neutrino source, we are entering a new era of the particle story. In fact, according to the research team, the neutrinos emanating from NGC 1068 likely contain millions, billions, maybe even trillions The amount of energy held by neutrinos rooted in the sun or supernovae. Those are amazing numbers because, in general, such ghostly bits are so powerful, yet elusive, that every second, they move trillions or trillions of neutrinos through your body. You can’t tell.

And if you wanted to stop the neutrino in its path, you’d need to fight it with a mass of lead over a light-year span — though until then, there would be a partial chance of success. Thus, harnessing these particles, NCG 1068 version or not, could allow us to penetrate regions of the universe that would normally be elusive.

What now?

Not only is this moment huge because it gives us more evidence of a strange particle that wasn’t announced until 1956, but also because neutrinos are like the keys to our universe behind the scenes.

They have the ability to detect phenomena and solve puzzles that we can’t tackle by any other means, which is the main reason why scientists try to develop neutrino astronomy in the first place.

“The universe has multiple ways of communicating with us,” Dennis Caldwell of the National Science Foundation and a member of the IceCube team told reporters Thursday. “Electromagnetic radiation, which we see as light from stars, and gravitational waves that rock the fabric of space — and elementary particles, such as protons, neutrons and electrons, emitted from local sources.

“One of these elementary particles were the neutrinos that permeate the universe, but unfortunately, neutrinos are very difficult to detect.”

In fact, even galaxy NGC 1068 and its giant black hole are usually obscured by a thick veil of dust and gas, making them difficult to analyze with telescopes and standard optical equipment — despite years of scientists trying to penetrate its veil. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope could be a leg up in this case because of its infrared eyes, but neutrinos might be the best way to do that.

It is expected to be generated behind such opaque screens that filter our universe, and these particles can carry cosmic information from behind those screens, zoom across great distances while interacting with essentially any other matter, and deliver pure, untouched information to humanity around corners elusive from outer space.

“We are very fortunate, in a way, that we can come to an amazing understanding of this object,” Elisa Risconi, of the Technical University of Munich and a member of the IceCube team, said of NGC 1068.

ice Cube

In this technical presentation, based on a real image of the IceCube Laboratory in Antarctica, a distant source emits neutrinos detected under the ice by IceCube sensors, called DOMs.

IceCube / NSF

It is also notable that there are many (many) more galaxies similar to NGC 1068 – classified as sieverts – than there are galaxies similar to TXS 0506 + 056. This means that IceCube’s latest discovery is, arguably, an even bigger step forward For neutrino astronomers from those made by the observatory.

Perhaps the bulk of the neutrinos scattered throughout the universe is rooted in NGC 1068 doppelgangers. But in the grand scheme of things, there are much more advantages to neutrinos than just their sources.

These ghosts, said Justin Vandenbrooke of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the IceCube team, are apt to solve two major puzzles in astronomy.

First, a wealth of galaxies in our universe boast enormous gravitational voids in their centers, and black holes reach masses millions to billions of times larger than our sun. And these black holes, when active, shoot jets of light from their guts — emitting enough light to outshine every star in the galaxy itself. We don’t understand how that happens,” Vandenbroek said simply. Neutrinos could provide a way to study the regions around black holes.

Second, the general, but persistent, mystery of cosmic rays.

We don’t really know where cosmic rays come from, but these particle chains reach energies millions of times higher than we can reach here on Earth using man-made particle accelerators like the ones at CERN.

“We think neutrinos have a role to play,” Vandenbroek said. “Something that could help us answer these two mysteries of black holes occupying extremely bright galaxies and the origins of cosmic rays.”

A decade to catch a bunch

To be clear, IceCube doesn’t exactly trap neutrinos.

Basically, this observatory tells us every time a neutrino interacts with the ice covering it. “Neutrinos hardly interact with matter,” Vandenbroek asserted. “But they do interact sometimes.”

While millions of neutrinos are spewing out in the icy region where the IceCube was created, at least one of them tends to collide with an atom of ice, which then refracts and produces a flash of light. IceCube sensors pick up on this flash and send the signal to the surface, notifications that are then analyzed by hundreds of scientists.

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IceCube detector display shows a neutrino interacting with a molecule of ice.

IceCube/NSF . Collaboration

Ten years of flash data has allowed the team to largely plan where every neutrino from the sky appears to come from. It soon became apparent that a dense region of neutrino emissions was located right where NGC 1068 is centered.

But even with such evidence, Ricconi said, the team knew “it’s not a time to open up the champagne, because we still have one basic question to answer. How many times did this alignment just happen by chance? How can we be sure neutrinos are actually coming?” Who is such a thing?

Diagram of the latest IceCube sky results.  It shows where neutrinos appear to come from across the universe, and identifies the most intense sites as sources.

Map of the sky to survey point sources in the northern hemisphere, showing where neutrinos appear to come from all over the universe. The circle of NGC 1068 also coincides with the hottest point in the northern sky.

IceCube collaboration

So, to make things as concrete as possible, and to really prove that this galaxy is emitting ghosts, “we’ve created the same experiment 500 million times,” Risconi said.

Based on that, I can only imagine, a bottle of Veuve has finally been released. Although the chase is not over yet.

“We are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of finding new sources of neutrinos,” said Ignacio Taboada of Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the IceCube team. “There must be many other sources much deeper than NGC 1068, hiding somewhere to be found.”

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