Published: Sat, July 14, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

Ghostly particles give scientists audacious new understanding of the cosmos

Ghostly particles give scientists audacious new understanding of the cosmos

The most powerful cosmic rays in the Universe are generated by the so-called blazare - supermassive black holes in distant galaxies whose "spitting" is aimed directly at the Earth.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, scientists have, for the first time, provided evidence for a known blazar, designated TXS 0506+056, as a source of high-energy neutrinos.

The observations were made by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica, a multimillion-dollar facility that uses 5,160 sensors buried within a cubic kilometre of ice to search for signs of extremely subtle neutrino reactions.

The observatory immediately issued an automatic alert announcing the recording of a high-energy particle reaction. ASAS-SN uses a network of 20 small, 14-centimeter telescopes in Hawaiʻi, Texas, Chile and South Africa to scan the visible sky every 20 hours looking for very bright supernovae.

By tracing the neutrino, which travels at nearly the speed of light, back to the "blazar", experts believe that the discovery will provide a totally new way of understanding the universe. But for a detecting a neutrino a lot of nuclei in a comparatively little area is required.

Around 20 observatories on Earth and in space responded to IceCube's alert including NASA's orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) in Namibia and the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov Telescope, or MAGIC, in the Canary Islands-which detected a flare of high-energy gamma rays associated with TXS 0506+056.

An global team of astronomers has traced a ghostly neutrino back to its source, a spinning super-massive black hole at the heart of a "blazar" galaxy some four billion light years away. But some of these black holes appear to pull in material at ferocious rates, a process that simultaneously sends streams of highly energetic particles out into space.

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Having nearly no mass and passing right through planets, stars and anything else in its way, the particle travelled in a straight line from its point of origin to Earth. Blazars are giant, oval-shaped galaxies theorized to have spinning supermassive black holes at their center that blast out radiation - including light. This specific type of quasar is called a blazar. In contrast neutrinos are unaffected by even the most powerful magnetic fields. They have the lowest known mass of any elementary particle, are electrically neutral, and only interact weakly with other matter. The previous great moment in neutrino astronomy happened in 1987, when some 25 neutrinos were recorded in three detectors on Earth coincident with a supernova explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy.

Cosmic rays are the highest energy particles ever observed, with energies up to 100 million times the energies of particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, the most powerful human-made particle accelerator.

On Sept. 22, 2017, a particle known as a neutrino zinged down from the sky and through the ice of Antarctica at almost the speed of light, setting off a cascade of alarms in an array of detectors called IceCube.

"Interestingly, we all believed that blazara unlikely to be the source of cosmic rays, but we now know that in reality it is the opposite".

About 20 observatories on Earth and in space have also participated in this discovery. For example, the Swift's X-ray sensor (which was designed and provisioned by a team at the University of Leicester in the UK) was best placed to observe the blazar activity linked to this particularly high-energy event.

This sub-atomic particle is a neutrino and their existence is not so much of a mystery (anymore), but where they come from is, as neutrinos are found everywhere.

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