Research

Scientists Track 'Ghost Particle' to Source for First Time

Scientists Track 'Ghost Particle' to Source for First Time

A single, ghostly subatomic particle that traveled some 4 billion light-years before reaching Earth has helped astronomers pinpoint a likely source of high-energy cosmic rays for the first time.

At the South Pole, researchers at the Icecube South Pole Neutrino Observatory have been exploiting the effect that neutrinos have on atoms in the ice for several years.

Because cosmic rays are charged particles, their paths can not be traced directly back to their sources due to the powerful magnetic fields that litter interstellar and intergalactic space, which warp their trajectories. Very infrequently, a neutrino will bump into another particle, creating a marker.

Hoping to clarify the origin of the neutrino, numerous observatories were immediately alerted to look in the direction of the particle's momentum. But high-energy cosmic rays also form neutrinos, which travel in straight lines so are easier to trace back to their source. This enormous energy showed that the particle must come from a distant celestial object: According to current knowledge, energy-rich neutrinos are formed as by-products in "cosmic particle accelerators" such as matter jets from black holes or exploding stars.

Telescopes on the ground and in orbit immediately started scanning the region of space the neutrino came from, searching for anything that might have been energetic enough to launch it.

NSF Director, France Córdova, released a statement, claiming "the era of multimessenger astrophysics is here".

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"In our case, we saw an active galaxy, which is a large galaxy containing a big black hole at its centre", explains Kowalski. The black hole is estimated to have been in a distant galaxy that destructed four billion years ago. The moment IceCube alerted scientists to the event, they put out a blanket call to observatories elsewhere.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: At the South Pole, there's a sophisticated observatory created to catch high-energy neutrinos, enigmatic particles produced by violent cosmic events like exploding stars. It had an energy of 300 trillion electron volts. And Marek Kowalski adds, "Since neutrinos are a sort of by-product of the charged particles in cosmic rays, our observation implies that active galaxies are also accelerators of cosmic ray particles". "We're witnessing the benefit of combining the talents of astrophysicists and particle physicists, combining not only photon detection but also new messengers such as astrophysical neutrinos, like the one announced in today's discovery".

PALCA: But light waves and gamma rays and even radio waves are all what scientists call electromagnetic radiation.

"The universe just talks to us in so many ways, and every time you find a new way of listening, you find something else". "They can essentially escape their site of production and bring that information directly across the cosmos to their point of detection". "They tell us what's happening deep inside of the source, like a medical X-ray showing us what's inside the human body". The IceCube researchers searched through their data from the past years for possible previous measurements of neutrinos coming from the direction of the blazar that had now been identified.

By studying neutrinos, scientists gain insight into the processes that drive powerful cosmic events, including supernovae and black holes. For one thing, the ghost neutrinos have relatively high energy and hit the Earth in a more diffuse stream. It consists of a cubic kilometer of ice festooned with more than 5,000 detectors. They can register tiny flashes of light produced when a neutrino interacts with the transparent ice they are suspended in. The team was able to calculate the probable path of the neutrino.


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