Antarctic ice lab sees sub-atomic particles in space

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 21, 2013 18:55 EDT
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The IceCube lab on the the Antarctic tundra near the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. [AFP]
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Ghostly sub-atomic particles called neutrinos in outer space have been glimpsed from an icy observatory in Antarctica, offering a rare new view of the universe, scientists said Thursday.

These high-energy particles are everywhere, and billions pass though our bodies every second, according to Kara Hoffman, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, a co-author of the study in the journal Science.

But neutrinos glimpsed in the outer reaches of our galaxy, or even beyond, are rare.

Experts say these nearly massless high-energy cosmic rays may originate from extreme events in space, like supernovas, black holes, pulsars, and more.

What makes this latest discovery exciting is it marks only the second time that the particles have been detected from space since 1987, and this time they are a million times stronger.

“This is the first indication of very high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system,” said Francis Halzen, principal investigator of IceCube and professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin.

“This is the dawn of a new age of astronomy.”

In 1987 the particles were observed in connection with a supernova seen in the Large Magellanic Cloud, he said.

Just what kind of event caused the neutrinos to be detected from Earth this time is unclear.

The 28 high-energy neutrinos were found in data collected by IceCube, a 12-country collaboration to make a particle detector in the Antarctic ice, from May 2010 to May 2012.

This unique astrophysical telescope scans the universe for neutrinos coming through the Earth from the north and south.

“We are now working hard on improving the significance of our observation, and on understanding what this signal means and where it comes from,” said IceCube spokeswoman Olga Botner of Uppsala University.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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