Newly Detected Particle Is Huge for Astronomy

Scientists detected a subatomic neutrino and traced it back to its origins
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 12, 2018 12:20 PM CDT
Newly Detected Particle Is Huge for Astronomy
A researcher looks inside the main spectrometer of a machine designed to determine the mass of neutrinos at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen in Germany. The latest neutrino discovery came from an observatory the South Pole.   (Uli Deck/dpa via AP)

Astronomers are jazzed about a major milestone being reported in Science: Researchers for the first time have detected the source of a high-energy "ghost particle" known as a neutrino. If that doesn't mean much to you, this from the Washington Post might help put it in context: The development "heralds the arrival of a new era of astronomy in which researchers can learn about the universe using neutrinos as well as ordinary light." NPR puts it similarly: "It's an achievement that opens a whole new way of looking at the universe." And a Duke researcher not involved with the study tells that these "weird particles may hold the key to some of the biggest mysteries about the universe," adding, "We have to understand them if we want to understand everything." With this latest feat, scientists are closer to doing just that.

Neutrinos are called ghost particles because they are incredibly small and difficult to detect. “If you stick your thumb out right now, there are one billion neutrinos going through your thumbnail every second," a physicist tells Newsweek. "They are going through your [nail], through your body, through everything." But the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole managed to spot one in September, and scientists there asked astronomers around the world to train their telescopes on the area in the sky from which it came. They discovered it had been generated by something called a "blazar"—these are "intensely bright galaxies harboring a black hole at the center," a Swedish physicist involved in the study tells NPR—a mere 4 billion light-years from Earth. "This is just the first step," says an IceCube physicist. "We have a lot more out there to learn and see." (More space exploration stories.)

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