High-Energy Neutrinos Detected By IceCube Telescope, Ushering In 'New Age Of Astronomy'

By Josh Lieberman on November 21, 2013 6:41 PM EST

IceCube telescope
The IceCube telescope in the South Pole has detected 28 high-energy neutrinos, a discovery that could have wide-ranging astronomical implications. (Photo: Flickr: elisfanclub)

Scientists in Antarctica have discovered 28 high-energy neutrinos over a mile underground at the South Pole, the first discovery of such particles since 1987. The IceCube neutrino telescope has been searching for the elusive, massless particles since 2010, but this is the first time the telescope has turned up anything. And scientists it could change everything.

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"This is the first indication of very high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system," said Francis Halzen, principal investigator of IceCube from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "This is the dawn of a new age of astronomy."

You may be wondering what exactly neutrinos are, and that's a perfectly reasonable question. As PBS explains: "Neutrinos are teeny, tiny, nearly massless particles that travel at near lightspeeds. Born from violent astrophysical events like exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, they are fantastically abundant in the universe, and can move as easily through lead as we move through air. But they are notoriously difficult to pin down."

So difficult to pin down that it took a $271 million telescope with over 5,000 light sensors to do so. The IceCube neutrino telescope is buried in the Antarctic ice, from 1 to 1.5 miles deep, where the ice is under so much pressure that all the air bubbles are pushed out, creating clear ice for the telescope to observe. The ice is also very dark at that depth, which is key for spotting neutrinos. When neutrinos interact with ice, they create a particle called a muon, and IceCube can only detect muons in dark light. The muons give off a blue light, which tells scientists where in the universe the neutrino came from.

Billions of neutrinos are around us at all times, but they have no electrical charge, so they don't really do much and as such are difficult to detect. (They're sometimes known as ghost particles). But because the neutrinos discovered by the IceCube telescope have a ton of energy, scientists believe they came from very, very far away. They speculate that the high-energy neutrinos could have come from supernovae, black holes, galactic nuclei, or other extragalactic phenomena, and could lead to new understandings of the neutrinos' source.

Neutrino scientist John Learned of the University of Hawaii said the IceCube find is so exciting that it's even bigger than the Nobel-winning discovery of the Higgs boson.

"Finding the Higgs was really boring," Learned told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a great triumph, but...we didn't learn anything we didn't already know."

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