September 26, 2023
Neutrino Factory

Scientists Create First Image of the Milky Way Using Neutrinos

Scientists have achieved a significant milestone by creating the first-ever image of the Milky Way galaxy using neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle with extremely low mass. Neutrinos have no electric charge and can effortlessly traverse gas, dust, and even stars, making them ideal for studying distant cosmic phenomena.

Using data collected over the course of a decade by the IceCube detector in Antarctica, combined with advanced artificial intelligence algorithms, researchers have successfully identified high-energy neutrinos originating from within the Milky Way. They have then mapped these particles onto an image representing the galaxy’s plane. This breakthrough marks the first time that our galaxy has been imaged using a method other than traditional light-based observations.

The resulting map provides insights into potential sources of high-energy neutrinos within the Milky Way. These sources could include remnants of past supernova explosions, the cores of collapsed supergiant stars, or other yet-unknown celestial objects. However, further research is required to definitively identify and understand these features within the collected data.

Previously, only a small number of high-energy neutrinos had been traced back to their possible origins, all of which were located outside the Milky Way. These include neutrinos emitted during black holes tearing apart companion stars and those originating from a highly active galaxy known as a blazar.

The detection and study of neutrinos present exciting opportunities in the field of astronomy. Unlike other forms of radiation, such as X-rays, gamma rays, and cosmic rays, neutrinos can travel vast cosmic distances without being deflected or absorbed. This unique characteristic of neutrinos opens up the potential for observing distant objects that may be obscured by intervening matter.

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To physicist Naoko Kurahashi Neilson of Drexel University, the image produced by her team represents a significant advancement in neutrino science. Traditionally, neutrino observatories like IceCube have not provided the same level of sky views as telescopes relying on optical light, X-rays, or gamma rays. However, recent advancements have brought neutrino images closer to the level of detail observed by other telescopes.

The IceCube experiment, consisting of thousands of sensors embedded deep within the Antarctic ice, was specifically designed to overcome the challenges of neutrino detection. Although detecting neutrinos is inherently challenging, the large scale of the IceCube experiment increases the chances of capturing these elusive particles from the Milky Way and beyond.

While most neutrino events detected by IceCube are cascade events that do not provide clear information about their origins, Kurahashi Neilson and her team employed artificial intelligence algorithms to analyze a decade’s worth of cascade data. This innovative approach enabled them to identify significant neutrino signals and generate the groundbreaking image of the Milky Way.

This achievement represents a significant step forward in understanding the high-energy particle sky and opens up exciting prospects for the future exploration of neutrino astronomy. Continued advancements and research will be crucial to fully unlock the potential of neutrinos as powerful messengers from the depths of the cosmos.