There has long been a question as to what types of events and processes are responsible for the highest-energy neutrinos coming from space and observed by scientists. Another question, probably related, is what creates the majority of high-energy cosmic rays — the particles, mostly protons, that are constantly raining down upon the Earth.
As scientists’ ability to detect high-energy neutrinos (particles that are hugely abundant, electrically neutral, very light-weight, and very difficult to observe) and high-energy photons (particles of light, though not necessarily of visible light) have become more powerful and precise, there’s been considerable hope of getting an answer to these question. One of the things we’ve been awaiting (and been disappointed a couple of times) is a violent explosion out in the universe that produces both high-energy photons and neutrinos at the same time, at a high enough rate that both types of particles can be observed at the same time coming from the same direction.
In recent years, there has been some indirect evidence that blazars — narrow jets of particles, pointed in our general direction like the barrel of a gun, and created as material swirls near and almost into giant black holes in the centers of very distant galaxies — may be responsible for the high-energy neutrinos. Strong direct evidence in favor of this hypothesis has just been presented today. Last year, one of these blazars flared brightly, and the flare created both high-energy neutrinos and high-energy photons that were observed within the same period, coming from the same place in the sky.
I have written about the IceCube neutrino observatory before; it’s a cubic kilometer of ice under the South Pole, instrumented with light detectors, and it’s ideal for observing neutrinos whose motion-energy far exceeds that of the protons in the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs particle was discovered. These neutrinos mostly pass through Ice Cube undetected, but one in 100,000 hits something, and debris from the collision produces visible light that Ice Cube’s detectors can record. IceCube has already made important discoveries, detecting a new class of high-energy neutrinos.
On Sept 22 of last year, one of these very high-energy neutrinos was observed at IceCube. More precisely, a muon created underground by the collision of this neutrino with an atomic nucleus was observed in IceCube. To create the observed muon, the neutrino must have had a motion-energy tens of thousand times larger than than the motion-energy of each proton at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). And the direction of the neutrino’s motion is known too; it’s essentially the same as that of the observed muon. So IceCube’s scientists knew where, on the sky, this neutrino had come from.
(This doesn’t work for typical cosmic rays; protons, for instance, travel in curved paths because they are deflected by cosmic magnetic fields, so even if you measure their travel direction at their arrival to Earth, you don’t then know where they came from. Neutrinos, beng electrically neutral, aren’t affected by magnetic fields and travel in a straight line, just as photons do.)
Very close to that direction is a well-known blazar (TXS-0506), four billion light years away (a good fraction of the distance across the visible universe).
The IceCube scientists immediately reported their neutrino observation to scientists with high-energy photon detectors. (I’ve also written about some of the detectors used to study the very high-energy photons that we find in the sky: in particular, the Fermi/LAT satellite played a role in this latest discovery.) Fermi/LAT, which continuously monitors the sky, was already detecting high-energy photons coming from the same direction. Within a few days the Fermi scientists had confirmed that TXS-0506 was indeed flaring at the time — already starting in April 2017 in fact, six times as bright as normal. With this news from IceCube and Fermi/LAT, many other telescopes (including the MAGIC cosmic ray detector telescopes among others) then followed suit and studied the blazar, learning more about the properties of its flare.
Now, just a single neutrino on its own isn’t entirely convincing; is it possible that this was all just a coincidence? So the IceCube folks went back to their older data to snoop around. There they discovered, in their 2014-2015 data, a dramatic flare in neutrinos — more than a dozen neutrinos, seen over 150 days, had come from the same direction in the sky where TXS-0506 is sitting. (More precisely, nearly 20 from this direction were seen, in a time period where normally there’d just be 6 or 7 by random chance.) This confirms that this blazar is indeed a source of neutrinos. And from the energies of the neutrinos in this flare, yet more can be learned about this blazar, and how it makes high-energy photons and neutrinos at the same time. Interestingly, so far at least, there’s no strong evidence for this 2014 flare in photons, except perhaps an increase in the number of the highest-energy photons… but not in the total brightness of the source.
The full picture, still emerging, tends to support the idea that the blazar arises from a supermassive black hole, acting as a natural particle accelerator, making a narrow spray of particles, including protons, at extremely high energy. These protons, millions of times more energetic than those at the Large Hadron Collider, then collide with more ordinary particles that are just wandering around, such as visible-light photons from starlight or infrared photons from the ambient heat of the universe. The collisions produce particles called pions, made from quarks and anti-quarks and gluons (just as protons are), which in turn decay either to photons or to (among other things) neutrinos. And its those resulting photons and neutrinos which have now been jointly observed.
Since cosmic rays, the mysterious high energy particles from outer space that are constantly raining down on our planet, are mostly protons, this is evidence that many, perhaps most, of the highest energy cosmic rays are created in the natural particle accelerators associated with blazars. Many scientists have suspected that the most extreme cosmic rays are associated with the most active black holes at the centers of galaxies, and now we have evidence and more details in favor of this idea. It now appears likely that that this question will be answerable over time, as more blazar flares are observed and studied.
The announcement of this important discovery was made at the National Science Foundation by Francis Halzen, the IceCube principal investigator, Olga Botner, former IceCube spokesperson, Regina Caputo, the Fermi-LAT analysis coordinator, and Razmik Mirzoyan, MAGIC spokesperson.
The fact that both photons and neutrinos have been observed from the same source is an example of what people are now calling “multi-messenger astronomy”; a previous example was the observation in gravitational waves, and in photons of many different energies, of two merging neutron stars. Of course, something like this already happened in 1987, when a supernova was seen by eye, and also observed in neutrinos. But in this case, the neutrinos and photons have energies millions and billions of times larger!