London: Although cosmic rays were discovered 100 years ago, their origin has mystified physicists since long.
Now, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a massive detector in Antarctica, is honing in on how the highest energy cosmic rays are produced.
“Although we have not discovered where cosmic rays come from, we have taken a major step towards ruling out one of the leading predictions,” said IceCube principal investigator and University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor Francis Halzen.
Cosmic rays are electrically charged particles, such as protons, that strike Earth from all directions, with energies up to one hundred million times higher than those created in man-made accelerators.
The intense conditions needed to generate such energetic particles have focused physicists’ interest on two potential sources: the massive black holes at the centers of active galaxies, and the exploding fireballs observed by astronomers as gamma ray bursts (GRBs).
IceCube is using neutrinos, which are believed to accompany cosmic ray production, to explore these theories.
The IceCube collaboration described a search for neutrinos emitted from 300 gamma ray bursts observed, most recently in coincidence with the SWIFT and Fermi satellites, between May 2008 and April 2010.
Surprisingly, they found none - a result that contradicts 15 years of predictions and challenges one of the two leading theories for the origin of the highest energy cosmic rays.
“The result of this neutrino search is significant because for the first time we have an instrument with sufficient sensitivity to open a new window on cosmic ray production and the interior processes of GRBs,” said IceCube spokesperson and University of Maryland physics professor Greg Sullivan.
“The unexpected absence of neutrinos from GRBs has forced a re-evaluation of the theory for production of cosmic rays and neutrinos in a GRB fireball and possibly the theory that high energy cosmic rays are generated in fireballs.”
IceCube is a high energy neutrino telescope at the geographical South Pole in Antarctica, operated by a collaboration of 250 physicists and engineers from the USA, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Barbados.
Improved theoretical understanding and more data from the compete IceCube detector will help scientists better understand the mystery of cosmic ray production. IceCube is currently collecting more data with the finalized, better calibrated, and better understood detector.
The study has been published in the journal Nature.