Editorial Feature

What Are Neutrinos in Astrophysics?

Similar to an electron in structure, a neutrino is a subatomic particle with a very small mass and no electrical charge. The most abundant mass-containing particles in the universe are neutrinos.

Neutrinos in Astrophysics, what are neutrinos

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Neutrinos are produced each time atomic nuclei combine or decay. They can reveal details about the conditions in which they are produced. For a very long time, these elusive particles have remained a mystery.

Characteristics of Neutrinos

Neutrinos are elementary particles with no electric charge that interact weakly with one another and other particles. The charged leptons have three distinct "flavors," electron, muon, and tau. The beta decay of several particles, including neutrons, produces neutrinos, which are important in cosmology and astrophysics.

For instance, neutrinos, which are high-energy astrophysical systems' cosmic messengers, stream out of the sun after being created during nuclear fusion processes. During the primordial nucleosynthesis phase of the early universe, they take part in the proton-neutron interconversion process, which in turn sets the main elemental composition of the cosmos.

Neutrinos are incredibly abundant in the universe and can flow through lead as readily as humans do through air. For instance, the sun's billions of neutrinos will travel through an outstretched hand without being felt. This is due to the fact that they are emitted from the sun as a byproduct of nuclear fusion, which is the same process that creates sunlight. It is challenging to detect them; however, they are a foundational component of the cosmos and have contributed to our understanding of some of physics' most fundamental questions. They serve as a crucial building component for the natural order and are crucial to our knowledge of the processes that occur in the sun.

Neutrinos were formerly thought to have no mass, according to particle physicists. Many previously unknown characteristics have been identified since 1998, mainly due to the discovery of oscillations of neutrinos. The Super-Kamiokande experiment, using atmospheric neutrinos, found that neutrinos had a tiny bit of mass. The finding of neutrino oscillations is crucial to particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology.

This minuscule amount of mass could be the reason the cosmos is composed of matter and not antimatter. Matter and antimatter were theorized to be present in equal quantities at the beginning of the Big Bang, but matter and antimatter were largely destroyed when the universe expanded and cooled.

Origin of Neutrinos

Neutrinos are predicted to be the reason for the universe's matter-antimatter asymmetry, in addition to their part in the early universe's nucleosynthesis. The cosmos was a hot plasma made up of nearly equal amounts of particles and antiparticles in the early moments of the Big Bang. All of the planets, stars, galaxies, and interstellar gas are made of matter today rather than antimatter. When all the matter was annihilated with antimatter to create the remnant photons and neutrinos, some matter was left behind, which is what all of the materials are composed of. This means that at some point after the Big Bang, some mechanism had to have produced slightly more matter than antimatter.

Leptogenesis, a process in which neutrinos aid in inducing more leptons than antileptons in cosmic plasma, is a crucial component of several hypotheses for the origin and smallness of neutrino masses. The broad preponderance of matter over antimatter that we observe is then caused by this lepton asymmetry.

Implication to the Standard Model

Neutrinos raise a number of challenging mysteries. They come in three "generations" or "families," which seem to be exact duplicates of one another, just like their charged lepton and quark relatives. This threefold replication's genesis has long been a mystery. Neutrinos are massless particles in the very successful standard model of particle physics, much like photons, but unlike the more closely related charged leptons and quarks. The neutrino flavors wobble into one other as they move freely through space, which can only occur if neutrinos are genuinely heavy, according to a valiant program of tests. This indicates that the standard model is lacking despite its numerous triumphs.

The neutrino masses are notable for being extremely small, at least a million times less than the electron mass, which is a negligibly small amount despite the fact that they are nonzero. It is believed that neutrinos gain their masses through a very different method than other particles. We are unsure about the nature of that mechanism.

Neutrino Detection and Outlook

Neutrino research is challenging. Due to their weak interactions with other particles, they are difficult to detect. However, currently, data on neutrino oscillations measuring atmospheric neutrinos, which are often used as a backdrop for astrophysical neutrino searches, are also being provided by high-energy neutrino telescopes. For example, the recently finished IceCube Neutrino Observatory will examine neutrinos within an ice block measuring one cubic kilometer in Antarctica. As neutrinos pass through and interact, they produce charged particles, and the charged particles traveling through the ice give off light. The fluorescence is then detected to correlate the neutrino flux.

Using detectors at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, two research collaborations, FASER (Forward Search Experiment) and SND (Scattering and Neutrino Detector), have made the observations of these collider neutrinos.

In another project at Fermilab National Laboratory, in about two milliseconds, a beam of neutrinos 400 miles underground, is sent from Wisconsin to Northern Minnesota to study its effects. The lab is also developing Project X, a massive linear accelerator that will study the subatomic particles more closely by expanding their travel duration and distance.

Many other researches are particularly active in areas related to the universe's matter-antimatter asymmetry and cosmological origin.

Stellar Evolution and Nucleosynthesis: Unraveling the Life Cycles of Stars

References and Further Reading

Hokkaido University. (11 July 2023) New insights into neutrino interactions. [Online] phys.org/. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2023-09-insights-neutrino-interactions.html

Cristina Volpe 2015 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 631 012048

Fadelli, I. (26 August 2023) The first observation of neutrinos at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. [Online] phys.org/. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2023-08-neutrinos-cern-large-hadron-collider.html

Marder, J. (05 January 2011) What is a Neutrino…And Why Do They Matter? [Online] pbs.org/newshour. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/what-is-a-neutrino-and-why-should-anyone-but-a-particle-physicist-care#:~:text=Neutrinos%20are%20teeny%2C%20tiny%2C%20nearly,as%20we%20move%20through%20air

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Written by

Ilamaran Sivarajah

Ilamaran Sivarajah is an experimental atomic/molecular/optical physicist by training who works at the interface of quantum technology and business development.


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