MINOS experiment weighs in on neutrino mystery
27 June 2011
Scientists involved in the MINOS experiment, including six members from UCL Physics and Astronomy, have announced the results from a search for a rare phenomenon: the transformation of muon neutrinos into electron neutrinos.
The results of these two experiments could have implications for our understanding of the role that neutrinos may have played in the evolution of the universe. If muon neutrinos transform into electron neutrinos, neutrinos could be the reason that the big bang produced more matter than antimatter, leading to the universe as it exists today.
The Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) at Fermilab, Chicago, recorded a total of 62 electron neutrino-like events. If muon neutrinos do not transform into electron neutrinos, then MINOS should have seen only 49 events. The experiment should have seen 71 events if neutrinos transform as often as suggested by recent results from the Tokai-to-Kamioka (T2K) experiment in Japan. The two experiments use different methods and analysis techniques to look for this rare transformation.
To measure the transformation of muon neutrinos into other neutrinos, the MINOS experiment sends a muon neutrino beam 450 miles (735 kilometres) through the earth from the Main Injector accelerator at Fermilab to a 5,000-ton neutrino detector, located half a mile underground in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in northern Minnesota. The experiment uses two almost identical detectors: the detector at Fermilab is used to check the purity of the muon neutrino beam, and the detector at Soudan looks for electron and muon neutrinos. The neutrinos' trip from Fermilab to Soudan takes about four hundredths of a second, giving the neutrinos enough time to change their identities.
For more than a decade, scientists have seen evidence that the three known types of neutrinos can morph into each other. Experiments have found that muon neutrinos disappear, with some of the best measurements provided by the MINOS experiment. Scientists think that a large fraction of these muon neutrinos transform into tau neutrinos, which so far have been very hard to detect, and they suspect that a tiny fraction transform into electron neutrinos.
"Science usually proceeds in small steps rather than sudden, big discoveries, and this certainly has been true for neutrino research," said Professor Jenny Thomas from the UCL department of Physics & Astronomy, and co-spokesperson for the MINOS experiment.
"If the transformation from muon neutrinos to electron neutrinos occurs at a large enough rate, future experiments should find out whether nature has given us two light neutrinos and one heavy neutrino, or vice versa. This is really the next big thing in neutrino physics."
The MINOS measurement is the latest step in a
worldwide effort to learn more about neutrinos. MINOS will continue to collect
data until February 2012. The T2K experiment was interrupted in March when the
severe earth quake in Japan
damaged the muon neutrino source for T2K. Scientists expect to resume
operations of the experiment at the end of the year. Three nuclear-reactor
based neutrino experiments are in the process of starting up.
Image: The MINOS far detector is located in a cavern half a mile underground in
the Soudan Underground Laboratory, Minnesota. The 100-foot-long MINOS
far detector consists of 486 massive octagonal planes, lined up like the
slices of a loaf of bread. Each plane consists of a sheet of steel
about 25 feet high and one inch thick, with the last one visible in the
photo. The whole detector weighs 6,000 tons. Since March 2005, the far
detector has recorded neutrinos from a beam produced at Fermilab. The
MINOS collaboration records about 1,000 neutrinos per year. The MINOS
collaboration records about 1,000 neutrinos per year. A tiny fraction of
them seem to be electron neutrinos. Credit: Fermilab