Why Fermilab’s results mark milestone in neutrino research

Born from violent astrophysical events like exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, neutrinos are fantastically abundant in the universe.

The first results of Fermilab‘s NOvA project confirm the very important prediction that tiny, sub-atomic particles known as neutrinos do oscillate – meaning that they morph from one type of neutrino into another.

This marks a tremendous success for the NOvA project; one of its primary objectives is to study the behavior of tiny sub-atomic particles known as neutrinos.

But why are cutting-edge particles physicists so focused on the behavior of these “ghost particles?”

What are Neutrinos?

Neutrinos are one of the universe’s essential ingredients, and they’ve played a role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions in physics.

Born from violent astrophysical events like exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, they are fantastically abundant in the universe, and can move as easily through lead as we move through air. But they are notoriously difficult to pin down.

“Neutrinos are really pretty strange particles when you get down to it,” says John Conway, a professor of physics at University of California, Davis. “They’re almost nothing at all, because they have almost no mass and no electric charge…They’re just little whisps of almost nothing.”

Why are they important?

“They’re important to our understanding of the kind of processes that go on in the sun, and also an important building block for the blueprint of nature,” says Dan Hooper, a scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

What happened during the recent NOvA experiment?

The recent NOvA experiment involved shooting a neutrino beam 500 miles underground, to the massive NOvA detector in Ash River, Minnesota.The NOvA detector measured how many muon-type neutrinos had changed into electron-types over the 500-mile journey, and how many simply disappeared. There are three different types of neutrinos – muon, electron, and tau.

Many more insights into the origins of the universe can be expected from the NOvA project in the months and years to come.

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