For the first time, scientists have discovered the source of cosmic neutrinos, ghostly subatomic particles that can travel in a straight line for billions of light-years, passing unhindered through galaxies, stars and anything else in their path.
The discovery of a single neutrino was made in September by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole, and confirmed by telescopes around the globe and in Earth’s orbit.
The finding was published in a pair of studies by more than 1,100 scientists released Thursday in the journal Science.
The neutrino originated in a blazar galaxy nearly four billion light-years away, in the constellation Orion. Blazars are giant, oval-shaped galaxies thought to have spinning supermassive black holes at their center that blast out radiation – including light.
“This is the first evidence that we have of an active galaxy emitting neutrinos, which means we may soon start observing the universe using neutrinos to learn more about these objects in ways that would be impossible with light alone,” said study co-author Marcos Santander, a University of Alabama astronomer.
Difficult to detect, neutrinos are extremely tiny particles and are among the most abundant in the universe. They don’t interact much with anything and travel close to the speed of light.
In fact, trillions of neutrinos just flew through your body while you read the last two sentences.
Scientists say this discovery could mark the founding event of neutrino astronomy. In addition, these weird particles may hold the key to some of the biggest mysteries about the universe, including why matter won out over antimatter early after the Big Bang, Space.com said.
“I have been working in this field for almost 30 years and to find an actual neutrino source is an incredibly exciting moment,” said Gary Hill of the University of Adelaide in Australia.
“Now that we’ve identified a real source, we’ll be able to focus in on other objects like this one, to understand more about these extreme events billions of years ago which set these particles racing towards our planet,” Hill said.
Contributing: Katharine Lackey