Fermilab Uses (Figurative) Railgun to Study Neutrinos

Recently, scientists found the first evidence of oscillating neutrinos, and have come to believe that they’re getting very close to understanding these bizarre particles, thanks to Fermilab.


This scientific advancement is the result of Fermilab’s ongoing NOvA experiment, which hopes to uncover the secrets of those elusive particles called neutrinos. The study released its final results earlier this week. The experiment’s gigantic particle detector is capable of detecting neutrinos fired from an impressive 500 miles’ distance, but the scientists are having a hard time forming significant conclusions from this recent success. It’s incumbent for these quantum physicists to progress their theories because to understand which neutrinos are heavier or lighter will help us construct theories about how these particles accumulate mass.

“People are ecstatic to see our first observation of neutrino oscillations,” announced NOvA co-spokesperson Peter Shanahan of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “For all the people who worked over the course of a decade on the designing, building, commissioning and operating this experiment, it’s beyond gratifying.”


In order to detect these far-flung neutrinos, Fermilab’s neutrino beam uses an underground detector capable of measuring the neutrino composition of each shot. After being fired, the neutrinos oscillate 500 miles through the Earth’s crust. When one of the neutrinos collides with one of the atoms in the detector, a signature trail of particles and light is released which is used to identify the neutrino as an electron, muon or tau. Most neutrinos shot out of Fermilab are composed of muons, but because of this experimental method, scientists can actually infer how many are transform in transit from muon to electron.


If the oscillations mentioned to occur in transit did not occur in neutrinos’ 500 mile transit, the roughly 201 neutrinos would arrive in NOvA scat-free, however, because of said oscillations’ effect, a mere 33 were confirmed to have made it. This means that many of the neutrinos’ vanishing act was actually a result of their turning into one of the other forms of neutrinos that went unnoticed. This experiment has been performed before in the T2K in Japan and MINOS at Fermilab, but NOvA is capable of performing the same process in a much shorter period of time.

“One of the reasons we’ve made such excellent progress is the impressive Fermilab neutrino beam and accelerator team,” credited Mark Messier, the NOvA co-spokesperson of Indiana University. “Having a beam of that power running so efficiently gives us a real competitive edge and allows us to gather data quickly.”