In the biggest result of its kind in more than ten years, physicists have made the most sensitive measurements yet in a decades-long hunt for
a hypothetical and rare process involving the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei.
If discovered, the researchers say, this process could have profound implications for how scientists understand the fundamental laws of
physics and help solve some of the universe's biggest mysteries—including why there is more matter than antimatter and, therefore,
why regular matter like planets, stars, and humans exists at all.
The experiment, the Enriched Xenon Observatory 200 (EXO-200), is an international collaboration that includes the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
and is led by Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratory.
The EXO-200 experiment has placed the most stringent constraints yet on the nature of a so-called neutrinoless double beta decay.
In doing so, physicists have narrowed down the range of possible masses for the neutrino, a tiny uncharged particle that rarely interacts
with anything, passing right through rock, people, and entire planets as it zips along at nearly the speed of light.
The collaboration, consisting of 80 researchers, has submitted a paper describing the results to the journal Physical Review Letters.
In a normal double beta decay, which was first observed in 1986, two neutrons in an unstable atomic nucleus turn into two protons; two electrons and
two antineutrinos—the antimatter counterparts of neutrinos—are emitted in the process.
But physicists have suggested that two neutrons could also decay into two protons by emitting two electrons without producing any antineutrinos.
"People have been looking for this process for a very long time," says Petr Vogel, senior research associate in physics, emeritus, at Caltech and
a member of the EXO-200 team. "It would be a very fundamental discovery if someone actually observes it."
A neutrino is inevitably produced in a single beta decay. Therefore, the two neutrinos that are produced in a neutrinoless double beta decay must
somehow cancel each other out.
This large copper cylindrical vessel is the Enriched Xenon Observatory 200's (EXO-200) time projection chamber, the part of the detector that contains the liquid xenon, isotopically enriched in xenon-136.
The photo shows the chamber being inserted into the cryostat, which keeps the experiment at extremely low temperatures. (Credit: EXO)
For that to happen, physicists say, a neutrino must be its own antiparticle, allowing one of the two neutrinos to act as an
antineutrino and annihilate the other neutrino. That a neutrino can be its own antiparticle is not predicted by the Standard
Model—the remarkably successful theory that describes how all elementary particles behave and interact.
If this neutrinoless process does indeed exist, physicists would be forced to revise the Standard Model.
The process also has implications for cosmology and the origin of matter, Vogel says. Right after the Big Bang, the universe
had the same amount of matter as antimatter. Somehow, however, that balance was tipped, producing a slight surplus in matter that
eventually led to the existence of all of the matter in the universe. The fact that the neutrino can be its own antiparticle
might have played a key role in tipping that balance.
In the EXO-200 experiment, physicists monitor a copper cylinder filled with 200 kilograms of liquid xenon-136,
an unstable isotope that, theoretically, can undergo neutrinoless double beta decay. Very sensitive detectors line
the wall at both ends of the cylinder. To shield it from cosmic rays and other background radiation that may contaminate
the signal of such a decay, the apparatus is buried deep underground in the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad,
New Mexico, where low-level radioactive waste is stored. The physicists then wait to see a signal.
The process, however, is very rare. In a normal double beta decay, half of a given sample would decay after 1021
years—a half-life roughly 100 billion times longer than the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang.
One of the goals of the experiment is to measure the half-life of the neutrinoless process (if it is discovered).
In these first results, no signal for a neutrinoless double beta decay was detected in almost seven months' of data—and
that non-detection allowed the researchers to rule out possible values for the half-life of the neutrinoless process.
Indeed, seven months of finding nothing means that the half-life cannot be shorter than 1.6 × 1025 years, or a quadrillion
times older than the age of the universe. With the value of the half-life pinned down, physicists can calculate the mass of a
neutrino—another longstanding mystery. The new data suggest that a neutrino cannot be more massive than about 0.140 to 0.380 electron volts
(eV, a unit of mass commonly used in particle physics); an electron, by contrast, is about 500,000 eV, or about 9 × 10-31 kilograms.
More than ten years ago, the collaboration behind the Heidelberg-Moscow Double Beta Decay Experiment controversially
claimed to have discovered neutrinoless double beta decay using germanium-76 isotopes. But now, the EXO-200 researchers
say, their new data makes it highly unlikely that those earlier results were valid.
The EXO-200 experiment, which started taking data last year, will continue its quest for the next several years.
MessageToEagle.com via California Institute of Technology
The Wandering Stars
In ancient civilizations, people pondered the meanings of the stars, watching for clues to their survival: the beginning of planting and
harvesting times, the seasons, and even portents of danger.
They soon noticed that certain stars didn't stay in place, but wandered amongst the fixed star field.
"The Most Profound Mystery In All Of Science" -
Little is known about this force and its its repulsive gravity, which is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
The riddles of dark matter and cosmic inflation, along with dark energy, these are the three pillars of modern cosmological theory,"
and none of them can be explained with physics that we know," Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics says.
Mysteries Of A Dark Universe
Cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole, has been turned on its head by a stunning discovery that the universe is flying apart in all directions at an ever-increasing rate. Is the universe really as we think it should be? Or is nature somehow fooling us?
The astronomers whose data revealed this accelerating universe have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Black Holes With No 'Table Manners' Eat Two Courses At Once!
It is still unknown how the supermassive black holes (SMBH) in galaxy centres accrete gas and grow.
Researchers from the University of Leicester (UK) and Monash University in Australia have investigated how some black holes got so big so fast that they are billions of times heavier than the sun.
Mysterious Force Responsible For Accelerating
Expansion Of The Universe
The mysterious force is responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe, according to analysis of data from the 10-meter South Pole Telescope (SPT).
The data strongly support Einstein's cosmological constant, even though the analysis was based on only a fraction of the SPT
data collected and only 100 of the over 500 galaxy clusters detected so far.
Warp-Speed Planets Are Some Of The Fastest Objects In The Milky Way
Warped planets are some of the fastest objects in the Milky Way and they zoom through space near the speed of light.
Some years ago astronomers were astonished when they they found the first runaway star flying out of our Galaxy at a speed of 1.5 million miles per hour.
The discovery intrigued theorists, who wondered: If a star can get tossed outward at such an extreme velocity, could the same thing happen to planets?
Though the universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, the discovery of a single variable star in 1923 altered the
course of modern astronomy. And, at least one famous astronomer of the time lamented that the discovery had shattered his world view.