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Particles and interactions

Muon antineutrino oscillation spotted by NOvA

07 Jun 2018 Hamish Johnston
NOvA far detector
Antineutrino search: the NOvA detector in northern Minnesota. (Courtesy: Fermilab/Reidar Hahn)

The best evidence yet that muon antineutrinos can change into electron antineutrinos has been found by the NOvA experiment in the US. The measurement involved sending a beam of muon antineutrinos more than 800 km through the Earth from Fermilab near Chicago to a detector in northern Minnesota. After running for about 14 months, NOvA found that at least 13 of the muon antineutrinos had changed type, or “flavour”, during their journey.

The results were presented at the Neutrino 2018 conference, which is being held in Heidelberg, Germany, this week. Although the measurement is still below the threshold required to claim a “discovery”, the result means that fundamental properties of neutrinos and antineutrinos can be compared in detail. This could shed light on important mysteries of physics, such as why there is very little antimatter in the universe.

Neutrinos and antineutrinos come in three flavours: electron, muon and tau. The subatomic particles also exist in three mass states, which means that neutrinos (and antineutrinos) will continuously change flavour (or oscillate). Neutrino oscillation came as a surprise to physicists, who had originally thought that neutrinos have no mass. Indeed, the origins of neutrino mass are not well-understood and a better understanding of neutrino oscillation could point to new physics beyond the Standard Model.

Pion focusing

NOvA has been running for more than three years and comprises two detectors – one located at Fermilab and the other in Minnesota near the border with Canada. The muon antineutrinos in the beam are produced at Fermilab’s NuMI facility by firing a beam of protons at a carbon target. This produces pions, which then decay to produce either muon neutrinos or muon antineutrinos – depending upon the charge of the pion. By focusing pions of one charge into a beam, researchers can create a beam of either neutrinos or antineutrinos.

The beam is aimed on a slight downward trajectory so it can travel through the Earth to the detector in Minnesota, which weighs in at 14,000 ton. Electron neutrinos and antineutrinos are detected when they very occasionally collide with an atom in a liquid scintillator, which produces a tiny flash of light. This light is converted into electrical signals by photomultipler tubes and the type of neutrino (or antineutrino) can be worked-out by studying the pattern of signal produced.

The experiment’s first run with antineutrino began in February 2017 and ended in April 2018. The first results were presented this week in Heidelberg by collaboration member Mayly Sanchez of Iowa State University, who reported that a total of 18 electron antineutrinos had been seen by the Minnesota detector. If muon antineutrinos did not oscillate to electron antineutrinos, then only five detections should have been made.

“Strong evidence”

“The result is above 4σ level, which is strong evidence for electron antineutrino appearance,” Sanchez told Physics World, adding that this is the first time that the appearance of electron antineutrinos has been seen in a beam of muon antineutrinos. While this is below the 5σ level normally accepted as a discovery in particle physics, it is much stronger evidence than found by physicists working on the T2K detector in Japan – which last year reported seeing hints of the oscillation.

In 2014-2017 NOvA detected 58 electron neutrinos that have appeared in a muon neutrino beam. This has allowed NOvA physicists to compare the rates at which muon neutrinos and antineutrinos oscillate to their respective electron counterparts. According to Sanchez, the team has seen a small discrepancy that has a statistical significance of just 1.8σ. While this difference is well within the expected measurement uncertainty, if it persists as more data are collected it could point towards new physics.

Sanchez says that NOvA is still running in antineutrino mode and the amount of data taken will double by 2019.

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