Though still under construction, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole is already delivering scientific results — including an early finding about a phenomenon the telescope was not even designed to study.
IceCube captures signals of notoriously elusive but scientifically fascinating subatomic particles called neutrinos. The telescope focuses on high-energy neutrinos that travel through the Earth, providing information about faraway cosmic events such as supernovas and black holes in the part of space visible from the Northern Hemisphere.
However, one of the challenges of detecting these relatively rare particles is that the telescope is constantly bombarded by other particles, including many generated by cosmic rays interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere over the southern half of the sky. For most IceCube neutrino physicists these particles are simply background noise, but University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Rasha Abbasi and Paolo Desiati, with collaborator Juan Carlos Díaz-Vélez, recognized an opportunity in the cosmic ray data.
“IceCube was not built to look at cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are considered background,” Abbasi says. “However, we have billions of events of background downward cosmic rays that ended up being very exciting.”
Abbasi saw an unusual pattern when she looked at a “skymap” of the relative intensity of cosmic rays directed toward the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere, with an excess of cosmic rays detected in one part of the sky and a deficit in another. A similar lopsidedness, called “anisotropy,” has been seen from the Northern Hemisphere by previous experiments, she says, but its source is still a mystery.
“At the beginning, we didn’t know what to expect. To see this anisotropy extending to the Southern Hemisphere sky is an additional piece of the puzzle around this enigmatic effect — whether it’s due to the magnetic field surrounding us or to the effect of a nearby supernova remnant, we don’t know,” Abbasi says.
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