Fermilab's Dune will send neutrinos 800 miles away to study ghost particles

DUNE's neutrino detectors will be located one mile underground in South Dakota.
Matthew Kapost, Sanford Underground Research Facility

  • Neutrinos are tiny particles that could hold secrets to some of the biggest mysteries of the universe.
  • The DUNE Project hopes to learn more about these difficult-to-study “ghost molecules.”
  • To do this, the project will send neutrinos approximately 800 miles between Illinois and South Dakota.

Nearly seven years ago, crews began moving 800,000 tons of rock from one site Former gold mine Near Lead, South Dakota.

The resulting three underground caverns are 500 feet long and are almost long enough to accommodate a seven-story building.

The DUNE (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment) project is expected to cost at least $3 billion and is led by scientists at the US Department of Energy. Fermilab.

Ultimately, each cave will contain 17,500 tons of liquid argon to help Fermilab physicists detect elusive particles known as neutrinos, also known as “ghost particles.”

Excavations of the cave at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota began in 2017.
Sanford Underground Research Facility

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are all around you and pass right through you, unnoticed. The sun creates them. Supernovas make them. Even bananas produce neutrinos.

“If you raise your hand, there are 10 billion neutrinos from the Sun passing through your hand” every second, physicist and DUNE spokeswoman Mary Pichai told Business Insider.

Neutrinos are nicknamed ghost particles because they lack an electrical charge and therefore rarely interact with anything they come into contact with.

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This also makes them extremely difficult to study, yet scientists insist because neutrinos may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, from what happened right after the Big Bang to observing the birth of a black hole.

Neutrino beam between Illinois and South Dakota

Researchers at Fermilab ICEBERG are examining the cold electronics that will be used in the DUNE project.
Reidar Hahn/Fermilab

It is difficult to study a particle that does not emit radiation and is lighter than an electron. “Neutrino interactions are like needles in a haystack,” Pichai said.

Fermilab scientists want to study neutrinos in unprecedented detail, as never before, using DUNE.

That's why DUNE will have the largest neutrino detector of its kind ever.

Once complete, the experiment is designed to begin with a series of… Particle accelerators At Fermilab outside Chicago, Illinois.

One of the caves that will contain the detectors for the DUNE project.
Matthew Kapost, Sanford Underground Research Facility

The accelerators will first fire an extremely powerful beam of neutrinos through a detector at Fermilab. The beam will then travel underground 800 miles to detectors at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota.

Along the way, the neutrinos will do something rather strange. There are three types of neutrinos, and the particles can switch back and forth between them, a phenomenon known as oscillation. One Fermilab scientist compared it to a house cat transformation To a jaguar and then a tiger before returning to its original form.

Tracking how neutrinos change over these long distances between Illinois and South Dakota will help scientists better understand these oscillations by giving them a more complete view than Fermilab's current 500-mile NOvA experiment between Illinois and Minnesota.

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DUNE's neutrino beam will travel from Fermilab across 800 miles of Earth to remote detectors at the underground Sanford Research Facility.
Fermilab Dion

Doing all this a mile underground protects the tiny, oscillating particles from the energetic cosmic rays that rain down on Earth's surface every second and can interfere with the data.

Solve the secrets of the universe

Scientists hope to answer three key questions with DUNE: why is the universe made of matter rather than antimatter, what happens when a star collapses, and do protons decay?

“Immediately after the Big Bang, matter and antimatter were created in approximately equal amounts,” Pichai said. But today, from what scientists can tell, the universe is made up almost entirely of matter.

“Why did we end up with a matter universe, and not an antimatter universe?” she added.

The DUNE beam is designed to create both neutrinos and antineutrinos, the version of antimatter. Looking at the oscillations in each type might help scientists figure out what happened to all the antimatter.

The project is also set for supernova physics, Beshai said.

The Sanford Research Facility is located underground in a former gold mine.
Stephen Kinney, Sanford Underground Research Facility

In 1987, astronomers witnessed a bright supernova explosion at a closer distance than any other explosion in about 400 years. With the detectors available at the time, they could only detect about a few dozen neutrinos.

There's a 40 percent chance of another nearby star exploding in the next decade, Pichai said, and Fermilab hopes at least one of its detectors in South Dakota will be up and running in time.

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A prototype detector, part of the ProtoDUNE experiment, at CERN.
Maximilian Price/CERN

Such a large detector could capture thousands of neutrinos and give insight into how black holes and neutron stars form.

Finally, scientists have not yet seen protons decay, but theory predicts it will happen. Protons are small, positively charged particles that are part of the nucleus of an atom.

Observing proton decay would have implications for Albert Einstein's belief that a single theory could unify all forces in nature.

If the protons decayed, it would take approximately 10 billion trillion trillion years. But Pichai said neutrino detectors can look for different signs of proton decay. “We'll have a chance to see them, if these grand unified theories are true.”

An ambitious project

There are currently several neutrino projects around the world, including the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

What makes DUNE unique is its use of argon and the long distance between the near and far detectors.

A neutrino test detector, ProtoDUNE, was built at CERN. Four similar devices will eventually be placed underground as part of the DUNE project.
Jim Schultz/Fermilab Dion

The project faced some budget and schedule setbacks, American Scientific Reported for 2022. It is supposed to have four argon detectors, but will start with two.

Pichai said the first detector could be operational by the end of 2028, with the second detector to follow next year. These elements will be ready in the event of a supernova explosion, but the beam portion will not be ready until 2031.

However, Pichai believes the project has already achieved one of its biggest achievements, the collaboration of some 1,400 people from 36 countries. “It's a big science,” she said. “It's also a big international flag.”

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