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Star Gazing

By Jason Major

The NUmI (Neutrinos from the Main Injector) horn at Fermilab, which fires protons that degrade into neutrinos. (Image: Caltech)

Looking down the barrel of the NuMI (Neutrinos from the Main Injector) horn at Fermilab, which fires protons that degrade into neutrinos. (Image: Caltech)

Neutrinos are some of the most abundant, curious, and elusive critters in particle physics. Incredibly lightweight — nigh massless, according to the Standard Model — as well as chargeless, they zip around the Universe at the speed of light and they don’t interact with any other particles. Some of them have been around since the Big Bang and, just as you’ve read this, trillions of them have passed through your body (and more are on the way.) But despite their ubiquitousness neutrinos are notoriously difficult to study precisely because they ignore pretty much everything made out of anything else. So it’s not surprising that weighing a neutrino isn’t as simple as politely asking one to step on a scale.

Thankfully particle physicists are a tenacious lot, including the ones at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab, and they aren’t giving up on their latest neutrino safari: the NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance experiment, or NOvA. (Scientists represent neutrinos with the Greek letter nu, or v.) It’s a very small-game hunt to catch neutrinos on the fly, and it uses some very big equipment to do the job. And it’s already captured its first neutrinos — even before their setup is fully complete.

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