First Light Shines in Instrument Designed to Solve the Neutrino Controversy

February 1, 2017

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Image courtesy of G. Drexlin

Electrons striking the 10-centimeter-diameter, 148-pixel silicon detector at the focal plane of KATRIN. The colors indicate the rate on each pixel. The electrons are produced by a photoelectron source at the other end of the KATRIN system, 70 meters away.

The Science

Neutrinos, elusive elementary particles created in the big bang and in stars such as the sun, have been shown to have mass, an advance recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics. The actual size of the mass remains unknown. A large international experiment, called KATRIN, is under construction in Germany to measure that mass. Nuclear physicists in the United States play a leading scientific role in the experiment. Also, they have contributed instrumentation to the effort.

The Impact

Neutrino mass was predicted by the highly successful Standard Model of Particle Physics to be zero. However, experiments observing neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere and by reactions in the core of the sun show the mass is not zero. This contradiction is a definitive clue to new physics that lies beyond the standard model, probably arising at extremely high energies. If large enough, neutrino mass may play a major role in the formation of the largest clusters of galaxies in the universe. A laboratory measurement of the mass is therefore of great scientific importance.

Summary

The KArlsruhe TRItium Neutrino mass (KATRIN) project can measure neutrino mass by a very careful determination of the electron spectrum emitted by tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. When the tritium nucleus decays, a neutrino and an electron share the energy available. KATRIN begins with a long tube containing flowing tritium gas and surrounded by superconducting magnets. More magnets guide the electrons into a retarding-field analyzer that allows only the most energetic electrons to pass. Those are detected and counted in a multi-pixel silicon detector (see picture). A neutrino mass two million times smaller than the electron mass can be detected by KATRIN. Following commissioning, scientists expect to introduce tritium into KATRIN by the end of 2017 to conduct the first tests. The total measurement time is 5 years to generate a result.

Contact

Hamish Robertson
University of Washington
rghr@uw.edu

Funding

KArlsruhe TRItium Neutrino mass (KATRIN) is supported by the German Helmholtz Association, the German Ministry for Education and Research (05A14VK2 and 05A14PMA), the Helmholtz Alliance for Astroparticle Physics, the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic P203/12/1896, and the U.S. Department of Energy through grants DE-FG02-97ER41020, DE-FG02-94ER40818, DE-SC0004036, DE-FG02-97ER41041, and DE-FG02-97ER41033. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is operated by the Regents of the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy under Federal Prime Agreement DE-AC02-05CH11231

Publications

M. Arenz, et al. (KATRIN Collaboration), "Commissioning of the vacuum system of the KATRIN main spectrometerExternal link." Journal of Instrumentation 11, P04011 (2016). [DOI: 10.1088/1748-0221/11/04/P04011]

Related Links

Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment website: http://www.katrin.kit.edu/External link

Highlight Categories

Program: NP, ASCR

Performer/Facility: University, DOE Laboratory

Additional: Collaborations, International Collaboration