The revolutionary image of the Milky Way just obtained by IceCube

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In the quest to understand and know our universe, mankind has created numerous experiments and facilities on and off Earth to gather information. Although observation is commonly thought of as exclusive to light, there are numerous alternatives that give us a more complete picture. For example, neutrinos, particles of very low mass that reach speeds close to the speed of light. On this occasion, the IceCube experiment has succeeded in producing the first image of the Milky Way without resorting to electromagnetic radiation.

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Composite image of the Milky Way for comparison when observed in visible light and using neutrinos (blue image with diffuse spots). Credits: IceCube.

An elusive particle

The standard model of particle physics is one of the best tools we have for understanding the universe. It stipulates a series of basic building blocks that give rise to all the matter we observe. For example, quarks and gluons are responsible for forming protons and neutrons, which together with electrons make up atoms.. These were studied in large accelerators colliding different particles at high velocities to break it down as much as possible.

It also predicts the existence of the so-called neutrinos, whose precise mass has not been determined, but only reduced to possible values. Their detection is incredibly difficult because of the low interaction with other particles.

Neutrinos can travel enormous distances without being affected by interaction with matter, which is a great advantage over light. Offering the possibility of studying highly energetic events. without losing information through the interstellar medium.

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Artistic recreation of the new IceCube image and the direction it represents in the Milky Way. Credits: IceCube.

Rediscovering the Milky Way

IceCube is a neutrino telescope located at the South Pole. It uses thousands of optical sensors buried and distributed in a cubic kilometer of ice. Its objective is to detect the glow of Cherenkov radiation when residual particles in high-energy neutrino collisions with matter achieve speeds greater than the speed of light in water.

By reconstructing an image from the different IceCube detections, a team of researchers was able to create the first image of the Milky Way using neutrinos instead of electromagnetic radiation. Which is expected to be considerably similar to when observed in gamma rays. Where highly energetic events such as the deaths of massive stars emit large amounts of both.

One of the biggest challenges was to filter out the noise and get a clean signal over our galaxy.. This is only possible thanks to recent advances in technology, allowing the use of very high sensitivity sensors.

Opening the doors to new astronomy

Despite their challenging detection, neutrinos are proposed as an incredible means to learn more about astrophysical processes that may occur in our galaxy, but have been hidden until now. They also have the enormous potential to show us the instants after the beginning of the universe, long before the first light that makes up the microwave background escaped.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza