Highest-energy Cosmic Rays Detected in Star Clusters
For decades, researchers assumed the cosmic rays that regularly bombard Earth from the far reaches of the galaxy are born when stars go supernova — when they grow too massive to support the fusion occurring at their cores and explode.
Those gigantic explosions do indeed propel atomic particles at the speed of light great distances. However, new research suggests even supernovae — capable of devouring entire solar systems — are not strong enough to imbue particles with the sustained energies needed to reach petaelectronvolts (PeVs), the amount of kinetic energy attained by very high-energy cosmic rays.
And yet cosmic rays have been observed striking Earth’s atmosphere at exactly those velocities, their passage marked, for example, by the detection tanks at the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) observatory near Puebla, Mexico. Instead of supernovae, the researchers — including UW–Madison’s Ke Fang — posit that star clusters like the Cygnus Cocoon serve as PeVatrons — PeV accelerators — capable of moving particles across the galaxy at such high energy rates.
IceCube detection of a high-energy particle proves 60-year-old theory
On Dec. 8, 2016, a high-energy particle hurtled to Earth from outer space at close to the speed of light. The particle, an electron antineutrino, smashed into an electron deep inside the ice sheet at the South Pole. This collision produced a particle that quickly decayed into a shower of secondary particles, triggering the sensors of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a massive telescope buried in the Antarctic glacier.
IceCube had seen a Glashow resonance event, a phenomenon predicted by Nobel laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow in 1960. With this detection, scientists provided another confirmation of the Standard Model of particle physics. It also further demonstrated the ability of IceCube, which detects nearly massless particles called neutrinos using thousands of sensors embedded in the Antarctic ice, to do fundamental physics. The result was published March 10 in Nature.
When you think of scientific meccas throughout the world, Madison, Wisconsin might not be the first place that comes to mind. But for astroparticle physicist Ke Fang, Madison is the place to be. That’s because it’s home to the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC): the “leader of particle astrophysics in the world,” according to Fang. “Throughout the years, there have been all kinds of meetings and workshops that drive people in this field to Madison because it’s the center for particle astrophysics,” she says.
Originally from Huangshan, China, Fang earned a B.S. in physics from the University of Science and Technology of China. Afterward, Fang moved to the United States for graduate school and earned her PhD in astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 2015. Following that, she went to the University of Maryland and the Goddard Space Flight Center for a Joint Space-Science Institute fellowship. Most recently, Fang was a NASA Einstein Fellow at Stanford University in California.
Now, Fang has joined WIPAC and the UW–Madison Physics Department as an assistant professor. To welcome Fang and learn more about her, we met up on—where else?—Zoom for an interview.
Can you summarize your research?
I use both experiments and theory to understand extreme activities of our universe. We receive multiple types of messengers from the universe—all the way from optical light to gamma rays, cosmic rays, neutrinos, and gravitational waves. These messengers can be emitted by a common source, such as a binary neutron star merger. Specifically, I use theoretical models to understand how these astrophysical events produce different messengers, whether theoretical models explain the data, and how the data compare with theoretical models. I also use the HAWC Observatory, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, and the Fermi Large Area Telescope (Fermi-LAT) to observe or to find sources directly. For example, I jointly analyze the Fermi-LAT and HAWC data to observe gamma-ray sources from 0.1 GeV to 100 TeV—across six orders of magnitude. Studies using multiple messengers and wavelengths are rewarding because they help us get a full picture of what these astrophysical sources look like.
How did you get into your field of research?
When I started graduate school, high-energy astrophysics was rather new; it’s a field that has quickly grown in the past decade or so. High-energy astrophysics traditionally refers to astrophysics with X-ray observations, because X-rays are higher in energy compared to the optical band that astronomers traditionally use. But in the last few years, high-energy astrophysics has had another burst of delving into even higher energies. When we move up in energy, by millions or billions, we see many new sources that were previously not observable in the X-ray band, or different aspects of sources that were previously seen at lower energies. And there are so many unknowns in this field; we can see surprising things at the highest energies, and many of those observations are discoveries. I think that’s really intriguing.
What attracted you to UW–Madison and WIPAC?
I think it’s pretty fair to say that WIPAC—with IceCube, CTA, HAWC, Fermi-LAT, ARA, and IceCube-Gen2—is now the leader of particle astrophysics in the world. I think there’s a close match between my expertise and what is currently being done at WIPAC, and I’m excited about joining the department and joining these explorations of higher and higher energy neutrinos and gamma rays.
What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
The content you learn from a class is limited, but the contexts where you could apply the knowledge are unlimited.
What is your favorite particle?
Neutrino. If I have to pick one, neutrino is the one that I have in my heart.
What hobbies/other interests do you have?
Cooking! I like to explore different things. I come from China, so Chinese cuisine is what I started from when I just moved to the United States. But after all these years, I’m getting more exposed to different types of cuisines and starting to explore more, like with Thai and Italian. When I go to nice restaurants, I try to remember the name of the dish and find the recipe online.
Welcome, Professor Lu Lu!
New UW–Madison assistant professor of physics Lu Lu’s research program combines the past with the future. Her research looks for sources of ultrahigh energy particles, which is done by analyzing data that has already been collected. As she says, “Maybe data is already talking to us, we just haven’t looked.” But she is also working toward improving future data collection, which will require more technologically-advanced detectors. “My teachers, my great masters, have taught me that the current young generation has the responsibility to look into new techniques to go to the future for younger generations to proceed forward,” she says about her work in sensor R&D.
On January 1, Professor Lu joined the Department of Physics and IceCube. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the International Center for Hadron Astrophysics at Chiba University in Japan. To welcome her, we sat down for a (virtual) interview.
What are your research interests?
My prime interest is astroparticle physics, and my ultimate goal is to find the sources of the highest energy particles in the universe. These particles carry energy of about 1020 electronvolts. This is higher energy than what we have from the Large Hadron Collider and human technologies. The real attractiveness here is we don’t know how nature accelerates these particles. And once we identify the sources, we can test new theories beyond the Standard Model using sources crated by nature.
What are one or two main projects you focus your research on?
I’m involved in two experiments. One is IceCube, the other is Pierre Auger Observatory. I was doing cosmic ray analysis, but cosmic rays are usually charged particles and they are deflected in the magnetic field of the galaxy; they would not travel in a straight line. IceCube studies neutrinos which are neutral particles, they travel directly from the source. Pierre Auger detects ultrahigh energy photons, which are also neutral particles. One thing I want to do immediately after I join Madison is to combine these two experiments to do a joint analysis. We have photon candidates but we haven’t really tried to connect them in the multimessenger regime. By combining Pierre Auger photons with IceCube neutrinos, we could possibly find a transient source, a source that doesn’t constantly emit ultrahigh energy photons or neutrinos but all of a sudden there’s a flare. This type of analysis has never been done, but we have data on disks.
The second thing I’m interested in is using new sensor technologies. In IceCube, we have Gen2 being planned right now. Instead of using a single photon sensor, we’d use a more sensitive design and R&D. UW–Madison is taking the lead of designing this future detector. There’s also radio technology. So, to detect the highest energy neutrinos we need to build a large instrument volume. With optical array, it is really hard to scale up because one has to drill holes inside the South Pole, which is really expensive. But radio technology doesn’t have to go so deep, so they can bury their detectors on the surface areas, and the radiowaves can transmit further away than the optical photons in ice. For optical you have to make the detectors very dense, but for radio you can make the antennas further apart, so that means you can have a larger area and detect more events easily. I think radio is the way to go for the future.
You said you have a lot of data collected already and just need to analyze it. How do you analyze the data from these detectors?
We would have to search for photon candidates from the data from Auger, and identify where it comes from and what the time this event happened. Correspondingly, do we see neutrinos from IceCube coming from the same direction and at the same time? Because you can never be sure it’s a photon. It could be a proton. We then want to build a statistical framework to combine different multimessengers together in real time.
What does it mean if you find a photon in coincidence with a neutrino?
Cosmic rays were first detected more than 100 years ago, and there’s a rich history of studying where they come from. The mystery of origins still remains today because our poor knowledge on the galactic/extragalactic magnetic fields and mass composition of cosmic rays. In my opinion, the most probable way to solve this puzzle is to use neutral particles. If we can identify ultrahigh energy photons in coincidence with neutrinos, that is a smoking gun that we are actually looking at a source and we can finally pin down where in the universe is accelerating high energy particles. And therefore, we can study particle physics maybe beyond Standard Model. It’s just like a lab created by the universe to test particle physics.
What is your favorite element and/or elementary particle?
My favorite elementary particle is the electron anti-neutrino. I like muons, too. My favorite element is hydrogen.
What hobbies and interests do you have?
I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you because my hobby is related to my research: Augmented reality. When I heard about something called Microsoft Hololens, I thought, I could make IceCube a hologram. I bought these special glasses, and then made a program on it and used it for some outreach events. But the glasses are very expensive, so people said, “Okay we can’t buy hologram glasses.” So I moved it to mobile phones so that everyone could look at it for fun. It’s called IceCubeAR (note: download it for iPhones or Android phones). I made it with a group of friends in Tokyo.
IceCube Collaboration awarded 2021 Rossi Prize
The 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize was awarded to Francis Halzen and the IceCube Collaboration “for the discovery of a high-energy neutrino flux of astrophysical origin.”
The Bruno Rossi Prize is awarded annually by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society. The 2021 HEAD awards were announced last night at the 237th AAS Meeting, which is being held virtually. Named after Italian experimental physicist Bruno Rossi—who made major contributions to particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, launched the field of X-ray astronomy, and discovered the first X-ray source, SCO X-1—the Rossi Prize is awarded “for a significant contribution to High Energy Astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent, original work.”
The IceCube Collaboration is made up of over 300 researchers from 12 institutions in 53 countries. Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is the principal investigator of IceCube. The international group maintains and operates the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic kilometer of ice at the South Pole instrumented with optical sensors that can detect signals from high-energy neutrinos from outer space.