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Icarus Experiment Gains Momentum
July 29, 2011   
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A group of 20 Polish scientists are taking part in the international Icarus experiment being conducted in the world’s largest underground physics laboratory, in Gran Sasso, Italy.

The project gained momentum after a new detector—the Icarus T600—was officially launched as part of the experiment March 29.

The laboratory containing the detector, Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS), is located in a 10-kilometer highway tunnel about 1,000 meters above sea level.

The Icarus T600 detector is filled with 600 metric tons of liquid argon. It was built in collaboration with 70 physicists led by Prof. Carlo Rubbia, winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics.

A group of 20 Polish physicists—hailing from the Institute of Physics at the University of Silesia in Katowice; the Henryk Niewodniczański Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Cracow; the Andrzej Sołtan Institute for Nuclear Studies in ¦wierk near Warsaw; the Institute of Radioelectronics at the Warsaw University of Technology; and the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Wrocław—have been involved in the Icarus experiment for more than a decade.

The experiment has provided interesting data on neutrinos, the researchers say.

Neutrinos are elementary particles with a negligible mass (compared with the mass of other known elementary particles), without an electric charge and moving nearly at the speed of light.

The nature of neutrinos is not fully understood despite the fact that they are everywhere. Because of the extremely low probability of interaction of neutrinos with matter, neutrino detectors like the Icarus must have a huge mass of hundreds or even thousands of tons. They must also work far beneath the surface of the Earth—inside mountains or in mines, to prevent rare interaction of neutrinos with the detector material being disrupted by the frequent impact of cosmic radiation particles on the surface of the Earth.

The detectors have been in operation for many months, but no more than several hundred neutrino interactions have been observed during that time. Even this small number, however, has made it possible to make an important discovery involving the oscillation of neutrinos, i.e. one type of neutrino changing into another, for example an electron neutrino being transformed into a muon/taon neutrino while moving from the inside of the Sun to its surface.

By examining neutrinos on Earth, researchers can study processes occurring deep inside stars.

In addition to neutrinos originating from natural sources, researchers can also study neutrinos generated by nuclear power reactors and the so-called neutrino beams, which are produced by particle accelerators that accelerate particles to high energies.

A laboratory in Geneva produces such beams of neutrinos and sends them to the Gran Sasso laboratory. Neutrinos travel 732 km beneath the surface virtually undisturbed and reach the Icarus detector.
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