Rare, “ghostly” sun particles found in an underground experiment in Italy

In a surprising discovery, physicists have discovered a rare, ghostly particle that was previously thought to have originated only inside the Sun – but now, even under a mountain in Italy.

Rare particles are called CNO-produced neutrinos. These are sub-atomic particles created by the Sun’s carbon – nitrogen – oxygen cycle – one of two known fusion reactions in the Sun that turn hydrogen into helium. These CNO-produced neutrinos apparently traveled from the Sun to the detector, which was buried under a mountain in Italy.

The discovery of understanding the sun’s fusion processes

Nuclear fusion processes, where hydrogen is converted to helium, are estimated to be behind 99 percent of the Sun’s energy. Apart from the rare CNO cycle, the other fusion reaction process is the more common proton – proton fusion. While both are nuclear fusion processes to bend H to He, they produce a variety of neutrinos – almost pervasive, elusive subatomic particles that pass through most materials at the speed of light.

In CNO, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotopes serve as catalysts, as four proton atoms undergo fusion. It forms an alpha particle, two positrons as well as two neutrinos. Meanwhile, proton – proton reactions occur when the kinetic energy of the protons reaches a point above their mutual electrostatic repulsion.

The discovery of CNO-produced neutrinos is a step towards understanding a nuclear reaction that keeps the sun burning.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Physicists have discovered rare CNO-produced neutrinos through the use of boraxino. Large neutrino detectors sit somewhere below the Gran Sasso Mountains in Italy (pictured).

Physicists will use data from CNO-made neutrinos along with existing proton-proton neutrinos. This comparison will give scientists an idea on the concentration of elements such as CNO – carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in relation to abundant hydrogen.

Subtrainian neutrino detection results have already demonstrated a significance above 5 sigma, with confidence levels exceeding 99%. This translates into a one in 3.5 million probability that the detected signal was from random fluctuations rather than passing through neutrinos produced by actual CNOs. However, the findings are still awaiting peer review as of this writing. Ranuki first presented the results in a virtual avatar of the Neutrino 2020 conference.

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Boraxino observatory

Physicist Giochino Ranucci of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Milan, Italy, shared his discovery in an interview with Live Science. Ranuki said that with the discovery, “Borexino has completely opened up the two processes that power the Sun.”

Ranuki was referring to the Borexino project, a comprehensive experimental setup specifically for particle physics designed to detect and study low-energy solar neutrinos. The 16.9×18 m (55.4×59-ft) detector weighs about 278 tons. It is mostly filled with aromatic liquid that glows in light when electrons in a fluid interact with a neutrino. A brighter flash corresponding to higher energies is thought to primarily indicate the presence of CNO-produced neutrinos.

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Borexino Laboratori sits in Nazioli del Gran Sasso (LNGS). LGNS, established in 1985, is the largest underground center, which lies beneath the Gran Sasso Mountains. Its name is derived from the use of boraxino, borax or boron solar neutrino.

Without the natural shielding introduced by its deep underground space, other signals would easily eject CNO neutrinos, which are still in the sub-Meo category. In addition, Ranucci credited the “unprecedented purity” of the scavenging liquid, improving the ability of boraxino to detect CNO neutrinos.

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