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UTA physicists participate in ICARUS neutrino detector installation at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Thursday, August 16, 2018 • Media Contact: Louisa Kellie

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For four years, three laboratories on two continents have prepared the ICARUS particle detector to capture the interactions of mysterious particles called neutrinos at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

On Aug. 14, the ICARUS detector moved into its new Fermilab home, a recently completed building that houses the large, 20-meter-long neutrino hunter. Filled with 760 tons of liquid argon to capture neutrino interactions, it is one of the largest particle detector of its kind in the world.

With this move, ICARUS now sits in the path of Fermilab's neutrino beam, which brings the detector one step closer to taking data.

It's also the final step in an international scientific handoff. From 2010 to 2014, ICARUS operated at the Italian Gran Sasso National Laboratory, run by the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics. Then the detector was sent to the European laboratory CERN. There, it was refurbished for its future life at Fermilab, outside Chicago. In July 2017, ICARUS completed its trans-Atlantic trip to the American laboratory.

“The University of Texas at Arlington joined ICARUS in the fall 2015 while the detector was undergoing refurbishment at CERN in Switzerland, and we are participating in its installation and commissioning at Fermilab,” UTA physics professor Jaehoon Yu said. “We are currently responsible for the data acquisition system and are developing an innovative, intelligent neutrino event triggering system for the ICARUS project.”

Eighty researchers from five countries, including two UTA faculty, two UTA postdoctoral fellows, four UTA doctoral students and several UTA undergraduate students, are working on ICARUS. The collaboration will spend the next year instrumenting and commissioning the detector. They plan to begin taking data in 2019.

“UTA is now a key player in all the principal international physics collaborations: the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS experiment, the International Linear Collider in Japan, DUNE and the Short-Baseline Neutrino experiments like ICARUS at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, and the IceCube experiment at the South Pole,” Yu said.

ICARUS in its new site

What are neutrinos?

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are famously fleeting. They rarely interact with matter: tens of billions of the subatomic particles pass through us every second without a trace. To catch them in the act of interacting, scientists build detectors of considerable size. The more massive the detector, the greater the chance that a neutrino stops inside it, enabling scientists to study the elusive particles.

ICARUS' 760 tons of liquid argon give neutrinos plenty of opportunity to interact. The interaction of a neutrino with an argon atom produces fast-moving charged particles. The charged particles liberate atomic electrons from the argon atoms as they pass by, and these tracks of electrons are drawn to planes of charged wires inside the detector. Scientists study the tracks to learn about the neutrino that kicked everything off.

Fermilab neutrino program

ICARUS is one part of the Fermilab-hosted Short-Baseline Neutrino program, whose aim is to search for a hypothesized but never-observed type of neutrino, known as a sterile neutrino. Scientists know of three neutrino types. The discovery of a fourth could reveal new physics about the evolution of the universe. It also could open an avenue for modeling dark matter, which constitutes 23 percent of the universe's mass.

ICARUS is the second of three Short-Baseline Neutrino detectors to be installed. The first, called MicroBooNE, began operating in 2015 and is currently taking data. The third, called the Short-Baseline Near Detector, is under construction. All use liquid argon.

UTA has participated in all three Short-Baseline Neutrino experiments. Jonathan Asaadi, UTA assistant professor of physics and an expert in experiments involving liquid argon, has contributed in the construction and commissioning of MicroBooNE and leads numerous analyses of the experiment. He also leads the final design and implementation of the trigger system on the Short-Baseline Near Detector.

UTA’s Yu is leading the development of the event triggering system for ICARUS. Many UTA graduate and undergraduate students participate in various aspects of these three experiments, leveraging ample opportunity to work with world-leading physicists in the search of dark matter and of the precision measurements of neutrino properties.

The construction and operation of the three Short-Baseline Neutrino experiments are valuable not just for fundamental research, but also for the development of the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment or DUNE and the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility or LBNF, both hosted by Fermilab.

DUNE Experiment

DUNE will be the largest neutrino oscillation experiment ever built, sending particles 800 miles from Fermilab to Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota. The detector in South Dakota, known as the DUNE far detector, is mammoth: Made of four modules — each as tall and wide as a four-story building and almost as long as a football field — it will be filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon, about 100 times more than ICARUS.

UTA’s Yu just completed building scaled-down prototypes for the aluminum electric field cage for the DUNE experiment. The field cage forms are an important part of the Time Projection Chamber, which captures results when high-energy particles collide with argon atoms. Through these collisions, physicists can study the nature of neutrinos and the dark matter coming from beams and from cosmogenic sources. 

The knowledge and expertise scientists and engineers gain from running the Short-Baseline Neutrino experiments, including ICARUS, will inform the installation and operation of LBNF/DUNE, which is expected to start up in the mid-2020s.

“We consider that the Short-Baseline Neutrino experiments essential components of the overall Fermilab’s neutrino program,” Yu said. “They provide short- and mid-term physics opportunities and are great testing ground in preparation for DUNE, which expects to take data starting in 2026. We see all of these experiments as one coherent effort in understanding the fundamental nature of the universe and are crucial elements for our search of dark matter.”

Last year, UTA had research expenditures of $3.5 million carrying out leading roles in the world’s most prestigious new particle physics experiments in the United States and around the world. Total grants over the next decade are expected to surpass $35 million.