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After Years of Setbacks, Researchers Finally Prepare Underwater Neutrino Telescope in Siberia

Published by Slashdot on Sun, 04 Apr 2021


The New York Times tells the story of the Baikal-Gigaton Volume Detector, the largest neutrino telescope in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the world's biggest underwater space telescopes, now submerged in the world's deepest lake in Siberia. The Times includes a quote from 80-year-old Russian physicist Grigori V. Domogatski, who has actually "led the quest" for this underwater telescope for 40 years. "If you take on a project, you must understand that you have to realize it in any conditions that come up," Dr. Domogatski said, banging on his desk for emphasis. "Otherwise, there's no point in even starting."[T]his hunt for neutrinos from the far reaches of the cosmos, spanning eras in geopolitics and in astrophysics, sheds light on how Russia has managed to preserve some of the scientific prowess that characterized the Soviet Unionas well as the limitations of that legacy... In the 1970s, despite the Cold War, the Americans and the Soviets were working together to plan a first deep water neutrino detector off the coast of Hawaii. But after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Soviets were kicked out of the project. So, in 1980, the Institute for Nuclear Research in Moscow started its own neutrino-telescope effort, led by Dr. Domogatski. The place to try seemed obvious, although it was about 2,500 miles away: Baikal. The project did not get far beyond planning and design before the Soviet Union collapsed, throwing many of the country's scientists into poverty and their efforts into disarray. But an institute outside Berlin, which soon became part of Germany's DESY particle research center, joined the Baikal effort.... By the mid 1990s, the Russian team had managed to identify "atmospheric" neutrinosthose produced by collisions in Earth's atmospherebut not ones arriving from outer space. It would need a bigger detector for that. As Russia started to reinvest in science in the 2000s under President Vladimir V. Putin, Dr. Domogatski managed to secure more than $30 million in funding to build a new Baikal telescope... Construction began in 2015, and a first phase encompassing 2,304 light-detecting orbs suspended in the depths is scheduled to be completed by the time the ice melts in April. (The orbs remain suspended in the water year-round, watching for neutrinos and sending data to the scientists' lakeshore base by underwater cable....) The Baikal telescope looks down, through the entire planet, out the other side, toward the center of our galaxy and beyond, essentially using Earth as a giant sieve. For the most part, larger particles hitting the opposite side of the planet eventually collide with atoms. But almost all neutrinos100 billion of which pass through your fingertip every secondcontinue, essentially, on a straight line. Yet when a neutrino, exceedingly rarely, hits an atomic nucleus in the water, it produces a cone of blue light called Cherenkov radiation. The effect was discovered by the Soviet physicist Pavel A. Cherenkov, one of Dr. Domogatski's former colleagues down the hall at his institute in Moscow. If you spend years monitoring a billion tons of deep water for unimaginably tiny flashes of Cherenkov light, many physicists believe, you will eventually find neutrinos that can be traced back to cosmic conflagrations that emitted them billions of light-years away. The orientation of the blue cones even reveals the precise direction from which the neutrinos that caused them came. Business Insider notes it's run by an international team of researchers from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Slovakiaand according to Russian news agency TASS cost nearly $34 million. 80-year-old Dr. Domogatski tells the Times, "You should never miss the chance to ask nature any question."Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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