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NeuTel 09: Oscar Blanch Bigas, update on Auger limits on the diffuse flux of neutrinos April 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, cosmology, news, physics, science.
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With this post I continue the series of short reports on the talks I heard at the Neutrino Telescopes 2009 conference, held three weeks ago in Venice.

The Pierre Auger Observatory is a huge (3000 km^2) hybrid detector of ultra-energetic cosmic rays -that means ones having an energy above 10^18 eV. The detector is located in Malargue, Argentina, at 1400m above sea level.

There are four six-eyed fluorescent detectors: when the shower of particles created by a very energetic primary cosmic ray develops in the atmosphere, it excites nitrogen atoms which emit energy in fluorescent light, collected in telescope. It is a calorimetric measurement of the shower, since the number of particles in the shower gives a measurement of the energy of the incident primary particle.

The main problem of the fluorescent detection method is statistics: fluorescent detectors have a reduced duty cycle because they can only observe in moonless nights. That amounts to a 10% duty cycle. So these are complemented by a surface detector, which has a 100% duty cycle.

The surface detector is composed by water Cherenkov detectors on the ground, which can detect light with PMT tubes. The signal is sampled as a function of distance from the center of shower. The measurement depends on a Monte Carlo simulation, so there are some systematic uncertainties present in the method.

The assembly includes 1600 surface detectors (red points), surrounded by four fluorescence detectors (shown by green lines in the map above). These study the high-energy cosmics, their spectra, their arrival direction, and their composition. The detector has some sensitivity to unidentified ultra-high energy neutrinos. A standard cosmic ray interacts at the top of atmosphere, and yields an extensive air shower which has an electromagnetic component developing on the ground; but if the arrival direction of the primary is tilted with respect to the vertical, the e.m. component is absorbed when it arrives on the ground, so it contains only muons. For neutrinos, which can penetrate deep in the atmosphere before interacting, the shower will instead have a significant e.m. component regardless of the angle of incidence.

The “footprint” is the pattern of firing detectors on the ground. It encodes information on the angle of incidence. For tilted showers, the presence of an e.m. component is strong indication of neutrino shower. An elongated footprint and a wide time structure of signal is seen for tilted showers.

There is a second method to detect neutrinos. This is based on the so-called “skimming neutrinos“: the Earth-skimming mechanism occurs when neutrinos interact in the Earth, producing a charged lepton via charged current interaction. The lepton produces a shower that can be detected above the ground. This channel has better sensitivity than neutrinos interacting in the atmosphere. It can be used for tau neutrinos, due to early tau decay in the atmosphere. The distance of interaction for a muon neutrino is 500 km, for a tau neutrino is 50 km. for electrons it is 10 km. These figures apply to 1 EeV primaries. If you are unfamiliar with these ultra-high energies, 1 Eev = 1000 PeV = 1,000,000 TeV: this is roughly equivalent to the energy drawn in a second by a handful of LEDs.

Showers induced by emerging tau leptons start close to the detector, and are very inclined. So one asks for an elongated footprint, and a shower moving at the speed of light using the available timing information. The background to such a signature is of the order of one event every 10 years. The most important drawback of Earth-skimming neutrinos is the large systematic uncertainty associated with the measurement.

Ideally, one would like to produce a neutrino spectrum or an energy-dependent limit on the flux, but no energy reconstruction is available. Observed energy depends on the height at which the shower is developing, and since this is not known for penetrating particles as neutrinos, one can only give a flux limit for them. The limit is in the range of energy where GZK neutrinos should peak, but its value is an order of magnitude above the expected flux of GZK neutrinos. A differential limit in energy is much worse in reach.

The figure below shows the result for the integrated flux of neutrinos obtained by the Pierre Auger observatory in 2008 (red line), compared with other limits and with expectations for GKZ neutrinos.