Map captures Earth’s antineutrino glow

Planet’s crust, nuclear reactors are hot spots in newly released image

map of antineutrino emissions

ANTINEUTRINO RAINBOW  A global map of antineutrino emissions illustrates that many of the wispy particles are released from Earth’s crust and nuclear reactors.

S.M. Usman, G.R. Jocher, S.T. Dye, W.F. McDonough, J.G. Learned, Adapted By S. Egts 

Each second, more than 10 septillion (1025) antineutrinos race away from Earth and into space. That’s 100 trillion times as many antineutrinos as stars in the galaxy. But who’s counting?

Leave that to particle physicist Shawn Usman of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Va. In September in Scientific Reports, he and colleagues published the first global map of antineutrinos, harmless subatomic particles (and the antimatter cousins of neutrinos) born when radioactive elements break down. That decay happens within the planet’s crust and mantle and in nuclear reactors.

Usman’s team pieced together data, including measurements from detectors in Italy and Japan, to build a Technicolor map of antineutrino abundance. Dark reds flag hot spots; blues mark areas where antineutrinos are less bountiful.

The map could help scientists nail down the driver of Earth’s internal heating system, which fuels plate tectonics and volcanoes. Just how much heat comes from radioactive energy in the planet is still up for debate, Usman says. His team’s map might offer researchers a clearer picture. And it will certainly be more colorful. 

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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