KATRIN experiment readies for quest to find neutrino’s mass

spectrometer of KATRIN neutrino experiment

MINI MASSES  KATRIN’s spectrometer, shown here, will precisely measure the energy of electrons emitted in the decay of tritium, which will help scientists pin down the minuscule mass of neutrinos.

KATRIN Collaboration

Scientists may soon find out how tiny neutrinos really are. On October 14, scientists switched on the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino experiment, or KATRIN, located at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, which aims to measure the mass of the petite particles for the first time.

KATRIN will study neutrinos, which are less than a millionth the mass of an electron, by sifting through the aftermath of radioactive decays of tritium, an isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons. Tritium decays into helium-3, emitting a neutrino and an electron in the process. Because neutrinos are hard to detect, scientists measure the energy of the electrons emitted and use that information to deduce the neutrino mass.

KATRIN has begun taking test data, but the experiment is not yet filled with the radioactive tritium gas necessary to collect data for analysis. “This was a big milestone because it means that all the other systems are up and ready to go, and we’re taking data,” says KATRIN member Joseph Formaggio of MIT. Official data taking should begin in 2017.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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