Black holes fascinate us. We easily conjure up images of them swallowing spaceships, but we know very little about these strange objects. In fact, we’ve never even seen a black hole form. Scientists on neutrino experiments such as the upcoming Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment hope to change that.
“You’ve got to be a bit lucky,” says Mark Thomson, DUNE co-spokesperson. “But it would be one of the major discoveries in science. It would be absolutely incredible.”
Black holes are sometimes born when a massive star, typically more than eight times the mass of our own sun, collapses. But there are a lot of questions about what exactly happens during the process: How often do these collapsing stars give rise to black holes? When in the collapse does the black hole actually develop?
What scientists do know is that deep in the dense core of the star, protons and electrons are squeezed together to form neutrons, sending ghostly particles called neutrinos streaming out. Matter falls inward. In the textbook case, matter rebounds and erupts, leaving a neutron star. But sometimes, the supernova fails, and there’s no explosion; instead, a black hole is born.
DUNE’s gigantic detectors, filled with liquid argon, will sit a mile below the surface in a repurposed goldmine. While much of their time will be spent looking for neutrinos sent from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory 800 miles away, the detectors will also have the rare ability to pick up a core collapse in our Milky Way galaxy — whether or not that leads to a new black hole.