Article title: The ANITA Anomalous Events as Signatures of a Beyond Standard Model Particle and Supporting Observations from IceCube
Authors: Derek B. Fox, Steinn Sigurdsson, Sarah Shandera, Peter Mészáros, Kohta Murase, Miguel Mostafá, and Stephane Coutu
Neutrinos have arguably made history for being nothing other than controversial. In fact from their very inception, their proposal by Wolfgang Pauli was described in his own words as “something no theorist should ever do”. Years on, as we established the role that neutrinos played in the processes of our sun, it was then discovered that it simply wasn’t providing enough of them. In the end the only option was to concede that neutrinos were more complicated than we ever thought, opening up a new area of study of ‘flavor oscillations’ with the consequence that they may in fact possess a small, non-zero mass – to this day yet to be explained.
On a more recent note, neutrinos have sneakily raised eyebrows with a number of other interesting anomalies. The OPERA collaboration, founded between CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and Gran Sasso, Italy, made international news with reports that their speeds exceeded the speed of light. Such an observation would certainly shatter the very foundations of modern physics and so was met with plenty of healthy skepticism. Alas it was eventually traced back to a faulty timing cable and all was right with the world again. However this has not been the last time that neutrinos have been involved in another controversial anomaly.
The NASA-involved Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) is an experiment designed to search for very, very energetic neutrinos originating from outer space. As the name also suggests, the experiment consists of a series of radio antennae contained in a balloon floating above the southern Antarctic ice. Very energetic neutrinos can in fact produce intense radio wave signals when they pass through the Earth and scatter off atoms in the Antarctic ice. This may sound strange, as neutrinos are typically referred to as ‘elusive’, however at incredibly high energies their probability of scattering increases dramatically – to the point where the Earth is ‘opaque’ to these neutrinos.
ANITA typically searches for the electromagnetic components of cosmic rays in the atmosphere, reflecting off the ice surface and subsequently inverting the phase of the radio wave. Alternatively, a small number of events can occur in the direction of the horizon, without reflecting off the ice and hence not inverting the waveform. However, physicists were surprised to find signals originating from below the ice, without phase inversion, in a direction much too steep to originate from the horizon.
Why is this a surprise you may ask? Well any particle present in the SM at these energies would have trouble traversing such a long distance throughout the Earth, measured in one of the observations with a chord length of 5700 km, whereas a neutrino would be expected to only survive a few hundred km. Such events would be expected to be mainly involving (tau neutrinos), since these have the potential to convert to a charged tau lepton shortly before arriving and hadronising into an air shower, which is simply not possible for electrons or muons which are absorbed by the ice in a much smaller distance. But even in the case of tau neutrinos, the probability of such an event occuring with the observed trajectory is very small (below one in a million), leading physicists to explore more exotic (and exciting) options.
A simple possibility is that the ultra-high energy neutrinos coming from space could interact within the Earth to produce a BSM (Beyond Standard Model) particle that passes through the Earth until it exits and decays back to an SM lepton and then hadronizes in a shower of particles. Such a situation is shown in Figure 1, where the BSM particle comes from the well-known and popular supersymmetric SM extension, known as the stau slepton .
In some popular supersymmetric extensions to the Standard Model, the stau slepton is typically the next-to-lightest supersymmetric particle (or NLSP) and can in fact be quite long-lived. In the presence of a nucleus, the stau may convert to the tau lepton and the LSP, which is typically the neutralino. In the paper titled above, the stau NLSP can exist within the Gauge-Mediated Supersymmetry Breaking Model (GMSB) and can be produced through ultra-high energy neutrino interactions with nucleons with a not-so-tiny branching ratio of . Of course the tension still remains for the direct observation of staus that can fit resonably within this scenario, but the prospects of observing effects of BSM physics without the efforts of expensive colliders.
But the attempts at new physics explanations don’t end there. There are some ideas that involve the decays of very heavy dark matter candidates in the galactic Milky-Way center. In a similar vein, another possibility comes form the well-motivated sterile neutrino – a BSM candidate to explain the small, non-zero mass of the neutrino. There are a number of explanations for a large flux of sterile neutrinos throughout the Earth, however the rate at which they interact with the Earth is much more suppressed than the light “active” neutrinos. It could be then hoped that they would make their passage to the ANITA detector after converting back to a tau lepton.
Anomalies like these come and go, however in any case, physicists remain interested in alternate pathways to new physics – or even a motivation to search in a more specific region with collider technology. But collecting more data first always helps!
References and further reading:
- Stau Sleptons: The Bizarre Particles Blasting Out Of Antarctica And Changing The Face Of Modern Physics, https://www.evolving-science.com/space/bizarre-particles-blasting-antarctica-00792.
- Oddball particles tunneling through Earth could point to new physics, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/09/oddball-particles-tunneling-through-earth-could-point-new-physics.
- Can the ANITA anomalous events be due to new physics?, https://arxiv.org/abs/1904.13396.