Strange particles coming out of the Earth hint at new physics

It's a discovery that just might change physics forever.

A team recovers NASA's Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) after a successful flight. Credit: Australian Antarctic Division
A team recovers NASA's Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) after a successful flight. Credit: Australian Antarctic Division

Something mysterious coming out of Antartica’s frozen ground and it could potentially break physics as we know it.

According to physicists, it is some sort of cosmic ray, a high-energy particle that’s blasted its way through space, into the Earth, and back out again. But the particles physicists know about — the collection of particles that make up what scientists call the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics — shouldn’t be able to do that.

NASA’s Antarctic Impulse Transient Antenna experiment was built to find exotic particles like neutrinos falling from the sky. Such particles rarely make it past the upper atmosphere, so scientists loft the sensitive electronic equipment into the sky via high-altitude balloon. But when scientists spotted high-energy particles coming from below, that meant those particles must have traveled through the entire earth.

There are low-energy neutrinos that can pierce through miles upon miles of rock unaffected. But high-energy neutrinos, as well as other high-energy particles, have “large cross-sections.” That means that they’ll almost always crash into something soon after zipping into the Earth and never make it out the other side.

A team prepares ANITA for flight over the Antarctic ice. Credit: NASA
A team prepares ANITA for flight over the Antarctic ice.
Credit: NASA

NASA’s flying antenna recognized two separate cases of high-energy particles going through the Earth, which shouldn’t be conceivable. Truth be told, another paper ascertains that if those watched particles were neutrinos, they would each have not as much as a one-in-a-million possibility of making everything the path through the Earth. But then, researchers spotted two of them.

One possible explanation, perhaps the only one that makes sense, is a new type of particle scientists have never seen before. But a new particle means new physics, which is a pretty big deal.

Scientists are now conjecturing about what these new particles could be, endeavoring to fit what little information they need to forecasts of hypothetical exotic particles.

Those scientists will need more detections before they come up with a solid conclusion. For now, we’ll just have to wait for the NASA team in Antarctica to launch their balloon again so we can spot more strange particles coming out of the Earth.