Four billion years ago, an immense galaxy with a black hole at its heart spewed forth a jet of particles at nearly the speed of light. One of those particles, a neutrino that is just a fraction of the size of a regular atom, traversed across the universe on a collision course for Earth, finally striking the ice sheet of Antarctica last September. Coincidentally, a neutrino detector planted by scientists within the ice recorded the neutrino’s charged interaction with the ice, which resulted in a blue flash of light lasting just a moment. The results are published today in the journal Science.

This detection marks the second time in history that scientists have pinpointed the origins of a neutrino from outside of our solar system. And it’s the first time they’ve confirmed that neutrinos are created in the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies — a somewhat unexpected source.

Neutrinos are highly energetic particles that rarely ever interact with matter, passing through it as though it weren’t even there. Determining the type of cosmological events that create these particles is critical for understanding the nature of the universe. But the only confirmed source of neutrinos, other than our Sun, is a supernova that was recorded in 1987.

Physicists have a number of theories about what sort of astronomical events may create neutrinos, with some suggesting that blazars could be a source. Blazars are massive galaxies with black holes at their center, trying to suck in too much matter at once, causing jets of particles to be ejected outward at incredible speeds. Acting like the giant counterparts to terrestrial particle accelerators, blazar jets are believed to produce cosmic rays that can in turn create neutrinos.



Want to know more about blazars? We've got you covered — Blazars explained: What is it like to stare down the barrel of a black hole?

“This [detection] in particular is a chance of nature,” says Darren Grant, a lead scientist of the team that first discovered the high-energy neutrino, as part of the neutrino detection project IceCube. “There’s a blazar there that just happened to turn on at the right time and we happened to capture it. It’s one of those eureka moments. You hope to experience those a few times in your career and this was one of them, where everything aligned.”

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A cosmic particle spewed from a distant galaxy strikes Earth. This rare detection of a high-energy neutrino hints at how these strange particles are created.