From CERN Courier for FNAL: “MINOS squeezes sterile neutrino’s hiding ground”

From CERN Courier

Null result

Newly published results from the MINOS+ experiment at Fermilab in the US cast fresh doubts on the existence of the sterile neutrino – a hypothetical fourth neutrino flavour that would constitute physics beyond the Standard Model. MINOS+ studies how muon neutrinos oscillate into other neutrino flavours as a function of distance travelled, using magnetised-iron detectors located 1 and 735 km downstream from a neutrino beam produced at Fermilab.

Neutrino oscillations, predicted more than 60 years ago, and finally confirmed in 1998, explain the observed transmutation of neutrinos from one flavour to another as they travel. Tantalising hints of new-physics effects in short-baseline accelerator-neutrino experiments have persisted since 1995, when the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector (LSND) at Los Alamos National Laboratory reported an 88±23 excess in the number of electron antineutrinos emerging from a muon–antineutrino beam.

LSND experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Virginia Tech

This suggested that muon antineutrinos were oscillating into electron antineutrinos along the way, but not in the way expected if there are only three neutrino flavours.

The plot thickened in 2007 when another Fermilab experiment, MiniBooNE, an 818 tonne mineral-oil Cherenkov detector located 541 m downstream from Fermilab’s Booster neutrino beamline, began to see a similar effect.


The excess grew, and last November the MiniBooNE collaboration reported a 4.5σ deviation from the predicted event rate for the appearance of electron neutrinos in a muon neutrino beam. In the meantime, theoretical revisions in 2011 meant that measurements of neutrinos from nuclear reactors also show deviations suggestive of sterile-neutrino interference: the so-called “reactor anomaly”.

Tensions have been running high. The latest results from MINOS+, first reported in 2017 and recently accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters, fail to confirm the MiniBooNE signal. The MINOS+ results are also consistent with those from a comparable analysis of atmospheric neutrinos in 2016 by the IceCube detector at the South Pole.

U Wisconsin ICECUBE neutrino detector at the South Pole

“LSND, MiniBooNE and the reactor data are fairly compatible when interpreted in terms of sterile neutrinos, but they are in stark conflict with the null results from MINOS+ and IceCube,” says theorist Joachim Kopp of CERN. “It might be possible to come up with a model that allows compatibility, but the simplest sterile neutrino models do not allow this.” In late February, the long-baseline T2K experiment in Japan joined the chorus of negative searches for the sterile neutrino, although excluding a different region of parameter space.

T2K Experiment, Tokai to Kamioka, Japan

T2K Experiment, Tokai to Kamioka, Japan

Whereas MiniBooNE and LSND sought to observe a second-order flavour transition (in which a muon neutrino morphs into a sterile and then electron neutrino), MINOS+ and IceCube are sensitive to a first-order muon-to-sterile transition that would reduce the expected flux of muon neutrinos. Such “disappearance” experiments are potentially more sensitive to sterile neutrinos, provided systematic errors are carefully modelled.

“The MiniBooNE observations interpreted as a pure sterile neutrino oscillation signal are incompatible with the muon-neutrino disappearance data,” says MINOS+ spokesperson Jenny Thomas of University College London. “In the event that the most likely MiniBooNE signal were due to a sterile neutrino, the signal would be unmissable in the MINOS/MINOS+ neutral-current and charged-current data sets.” Taking into account simple unitarity arguments, adds Thomas, the latest MINOS+ analysis is incompatible with the MiniBooNE result at the 2σ level and at 3σ sigma below a “mass-splitting” of 1 eV2 (see figure 1).

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