• 01 Overview
  • 02 HALO Science Highlights
  • 03 How It Works
  • 04 TRIUMF and HALO

01 Overview

HALO (the Helium and Lead Observatory) is one of the most patient experiments on Earth, poised to detect neutrinos from an exploding star.  

The experiment is one of five TRIUMF-SNOLAB collaborations, involving some of the world’s most advanced experiments in neutrino science (SNO+, nEXO), and dark matter detection (DEAP-3600, SuperCDMS). SNOLAB is the deepest underground laboratory in North America, based two skilometers under Sudbury, Ontario in order to shield experiments from cosmic ray background. 

When a massive star explodes as a supernova it first collapses on itself and 99% of the energy of the collapse is radiated away in neutrinos. The neutrinos escape within seconds because they interact so weakly with other matter that a wall of lead 400 light-years thick would be needed to block a neutrino’s free passage. However, since photons interact strongly with matter, the light produced in the explosion is contained for hours until the dying star expands and becomes less dense at which point light escapes.  

Thus, by detecting supernova neutrinos HALO would make a direct observation of the nuclear physics occuring in a supernova’s core and provide an early warning signal enabling astronomers to observe the dying star’s entire visible sequence.  

HALO is a member of the international SuperNova Early Warning System (SNEWS), which also includes neutrino detectors in China, Japan, Antarctica, and Italy. It’s estimated that a supernova occurs in the Milky Way once every 30 to 50 years; the last one occurred in 1987 and its neutrino flux lasted about ten seconds.  

The HALO detector is a rare case of a cosmic particle detector built primarily from re-used materials. The lead used in HALO is from a decommissioned Canadian cosmic ray detector and its helium-3 (3He) gas detectors are repurposed from the 2015 Nobel Prize-winning Sudbury Neutrino Observatory experiment 

02 HALO Science Highlights

HALO development

HALO development: The HALO supernova neutrino detector in SNOLAB is unique among neutrino detectors in that it is primarily sensitive to electron-type neutrinos, rather than electron-type antineutrinos.  As such, it has an important role to play in understanding the neutrino flavour content of the neutrino burst from the next galactic core-collapse supernova. The period 2013-2018 had several highlights for HALO:
  1. The completion of the construction of the HALO detector and its water shielding
  2. The calibration of the detector with a neutron source inserted at multiple locations within the lead matrix
  3. HALO joining the international SuperNova Early Warning System (SNEWS) in October 2015
The HALO collaboration has recently expanded to become the HALO-1kT collaboration, to include new collaborators from the USA and Italy. The collaboration is currently designing a much larger detector, using the 1000 tonnes of lead from the decommissioned OPERA detector at the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy, and making plans to measure the neutrino-lead cross section at the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee. TRIUMF's role in the construction of the detector: TRIUMF's electronics shop fabricated the electrical cables that supply the neutron detectors with high voltage, and carry the signals from the neutron detectors to the amplifiers and then onto the data acquisition computers. TRIUMF's machine shop built the test stand that was used to test the neutron detectors one by one before installation inside the lead matrix of HALO. A substantial part of the manpower for design and assembly of the detector was supplied by TRIUMF. TRIUMF's role in the calibration of the detector: The neutron detectors count the number of neutrons emitted when supernova neutrinos hit the mass of lead. But not all neutrons are counted; some are absorbed by the lead itself, and others escape out the surface of the lead mass. To relate the number of neutrinos arriving from the supernova to the number of neutrons counted, it is necessary to know the efficiency with which neutrons are counted.  We do this by inserted a radioactive source that injects a known number of neutrons at various locations in the lead matrix, and compare this with the number of neutrons that are counted).

03 How It Works

HALO is analogous to a massive Geiger counter, detecting the neutrons ejected from lead nuclei as the result of collisions with neutrinos from a nearby supernova.  

The detector has two core parts: 79 tons of lead; and 3He neutron detectors. 

The lead is in the form of 864 hollow, ring-shaped blocks, each weighing about 82 kg, arranged in stacks of 32 three-meter long columns. Inside each of the lead columns are four, three-meter long nickel tube 3He-filled detectors, each wrapped in a thin polyethylene liner. The 3He detectors are made from special purified, low-radioactivity nickel and filled with gaseous 3He. The entire lead-3He structure is surrounded in a bath of 30 cm-thick water to shield HALO from background environmental neutrons. 

Lead has a very high neutrino cross section, or probability that a nearby neutrino will interact with a neutron in the lead nucleus. During a neutrino flux from a supernova, a miniscule fraction of the trillions of neutrinos that pass-through HALO will make a direct hit on a neutron in the detector’s lead nuclei. The energized neutrons will ricochet, pinball-like within the lead and those that escape it will first hit the polyethylene liner around the 3He detectors. The polyethylene is a neutron moderator, slowing the neutrons to room-temperature (also known as thermal or slow neutrons), enabling them to collide with 3He atoms and trigger a Geiger counter-like electrical signal. It’s estimated that a supernova detection would produce several dozen such signals. 


From its inception, in collaboration with Laurentian University, TRIUMF has provided a combination of scientific and technical expertise for HALO’s design, construction and operation. 

This includes TRIUMF’s design of a fail-safe data acquisition electronics system. Since a supernova’s neutrino signature only lasts 10-20 seconds and only occurs about every half-century, it’s essential that HALO operate 100% of the time. The fail-safe system divides HALO into two separately powered halves so that if one fails the other is still operational. Similarly, HALO has a dual computer system designed so that if the operating one fails, data is immediately routed to the second, waiting computer. A TRIUMF scientist also designed and installed the neutron detector calibration system to determine the 3He detector’s detection efficiency. 

TRIUMF’s Science Technology Group made the high-voltage signal cables that connect the detector to its computers, and the Machine Shop built the test stands used for the bench-testing of the 3He neutron detectors at SNOLAB prior to their installation in HALO. 

TRIUMF scientists are also involved in the international proposal for a 12-times larger version of HALO that would be able to detect supernova with greater resolution and up to three-times further away.