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South Pole telescope nears completion

IceCube at the South Pole

An overview of the South Pole, with the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to the left of the runway and the IceCube facility to the right. Photo by Forest Banks

  • IceCube telescope aims to detect neutrinos
  • Network of under-ice detectors, 1 cubic km in volume
  • International effort; due for completion this month

A unique kind of telescope is about to be completed, buried deep beneath the ice under the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, it records the rare collisions of neutrinos, elusive sub-atomic particles, with the atomic nuclei of the water frozen into ice.

Neutrinos come from the Sun, from cosmic rays interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere, and from dramatic astronomical sources such as exploding stars in the Milky Way and other distant galaxies.

Trillions of neutrinos stream through the human body at any given moment, but they rarely interact with regular matter, and researchers want to know more about them and where they come from.

Diagram of IceCube

What IceCube looks like under the ice—strings of special detectors in an array measuring one cubic kilometre in volume. Courtesy IceCube.

IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino detector, measuring a cubic kilometre in volume. The size of the detector is important because it increases the number of potential collisions that can be observed, making neutrino astrophysics a reality. The observatory is slated for completion in December 2010.

Astronomy under the ice

Since 2004, the USA, Belgium, Germany and Sweden have been building the detector in the continental ice sheet that covers Antarctica to a depth of almost three kilometres in places.

A powerful hot-water drill creates holes almost 2.5 kilometres deep into the ice. These holes house strings of digital optical modules that detect the interactions of the neutrinos with the ice.

Seven holes remained to be drilled in December 2010, which will bring the total to 86 strings.

Even now, the IceCube detector records several tens of thousands of neutrino interactions every year. The detector records one terabyte of data (more than 1,000 gigabytes) every day, and over a petabyte of data (quadrillion bytes) per year. Data is meticulously examined for evidence of neutrino events.

International collaboration

While the Observatory is managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and primarily funded by the US National Science Foundation, Germany, Belgium and Sweden contributed to its construction.

Jessica Hodges with an IceCube digital optical module

Jessica Hodges, IceCube physics graduate student, pictured with one of the optical detector modules. Photo by Glenn Grant / National Science Foundation.

More than 250 scientists from 36 institutions in the USA, the partner countries, and elsewhere are now analysing the data collected by the observatory.

“The IceCube detector is a superb example of the kind of exciting ‘big science’ at the frontiers of knowledge that is ideally suited for support by the U.S. Antarctic Program, precisely because it could be built nowhere else in the world but in the Antarctic ice sheet,” said Karl A. Erb, director of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs (OPP).

Through OPP, NSF manages the US Antarctic Program, which coordinates all U.S. research on the southernmost continent and surrounding oceans.

“What’s more,” he added, “although the IceCube project is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, it exemplifies a modern trend in the increasingly complex and multi-disciplinary scientific world; large-scale projects like the IceCube detector are too complex to be effectively mounted by one nation alone, but also require the scientific and logistical expertise of many nations acting together to produce scientifically significant results.”

Adapted from information issued by NSF / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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