Late last week
construction of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory wrapped up at the
National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in
Antarctica. The team of international scientists behind the effort have come up with something truly remarkable in building the
world’s largest neutrino observatory. The massive telescope, which is the size of a cubic
kilometer and located 1400 meters underground, took a decade to build and cost approximately $271
million. Oh, and if you lined up the world’s three tallest skyscrapers, their collective height would be shorter than this telescope.
IceCube is operated by the University
of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Science Foundation, with
funding provided by the United States, Belgium, Germany, and Sweden.
Researchers from Barbados, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland
and the United Kingdom are also involved in the project.
For IceCube, construction at the South
Pole all came down to their scientific goals. The observatory is
designed to find extremely high energy neutrinos–tiny subatomic
particles–originating from supernova explosions, gamma-ray bursts
and black holes, with an emphasis on expanding humankind’s knowledge
of Dark Matter.
Neutrinos, according to current scientific theory, play a crucial
part in detecting Dark Matter.
The IceCube Observatory is designed to
detect a blue light, called Cherenkov
radiation, created by the nuclear reactions of individual
neutrinos crashing into ice atoms. Cherenkov radiation is generally
considered to be the equivalent of a sonic boom for light.
Building the Observatory at the South
Pole offered the opportunity to use some of the world’s clearest and
purest ice, minimizing any risk of distorted experiment results.
According to the IceCube Observatory team, building the telescope
required an existing scientific station nearby for logistical
purposes–which is how the project ended up become constructed
adjacent to the United States’ South Pole complex.
Construction of the IceCube telescope,
as you might imagine, was an engineering feat. University of
Wisconsin scientists built a customized hot water drill capable
of penetrating more than 1.2 miles of Antarctic ice. These multiple
deep holes in the Antarctic ice were then filled with sensors and
support equipment. Each hole took approximately 48 hours to drill.
All telescope components, employees,
contractors, equipment and food were flown to Antarctica and then
delivered on ski-equipped C-130 planes from McMurdo Station to the
South Pole, an approximately 800 mile flight. Approximately 150
specialists worked in construction and logistics at the South Pole
over the past decade, with the bulk of the work being done in
round-the-clock shifts during the Antarctic summer. A small, hardy
skeleton staff remained at McMurdo Station during the unimaginable
South Pole winters.
Now that the IceCube Observatory is
finished and fully operational, data collection will allow scientists
to add considerably to humankind’s knowledge of astrophysics.
IceCube’s principal investigator, Francis Halzen, is optimistic:
Since the 1970s we have dreamed of
building a detector of this size, and we have spent 20 years working
toward IceCube […] If the science to come brings half the
excitement of completing this instrument, we have a bright future
ahead. With the completion of IceCube, we are on our way to reaching
a level of sensitivity that may allow us to see neutrinos from
sources beyond the sun.
During the years of construction, the
University of Wisconsin posted a detailed guide to life
at the South Pole, which praises the recreational opportunities
at the South Pole station while (understandably) groaning at the
weather. The finished observatory is longer than the Petronas
Towers, the Empire State Building, and the Willis Tower/Sears Tower
[Image courtesy B.
Gudbjartsson/National Science Foundation via University of
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