| Read an interview with the director of IceCube: In Search of the Tiniest Quantity

Photograph courtesy of Forest Banks/National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of the National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Photograph courtesy of Forest Banks/National Science Foundation | Image Permalink

Butterfly Nets for Ghosts

By Greg Boustead / April 15, 2010

For decades physicists have suspected that neutrinos hold some of the universe’s darkest secrets. Determining their behavior and where they came from could tell rich stories of the early universe and potentially illuminate the curious nature of dark matter. Untold trillions of these tiny subatomic particles—some born soon after the birth of the universe, others born in the hearts of stars—have traveled unimaginable distances to pass through your body every second. So what does this mean for you? Not much, really. The nearly massless particles pass through almost all matter unabated, without leaving a trace. It’s this elusive nature that also makes them so difficult to detect and therefore study. Very occasionally, however, a neutrino collides into an atom, producing from the wreckage another particle—known as a muon—that can be detected (using special light sensors). At the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a team of pioneering researchers has buried thousands of these sensors miles deep into the ice at the bottom of the Earth, all in an attempt to catch the rare neutrino that crashes into an atom of ice. By analyzing the specific path of this subatomic train wreck, the researchers can trace the neutrino’s path to its distant cosmic source. In this way, IceCube looks through the Earth and to the northern skies, using the planet as a filter to select neutrinos. “I like to say we’re building butterfly nets for ghosts,” says Francis Halzen, principle investigator of the project. “The ultra-transparent Antarctic ice itself is the detector. And a real bargain at just 25 cents per ton!”

A Remote Lab

Deep in the heart of the Antarctic, near the magnetic South Pole, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory is situated in a remote stretch of what is the world’s largest desert.

Digging Deep

It all starts with a hole. A really big hole. Creating that hole is an adventure in and of itself. The team uses a massive drill that is constantly fed scalding-hot water to bore more than 2.5 kilometers into the huge block of ice that makes up the South Pole. The amount of ice melted per hole is approximately 200,000 gallons.

Not Really Butterfly Nets

The sensors used to detect the blue light that results from a neutrino crashing into an ice atom are known as digital optical modules (DOMs). Strings of about 60 DOMs are buried more than mile into the ice.

The Nerve Center

Data from the detectors streams through miles-long cables that enter the primary IceCube Lab through identical structures flanking the structure.

Naming Names

As a fun way to keep track of all the data, the team creates a theme for each string of DOMs and gives every DOM a name.

The Science Season

The research season at IceCube is only three months long, during the Antarctic summer when average temperatures at the South Pole warm to a balmy -18°F. A skeleton crew that “winters over” maintains the station for the rest of the year. Most of the equipment must be painstakingly disassembled, packed, and stored until the following season.

A Hike

Getting to IceCube is “a process.” It starts with a commercial flight to Auckland, New Zealand. And then to Christchurch, New Zealand, where researchers get their specialized South Pole clothing. From there, the journey switches to military aircraft to McMurdo Station, the US base on the Antarctic coast. Finally, a ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules takes the researchers from McMurdo to land on the ice sheets of the South Pole around IceCube. Total travel time averages 72 hours or more from the Northern Hemisphere.

Polar Rims

Getting from point A to point B around the IceCube Lab requires significantly tricked-out rides.

Keeping It Light

When performing what is mostly grueling labor in harsh conditions at the most isolated place on Earth, keeping things playful is crucial.

When Hoses Fail

1.5-mile-long hoses supply the drill with near-boiling water that allows it to bore deep into the ice. If a hose springs a leak (as seen here through the orange hue of safety goggles), the pressurized water escapes in dramatic plumes of steam.

A Special Place

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest place on Earth. The extreme weather and atmospheric effects responsible for its stark beauty are also the primary reasons that make the area especially suited for certain scientific research.

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