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May 6, 2010 / Dave Gorham

Antarctica Importing Ice Cubes?

Wandering the expansive halls of the Offshore Technology Conference yesterday, I stumbled upon the IceCube. What’s the big deal? You say you see ice cubes every day? Indeed.

This ice cube is not frozen. At least, not as it is manufactured. However it’s destined for the frigid depths below the icy surface of Antarctica, so you can bet it will be soon enough. This ice cube comes only from the University of Wisconsin. This ice cube, about the size of a basketball ("IceCube" therefore, a bit of a misnomer), is crammed with electronic sensing equipment and tethered by a high-tech umbilical cord every four meters to a depth of about a mile and a half. This ice cube is designed to be entombed in ice for eternity. This ice cube will relay information to the surface until it is no longer able (or 25,000 years — whichever comes first). Maintenance for this ice cube is impossible. This ice cube is like one of the hundreds melted into place within a cubic kilometer of ice forming a "telescope" below the Antarctic surface. This ice cube is designed to sense neutrinos.

Neutrinos? Neutrinos are subatomic particles produced by the decay of radioactive elements. They are small enough to pass through solid matter without colliding with any molecules and they do so at the speed of light. The technology of the IceCube detects the blue light emitted by the nuclear reaction of a single neutrino crashing into a single ice atom. These IceCubes are on the hunt for extremely high energy neutrinos that come from the collapse of the core of a supernova, gamma-ray bursts, black holes and other extra-galactic events. Though it seems incredible, the light detected by the IceCube allows scientists to reconstruct the path of the neutron and thus its origin within a specific collapsed supernova. And the nearly transparent, pure and radiation-free ice forms an ideal environment allowing the emitted blue light to travel one hundred meters or more through the dark ice.

Students get a look at an IceCube while visiting the University of Wisconsin’s Science Expedition. Photo: University of Wisconsin.

A better understanding of Dark Matter is one motive behind the IceCube. A better motivation is to understand the origins of Man, the Universe, what powers the most energetic engines in the cosmos and what fuels the bombardment of cosmic rays to the Earth. Browse to the University of Wisconsin’s IceCube’s FAQ to understand the full meaning behind the concept and implementation of the IceCube project.

Boxed IceCubes being transported into place. Photo: University of Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin is in charge of the IceCube. Previous projects in which UW handled similar drilling and optical modules suggested UW would be ideally suited for the task; project approval came from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The vast majority of the funding for IceCube comes from the NSF with additional funds from international contributors.

The IceCube Blog.

The IceCube website.

The IceCube, aka the Digital Optical Module (DOM).

The IceCube Array as conceptualized below the surface of Antarctica. (No, there is not an Eiffel Tower buried in ice a mile and a half below the surface of Antarctica. That’s just there to show scale.) Image: UW.  


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