Polar neutrino observatory takes a big step forward

This austral summer, an international team of scientists and engineers took a major step forward in building the detector, harnessing a sophisticated hot-water drill to install hundreds of basketball-sized optical modules in the Antarctic ice sheet under the South Pole. The modules will eventually form a detector that will encompass a cubic kilometer of ice.

NSF, through a joint program of its Office of Polar Programs and its Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, is contributing more than $240 million to the international partnership that is building the $272-million detector. Germany, Sweden, Belgium are making significant contributions to the project. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is leading the drilling and science operations.

IceCube is looking for neutrinos, ghostly, high-energy subatomic particles created in galactic collisions, distant black holes, quasars and a host of the most violent events in the cosmos. When fully operational, IceCube will use 4,200 light-sensing modules to sample neutrinos from the sky in the Northern Hemisphere, using the Earth as a filter to exclude other types of neutrinos, such as those from the sun.

The optical modules are deployed into deep holes bored by a unique hot-water drill. Once the holes are drilled, 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) long cables with the spherical digital optical modules--which are composed of electronics for sensing light and circuit boards for gathering and processing data--are frozen in place. The modules act like light bulbs in reverse, gathering Cherenkov light created when neutrinos collide with other particles. The modules then relay data to the surface where the information is processed and stored for analysis.

The IceCube project is an international collaboration of scientists from more than 30 scientific organizations. More than a dozen U.S. universities are also involved.


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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Receive official NSF news electronically through the e-mail delivery and notification system, MyNSF (formerly the Custom News Service). To subscribe, visit http://www.nsf.gov/mynsf/ and fill in the information under "new users".

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

Media Contact: Terry Devitt, University of Wisconsin, (608) 262-8282, [email protected]

Image/B-Roll Contacts: Dena Headlee, NSF, (703) 292-7739, [email protected]
Peter West, NSF, (703) 292-7761, [email protected]

Still images are available by contacting Peter West. For B-roll of Icecube drilling operations at NSF's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and animations on the nature of neutrinos, contact Dena Headlee at (703)292-7739.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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