When your grade-school science teacher described the various methods one can use to construct a telescope, drilling countless holes a mile and a half deep into Antarctic ice probably wasn’t one of them. But that’s exactly how the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory works.
Call it a telescope, call it a detector, or call it an observatory – it’s all the same to the University of Wisconsin scientists at the IceCube, which is now the world’s largest neutrino research array. Constructed between 2005 and 2010, the IceCube array consists of 86 identical holes, drilled 1.5 miles deep, scattered throughout the ice and filled with extremely sensitive particle physics monitoring equipment.
The IceCube is a tangential facility of the much larger Amundson-Scott South Pole Station, both of which are literally located at the South Pole in Antarctica, where temperatures are normally a deadly -75 degrees Fahrenheit.
The research being done at the IceCube is obscure and esoteric, as they essentially search for signs of tiny subatomic particles called neutrinos as they streak through the crystal clear ice thousands of feet below the surface, but its impact could be profound. Neutrinos are one of the most mysterious building blocks of the universe, and while studying them is notoriously difficult, the more scientists understand about their behavior, the more they will be able to explain how the universe works.
More heralded and easily understood than the science of the lab is remarkable engineering it took to create it. Beyond the extreme difficulties of travel and habitation at the South Pole, the drilling of the all-important holes used for the array’s sensors is an engineering marvel. Using highly advanced equipment, scientists bored into the earth with an ultra-high-pressure hot water drill, not unlike a massive power washer. Each tube took approximately 40 hours to drill in total.
Antarctica seems like a long way to go to measure one tiny particle, but the darkness and purity of the subsurface ice at the South Pole creates a naturally ideal environment for detecting neutrinos, which almost never actually interact with matter, making them very hard to measure.
In fact, it is only when one accidentally collides with another particle and creates a reaction that its presence can be examined, and that is difficult to create in a lab environment – it’s more likely to be seen by happenstance over a large area, such as the gigantic IceCube array, which might be the most artful application of a using desolate location for the advancement of science to date.