Geographic South Pole – Educational institutions from around the world have come together in -40 degrees Fahrenheit to build what will ultimately be the world’s largest telescope, used for measuring and studying neutrinos. When finished in 2011, it will occupy a cubic kilometer of Antarctica’s sub-surface ice. This gives it a catchy name: IceCube.
The University of Delaware is just one of the 33 institutions working on IceCube, though they are this year’s choice for “on-ice lead” to head up the project’s construction.
IceCube is a sub-surface telescope designed to detect neutrinos. Each one kilometer side of the cube will have 60 optical detectors (lined up like beads) which are then frozen beneath the ice. Atop each detector is a 600 gallon “IceTop tank,” which will serve as host for the tiny flashes which are emitted as neutrinos pass through the ice.
It takes seven weeks for the 600 gallon tanks to freeze completely without cracks or bubbles which could obstruct the detector’s ability to “see the flashes” produced as neutrinos strike.
Neutrinos are one of the most fundamental components of matter. They have no electrical charge, and therefore interact weakly with matter – even passing through entire planets without being halted.
This time of year is the Antarctic summer where daylight shines for 24 hours per day as the Earth tilts toward the sun on its axis. The North Pole, on the other hand, is currently going through 24 hours of darkness, or rather something like post-sunset twilight. Howling winds and below-zero temperatures are still the norm.
Raw temperatures (without wind chill factored in) vary at the South Pole from -14F in January to -68F in July. Wind chills can often take the temperature well below -160F. The coldest temperature ever recorded was at Lake Vostok, a peculiar 100+ mile long fresh water lake two miles beneath the ice where surface temperatures got down to -128.6F in July, 1983. Dec/Jan/Feb are typically the warmest times of the year for the South Pole.
Water for drilling
The drilling effort continues 24/7 during this time, with three teams working eight hour shifts. They use fuel, generators and hoses brought with them to heat and melt the ice into water, which is used for the drilling. The team drops a 1.5 mile-long series of optical detector (beads) into the water holes and then turns the remaining portion of the drilling work to the IceTop teams.
IceTop teams work six days a week, from 8am to 6pm, and then retreat to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which provides fairly impressive amenities considering its location. They have movies, exercise equipment, a recreation room, musical instruments, a greenhouse with lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, as well as email. Several South Pole research efforts share the facility while they are on-site.
Once completed, the telescope will “provide new information about some of the most violent and far-away astrophysical events in the cosmos,” according to Thomas Gaisser, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Delaware, and one of the project’s lead scientists.