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.
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 about 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.
Deep below one of the world’s most remote outposts, a network of tunnels cut into the ice has come to house “shrines” dedicated to both the odd, and the profound.
Founded as a small research base at the South Pole in 1956, Amundsen-Scott Station has developed into a thriving research hub sometimes housing hundreds of science and support personnel at a time. What originally began as a cluster of wooden buildings has progressed into a state-of-the-art network of facilities designed to support scientific operations while mitigating the effects of the harsh Antarctic environment on its inhabitants.
What many do not know, however, is that beneath the expanse of high-tech buildings, communications facilities, and even an airport complete with an ice-runway, there lies a complex web of tunnels carved out of the ice itself. Completed in 2002, these tunnels were created to convey fresh water and effluent to and from the new “elevated station” buildings.
Since that time, adventurous station personnel have descended into the tunnels (the temperature of which hovers just below -60°F/-51°C) to create personal memorials to a wide array of Antarctic experiences. Some of these shrines commemorate specific Antarctic seasons or completed work projects, and some are are just silly.
One of the strangest of these monuments consists of the body of an atrophied White Sturgeon and a hand written account of its journey. The fish had arrived in 1992 at McMurdo Station (a US base located at the edge of Antarctica and the Ross Sea) and had been destined for a remote Russian station called Vostok.
However, the Russians gifted the sturgeon to American scientists who later discarded it after it had languished, uneaten in a freezer for several months. It was from the trash dump that a garbage processing crew reclaimed the sturgeon, and it then made its way from location to location across Antarctica.