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Hunting Neutrinos at the End of the Earth

How the unique properties of the South Pole allow the IceCube Neutrino Observatory to detect the elusive particles

The surface facility for the IceCube experiment — from IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Neutrinos are invisible, electrically neutral and nearly massless subatomic particles. Since they travel through the Universe at close to the speed of light without being absorbed or deflected by cosmic objects, neutrinos can provide us with information to further our understanding of their mysterious origins in processes such as supernovae (the explosive death of a star) and black holes. However, these properties also make neutrinos extremely difficult to detect, with roughly 100 trillion of them passing through our bodies every second, so how can we hope to find these elusive particles?

One experiment which searches for neutrinos is the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. The experiment covers a volume of one cubic kilometre and cost $279 million USD, which was mainly provided by the US National Science Foundation. The IceCube Collaboration consists of around 300 scientists from 12 countries.

When a neutrino interacts with a proton or neutron, a fast-moving secondary particle is produced. This secondary particle may be detected through the emission of blue light known as Cherenkov radiation, produced when a particle passes through a medium faster than the speed of light in that medium. An ideal material for a detector would have a relatively slow speed of light and be transparent, making ice a good candidate.

Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of the Advanced Test Reactor in Idaho— from Argonne National Laboratory

The South Pole is the most suitable location for this experiment, because it is the only place on Earth with the infrastructure required for this type of research and such a large amount of transparent, pure and stable ice. Whereas most ice contains air bubbles which would interfere with the results, the thick ice at the South Pole has been tightly compressed over time, forcing out the bubbles. However, these conditions, which are ideal for a neutrino observatory, also produced logistical challenges. Construction of the observatory began in 2004, but could only take…

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