UW-Madison receives $15 million for ‘ice cube’

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is to receive $15 million in federal funding for the first phase of an Antarctica-based neutrino telescope.

The observatory, dubbed IceCube, is an advanced subatomic particle telescope designed to be implanted deep in ice in the South Pole. The system will measure and chart the path of neutrinos, the smallest particles of matter, as they pass from space through the earth.

Made up of 4,800 glass optical modules on 80 strings and buried 0.8 to 1.5 miles below the ice, the Ice Cube telescope would effectively convert a cubic kilometre of Antarctic ice into the world’s largest scientific instrument.

Expected to be completed over the next seven years, the $250 million observatory will help physicists learn about the early formation of the universe and the behaviour of the most basic particles of matter.

Neutrinos are invisible, uncharged, nearly massless particles that can travel cosmological distances. Unlike the photons that make up visible light, or other kinds of radiation, neutrinos can pass unhindered through stars, vast magnetic fields and entire galaxies.

To be able to detect high-energy neutrinos and follow their trails back to their points of origin reportedly promises unparalleled insight into phenomena such as colliding black holes, the violent cores of distant galaxies and the wreckage of exploded stars.

The Earth is viewed as an ideal filter as it can help scientists differentiate between neutrinos and other high-energy events. The Earth between the telescope at the South Pole and the northern sky filters out everything but neutrinos, and ice is said to be a perfect medium for their detection.

The glass modules at the heart of IceCube work by creating electrical signals from the faint and fleeting streaks of light created when the occasional neutrino crashes head on into another particle such as a proton.

The subatomic wreck creates a muon, another subatomic particle that traces an ephemeral trail of blue light through the ice identical to the path of the neutrino. Theoretically, that trail can be used to point back to the neutrino’s point of origin, which is a long-standing quest of modern astrophysics.