The Sciences

The Universe on Ice

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNov 17, 2010 9:32 PM

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This is a guest post by Laurel Bacque, composed live with the help of fellow attendees of the National Science Foundation’s “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop as part of this previously announced competition. This post is based on research from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an international collaboration funded by the National Science Foundation.

Deep in the ice of the South Pole, researchers are studying mysterious particles from the edges of the universe. Trillions of these particles, called neutrinos, stream through your body every second, but little is known about them. A better understanding of high-energy neutrinos could give astrophysicists new insights into the fundamental workings of the universe.

To help detect these invisible, nearly mass-less particles, researchers are building the IceCube detector at the South Pole, using an enhanced hot water drill to penetrate the ice to a depth of nearly two miles. There, sensors are deployed to record neutrino interactions in the ice. This research had to be conducted at the South Pole because scientists needed a large quantity of very clear, stable material (ice) to build the neutrino detector. (When a neutrino interacts with the ice, a burst of blue light is recorded by the specially designed detector. )One special attribute of neutrinos is that they travel through the universe and the Earth with relatively few interactions--meaning, they can arrive here spawned from events that occurred in the very early days of the universe. So observing them yields unprecedented information about the life cycles of stars and the dark matter that scientists believe makes up 23 % of the universe. In other words, studying neutrinos is important because they might hold information about violent events (exploding stars, black holes) in the universe, and can help us understand how it was formed. That's why it's worth it for scientists to go to the extreme of drilling miles beneath the remotest part of the Earth in search of the otherwise invisible. By going there, we find out how we got to be here.

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