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South Pole Science: Tracking Neutrinos

By Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is participating in a National Science Foundation media trip to report on scientists conducting polar research near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

The South Pole is an extreme place by any measure–the miles-thick ice sheet sits at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), and winter temperatures plummet to about -100 degrees Fahrenheit (-73 degrees Celsius). There’s no native life here, “not even a mosquito,” Andy Martinez, the

technical manager for the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station, told me during my visit today. “Humans are the only wildlife.” And the combination of being the driest place on Earth and altitude can humble even the most hardy of humans.

 

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The U.S. research station at the South Pole was recently renovated

I discovered this the hard way this morning as I joyfully tumbled off my plane in -29-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Bundled to the hilt in U.S. Antarctic Program “extreme cold weather” clothing, I was here at the station–pithily nicknamed “Pole”–with two other journalists to see some of the astrophysics experiments going on at the station. It’s been newly renovated into four slate-blue warehouse-like buildings, raised off the ice to prevent snowdrifts. But the air and altitude hit me like a frigid ton of bricks, and I found myself struggling to even climb a flight of stairs.

Inhospitable as it is, the South Pole is fertile ground for astrophysicists. That’s because the cold, clean, and dry atmosphere provides ideal viewing conditions for some wavelengths that are equal to those in space. An example of that is the Pole’s crown jewel, the newly completed IceCube Neutrino Observatory (see pictures) that will likely be running at full capacity in April. Greg Sullivan, a scientist at University of Maryland, College Park, greeted us in the IceCube Laboratory after we had a quick lunch at the Pole dining hall.

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The IceCube Laboratory, which sits atop the 86 holes full of sensors

The laboratory sits on top of 86 holes drilled 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) into the ice, which each are attached with 60 permanently frozen sensors that are ready to spot any rare collisions between neutrinos and water atoms. Neutrinos, high-energy particles born from cataclysmic events in deep space, such as supernovae explosions, are also able to zip through the atmosphere relatively undetected. But learning more about them may help us figure out not only those violent cosmic collisions, but also the beginnings of our universe. Sullivan showed us a giant room full of data servers and wires, where blinking lights indicated the sensors transmitting data.

Watch a video of Sullivan explaining how the sensors work:

I also asked Sullivan about how IceCube can help us find dark matter, the invisible material that may make up more than 80 percent of mass in the universe. He said that the observatory could possibly detect neutrinos created during the annihilation of WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles that are among the most popular candidates for dark matter.

That’s because WIMPs presumably coalesce in the center of the sun, he said. Over the eons the particles build up and eventually collide, creating very high-energy neutrinos that just maybe could be spotted by IceCube. Such WIMP-generated neutrinos, Sullivan told me, “would be the smoking gun for evidence of dark matter.”

Overall, he said, “we’re hoping that the most exciting things that we find are about the nature of the universe, the big bang, how the universe has evolved–and why we’re here.” Back in the biting sunshine, the flat white desert stretching in all directions, his words made total sense. Here, stripped of distractions, you’re forced to wonder what our role in the universe really is.

 

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The 10-Meter South Pole Telescope is studying galaxy clusters

We’d also been slated to see the inside of the 10-Meter South Pole Telescope, but we only got to snap a few pictures of its giant, slowly rotating satellite disk from the outside. Our National Science Foundation organizer had gotten word that the military plane picking us up at 5 p.m. was arriving two hours early, and that unless we wanted to spend the night on the lab floor, we had only a few minutes left to visit the geographic South Pole, something tourists will pay more than $40,000 to see. I asked the tech manager Martinez to take my picture, telling him I’d never be back. He laughed and said you never know. He’d said the same thing–in 1999.

 

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At the South Pole, every direction you look is up

 

Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic News.