IceCube and the Askaryan Radio Array
What Are They Doing?
Why go to the bottom of the world to explore the universe? Because it is a nearly ideal place to study one of the most elusive particles known, the almost massless subatomic messenger called the neutrino. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole searches for neutrinos from the most powerful astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars and extreme environments around black holes and neutron stars. This requires a large detector, and IceCube is the largest detector by volume ever built, encompassing a cubic kilometer of instrumented ice. That much ice weighs more than all the people in the world!
The fully built Askaryan Radio Array (ARA) project will have an effective volume 100 times larger than IceCube. The tradeoff is that it will only be capable of observing radio waves from interactions with extremely high energy neutrinos, a million times more energetic than the neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in the atmosphere. IceCube studies those lower energy atmospheric neutrinos, 100,000 per year, to learn more about neutrino properties, including their ability to transform from one type to another.
The universe is a huge and mysterious place that is largely unexplored. New technologies and creative approaches allow us to see things that aren’t directly viewable. Neutrinos will reveal new information about the Universe that can’t be recorded with optical or even more exotic telescopes that measure other types of light, like radio waves, microwaves, x-rays, and gamma rays. Many different roles and talents are needed to develop new approaches—technicians to make and operate new machines, computer experts to store and retrieve data, and scientists to define goals, identify promising projects, and guide students. IceCube and ARA are discovery instruments that will lead to a greater understanding of the cosmos and will hopefully uncover new mysteries for scientists to solve.
Where Are They?
The team works at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. The IceCube site is about one kilometer from the South Pole station, which supplies the necessary logistics of food, power, and shelter. Despite the cold outside, life inside the station is relatively luxurious with comfortable beds, cooked meals, and showers twice a week. The South Pole is reached by plane from McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica, accessible from the end of October through mid-February, after which time temperatures become too low for planes to operate safely. About 40 people remain at the South Pole station the rest of the year, which is known as wintering over. IceCube has two people dedicated to overseeing the operation of the telescope during this period at the South Pole.
Meet the Team
Lesley Anderson is in her 4th year of teaching at High Tech High in California as an 11th grade biology and environmental science teacher. She studied biological sciences as an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where she conducted research on behavioral and morphological studies of tropical freshwater fish species. She is currently pursuing her masters of science in chemistry from South Dakota State University. In 2011 Lesley was part of a research team that tagged and tracked breaching great white sharks off the coast of South Africa. In the summers of 2013-14 Lesley worked as a data analyst for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helping to create an archival database for Arctic sea ice thickness measurements through computer programming. In the summer of 2015 Lesley worked for NOAA at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division optimizing protocols for RNA extraction from sea turtle blood. Her students are currently partnering with Rising Tide Conservation to turn her classroom into a working aquarium laboratory where students can collaborate with researchers in order to learn how to breed ornamental fish in captivity. Lesley hopes that her research opportunity in Antarctica will help her to co-design a new project with her students when she returns.
Dr. Madsen is the chair of the Physics Department at UW-River Falls and Associate Director of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory where he directs the education and outreach program. His research interests include heliophysics and astrophysics, which he has studied at his various projects in Antarctica. In addition to research, Dr. Madsen is committed to reaching a broad audience beyond the research community. He is involved in education and outreach for the IceCube project including professional development courses for teachers and science and math instruction for the UWRF Upward Bound Program. He collaborates with a number of programs and institutions in addition to PolarTREC, including the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, UW-River Falls Upward Bound and McNair Programs, and service groups (Rotary International, Boy and Girl Scouts, university alumni associations, etc.). You can read more about Dr. Madsen's work here and here.
"Working in Antarctica is a wonderful adventure, and it is great to provide opportunities for others to have this awesome experience."