IceCube In-Ice Antarctic Telescope

What Are They Doing?

A large international team of scientists and drilling technicians worked throughout the austral summer to continue to assemble and test the world's largest scientific instrument, the in-ice IceCube Neutrino Detector. Neutrinos are incredibly common (about 10 million pass through your body as you read this) subatomic particles that have no electric charge and almost no mass. They are created by radioactive decay and nuclear reactions, such as those on the sun and other stars. Neutrinos rarely react with other particles or forces; in fact, most of them pass through objects (like you, or the entire earth) without any interaction. This makes them ideal for carrying information from distant parts of the universe, but it also makes them very hard to detect. All neutrino detectors rely on observing the extremely rare instances when a neutrino does collide with a proton. This collision transforms the neutrino into a muon, a charged particle that can travel for 5-10 miles and generate detectable light.

IceCube is being constructed in Antarctica because the huge amount of dense ice under the South Pole contains a lot of protons that can be hit by passing neutrinos, and the ice is transparent, so the resulting light can be caught by sensors. IceCube is made up of 4200 sensitive light detectors embedded in the ice at depths between 1450 and 2450 meters (4700-8000 feet). The sensors were deployed on strings of 60 modules each, into holes 60 cm. in diameter in the ice, melted using a hot water drill. Covering about one square kilometer, IceCube expands on an existing experiment that started detecting neutrinos at the South Pole in 1997 ( Now complete, IceCube can detect up to 300,000 neutrinos a year for up to 20 years.

The data collected will be used to make a neutrino map of the universe and to learn more about cataclysmic astronomical phenomena, like gamma ray bursts, black holes, and exploding stars, and other aspects of nuclear and particle physics. However, the true potential of IceCube is discovery; the opening of each new astronomical window can lead to unexpected discoveries.

Where Are They?

The team worked from the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica – the southernmost continually inhabited place on the planet. The IceCube site is about one kilometer from the new South Pole station, which supplies the necessary logistics of food, power, and shelter. The South Pole is reached by plane from McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica from October through February, after which temperatures become too low for planes to safely operate. Approximately 50 people stay through the rest of the year, which is known as wintering over. IceCube has two to three people dedicated to overseeing the operation of the telescope during this period at the South Pole.

Expedition Map


Well now I've returned from the South Pole, finished with my stint working with the IceCube team.   What I miss about the South Pole: Really, the cold is not bad, in fact it's kind of nice - it's a fun ritual to put on all the layers.  Not so much fun when you realize you missed one! I will miss the people!  Everyone I met had such an interesting back story, and everyone seemed so engaged in the science going on at the pole.  The Sunday Science Lectures were well-attended with interesting questions from the audience.  I think the type of person that would seek out a job in Antarctica is a...
Two things I will miss about being in Antarctica: cool ice crystals, and amazing atmospheric light shows. I was not in Antarctica during the winter - in which case I would have been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Australis - the Southern Lights.  While I was there, the sun was in the sky the entire time.  But this gave me the opportunity to witness other amazing effects we rarely (if ever) see in the U.S.  Every day, if it was a little cloudy, I would keep my eyes on the sky to see if the clouds would give way to some amazing new effect I hadn't seen before! First day out, the air was...
Almost all the material that gets to the south pole is transported using LC-130 Hercules planes ("Hercs").  Every day, Hercs come in, drop off equipment, people, and fuel, and then take off again for McMurdo, carrying people and any waste stuff that needs to be hauled out. But it turns out, there are a couple of other ways that the South Pole can receive supplies.  And I was lucky enough to see both of these occur in the same week! The most obvious way to get stuff to the Pole would be to transport it by land somehow.  Every once in a while, a convoy of vehicles arrives overland...
In our previous episode, we saw our valiant heroes attempt to make ice cream from a secret recipe, using only south pole snow (at -28°F) to freeze it into a delicious soft-serve consistency. It took approximately 12 minutes, considerably longer than it took in the classroom using regular ice and rock salt. What caused this unexpected (at least for me!) result? Watch and learn, little one - watch and learn... In the classroom, the salt melted the ice into water at about +28°F, which was cold enough to transfer the heat out of the cream mix....
Almost everything down here is known via acronyms - abbreviations that sometimes spell out something clever, or sometimes just random codes.  This especially goes for research projects, with the exception of IceCube - which just means a cube of ice. I already wrote a journal about the ARO, but today's topic is a pair of similar research projects, SPT and BICEP, that study the cosmic microwave background radiation. This building houses both the South Pole Telescope and the BICEP telescope. SPT is the large dish (10 meters across) on the left hand side. The BICEP detector is much smaller,...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

Dates: 16 November 2009 to 1 January 2010
Location: South Pole Station, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: IceCube Neutrino Lab

Meet the Team

Casey OHara's picture
Carlmont High School
Belmont, CA
United States

Casey O'Hara has worked in the past as a mechanical engineer designing robots and implantable medical devices, but for the fast five years he has been teaching physics and integrated science at Carlmont High School. Curiosity drives his passion for teaching science, as it affords him the opportunity to constantly learn new things while helping his students learn. Mr. O'Hara's students apply physics to design, build, and perform on their own musical instruments, finding connections between physics and music. When not in the classroom, Mr. O'Hara likes to appease his curiosity through travel, mostly to tropical climates and warm beaches. Mr. O'Hara thinks that participating in the IceCube project will be an amazing opportunity to experience cutting edge physics research, and hopes that during his visit to the South Pole he will, in addition, witness climate change research.

Jim Madsen's picture
University of Wisconsin River Falls
River Falls, WI
United States

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."

Francis Halzen's picture
University of Wisconsin Madison
Madison, WI
United States

Francis Halzen is a theoretician studying problems at the interface of particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology. Since 1987, he has been working on the AMANDA experiment, a first-generation neutrino telescope at the South Pole. AMANDA observations represent a proof of concept for the recently completed kilometre-scale observatory IceCube.

Tom Gaisser's picture
University of Delaware
Newark, DE
United States

The current spokesperson for the IceCube collaboration is Tom Gaisser. He is the Martin A. Pomerantz Professor of Physics at the Univesity of Delaware. Tom is a well known astroparticle and cosmic ray physicist who promoted the concept of an array of detectors on the surface as part of IceCube.. Tom has been instrumental in getting an Antarctic Research page up at the University of Delaware where he and others have posted blogs from the South Pole.