IceCube In-ice Antarctic Telescope 2010


PolarConnect webinars were held with Katey Shirey and the Team from the IceCube: In-ice Antarctic Telescope project on 2 and 6 December 2010. Access the Archives!

What Are They Doing?

A large international team of scientists and drilling technicians worked throughout the austral summer to continue assembling and testing 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 the 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 was 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 are deployed on "strings" of 60 modules each, into holes 60 centimeters in diameter melted in the ice 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.

The data collected was used to make a "neutrino map" of the universe and to learn more about 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 has led to unexpected discoveries.

Miss Shirey’s participation in PolarTREC and IceCube was in coordination with a wide array of teachers through the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation. These teachers had planned and practiced activities related to IceCube with students in the 2009 and 2010 summers. They coordinated activities and mini-experiments that were performed at the pole in the winter of 2009 by PolarTREC Teacher, Casey O'Hara. They communicated across America and across the world with researchers, teachers, and other classes. Emphasizing communication and interconnectedness, Katey's trip to the Pole involved even more classrooms and reached even more parts of America.

Where Are They?

The team worked at 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 when temperatures become too low for planes to safely operate. Approximately 50 people stay there 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


Katey on the top of the ICL
It’s been nearly three months since I left the South Pole. When I am asked about the trip I recite my final conclusion about the Pole, “If I could go back tomorrow, I would.” Going to the South Pole and being a part of the IceCube Neutrino telescope team was phenomenal. I only hope that my blogs and communications back to America captured the vibrant spirit of the station, the fond camaraderie of the South Pole team, and the pride that I felt in being involved with IceCube’s completion. Katey on the top of the ICL At this point I’m scarfing up anything that says, IceCube, Antarctic,...
I'm very sad to leave Antarctica.
After one night in McMurdo it was time to leave. (It was actually November 9th when I left McMurdo.) I spent the evening walking around with some new friends in McMurdo and I was amazed by how much the scenery had changed in three weeks--almost all of the ice and snow in town had melted completely. I met some new people who had just arrived to stay a month in McMurdo and felt bad that they had missed the Antarctic experience. The temperature hovered around 32 F which felt like a sauna for me. I walked around in just a fleece jacket and tennis shoes instead of bunny boots convinced that...
Julie Katch gives me an interview.
I returned to McMurdo Station from the South Pole and got my new room assignment, a shared 5 bed berth in the main station building. I arranged to meet up with my new friend Julie Katch whom I'd met on the way through the first time. Julie works in Antarctica every year (four years running) as a draftsman. I have heard of contract workers like dining assistants, general assistants, carpenters, "fuelies", and "wasties", but it never occurred to me that you'd need architects in residence down on the ice. I guess I figured that all of the technical design stuff would happen in building the...
Our IceTop team poses for one last picture.
Well, it's been a great visit, but it's time to go. With tears in my eyes I bid farewell to the South Pole. It has been a wonderful, curious, exciting, and rewarding time. I have enjoyed everything from the constant daylight to the cold, cold ice tunnels. I adored the friends I've made at the pole, they are all special, unique, smart, and uplifting. I understand completely why they choose to return to the "harsh continent"--it's as much for the glory of surviving South Pole as it is for enjoying time with a second polar family and then again its about being part of science at the Pole....
Next to the main IceTop terminal in the ICL.
The team in the lab gave me a nice tour of the IceCube Lab. This is the location of all the IceCube and IceTop computers, and where more than 5,000 DOMs have to link in. The room is heated by the servers and it even has to be cooled so it doesn't overheat--at the South Pole! In the whole project, including 86 cables, surface cables, and all the wiring in the ICL there are 11,648 miles of copper wire that all meets at the ICL. The ICL collects a terabyte of data everyday making it the largest data collection center in Antarctica. For more good pictures and info please see: http://www....

Expedition Resources

Project Information

Dates: 13 November 2010 to 10 December 2010
Location: Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: IceCube Neutrino Lab

Meet the Team

Katey Shirey's picture
Washington-Lee High School
Arlington, VA
United States

Katey Shirey grew up loving physics and art and, as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, she continually combined her two passions. She attempted to explain physics and physical phenomenon through large-scale kinetic sculptures and installations. Today Miss Shirey continues to examine the relationship of Physics to various aspects of the world around her through teaching and facilitating student learning at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. She is excited to examine what scientists do and how science conducted far away impacts our understanding of the universe, and sees this as an ideal way to draw connections between physics to students' lives.

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."