Physicists from University of Wisconsin have set up a base at the South Pole to create a "Library of the Universe" by casting a net that snag particles that have traveled to Earth from galactic disasters elsewhere in our universe.
These elusive particles, neutrinos, with little or no mass and no electric charge, are hurled from fiery supernovas or the churning core of black holes. Because of their nature, they pass through objects such as planets nearly unchanged. And so they are thought to be packed with code, secrets of the astronomical phenomena that gave them birth.
The Wisonsin (Madison) team are using the crystalline ice beneath the South Pole as a massive neutrino detector, burying glass- globed sensors the size of basketballs on 1-mile-long strings, 60 sensors per string, in 80 deep holes beneath the polar surface.
Dubbed "IceCube," the $270 million international effort is currently less a science experiment than the coldest and most demanding construction project in the world.
This month, the project made the cover of the journal Science, a spot reserved for the world's most select scientific endeavors.
While most attention has been focused on construction of the ice-bound detector, the instrument is already capturing the ghostly light trails of traveling neutrinos, Francis Halzen, a UW-Madison physicist and director of project IceCube said. The detectors don't actually see the passing neutrinos. What they actually they see particles called muons that are flung from the neutrino's collision with an atom within the ice. The movement of the muons away from the collision leaves patterns of light and that light holds the clues sought by the researchers.
The data from those light signatures - the very beginnings of a library of information from distant space is collected from the working detectors deep beneath the Pole and fed to a computer laboratory that is nearing completion atop the ice. During an eight-hour window each day, that data is uploaded to an old military satellite that the researchers converted to their use. From the satellite, the data is beamed to a ground station in Mexico and from there to the computers in Madison.