IceCube telescope offers a cool view

Adelle Whitefoot

University of Wisconsin-River Falls physics professor James Madsen spoke Tuesday at NMU, about a project in the South Pole called the IceCube Project.

The IceCube Project is the largest telescope ever built, going as deep as 2,400 meters into the ice in Antarctica, and spreading out over an area of one square kilometer. It consists of a station that has 20 strings made of cable that are lowered into the ice. Attached to the strings are 60 Digital Optical Modules (DOM) that detect the light produced by particles called muons.

“We thought that it would be neat if we could work on something that could discover something new,” Madsen said.  “So what we came up with for this project is to use a different approach. Rather than using a type of light we are going to use this particle called a neutrino.”

A neutrino is a subatomic particle produced by the decay of radioactive elements and elementary particles that lack an electric charge, Madsen said.

The IceCube project delves 2,400 meters into the ice The telescope is the largest one ever built and will be used to observe particles called muons. // Photo courtesy of Jim Madsen

“When a neutrino hits an electron or neutron it creates a muon,” Madsen said. “We don’t capture the neutrino or the particle that is created, we capture the light that is caused by the particle going through the ice.”

Particle physicists and astrophysicists can use the information that is received from the neutrino to see what neutrinos are made of, and how they interact with other particles, Madsen said.  Astrophysicists who are involved are interested in finding out how the universe began, how it evolved and what is it made of.

“It’s just like studying a fish.  Some people want to know how many fish are there, what type of fish, and their breeding habits. These are the (particle physicists),” Madsen said.  “But there are other people who say we need to study the ecological system.  What they say is fish are good indicators.  These are the astrophysicists.”

Madsen has been to the South Pole a couple of times before. Now he is going there to help  finish building the IceCube telescope.  He helped write the first proposal for the project and is now educating students, as young as high school students, about the project and importance of neutrinos.

“It’s an interesting astronomy and particle physics experiment,” said William Tireman, assistant professor of physics at NMU.  “Bringing (Madsen) here is a way to expose students to (the project).”

Tireman organized the event and invited Madsen to NMU.  He was one of Tireman’s undergraduate professors at the University of Wisconsin.

“Because (the project) is so big and expensive it’s gotten a lot of press,” Tireman said.  “They are studying a very interesting area of physics right now.”

The IceCube telescope was built in 2004 and will be completed in the upcoming 2010-11 summer season at the South Pole.  To learn more about neutrinos and the IceCube Project visit http://www.icecube.wisc.edu.