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UW gets federal support for ‘Ice Cube’

November 6, 2001 By John Lucas

The university is slated to receive $15 million in federal funding for the first phase of a groundbreaking, Antarctica-based neutrino telescope.

Ice Cube, as the observatory is known, is a next-generation subatomic particle telescope designed to be implanted deep in ice in the South Pole. The system will measure and chart the path of neutrinos, the smallest particles of matter, as they pass from space through the earth.

Made up of 4,800 glass optical modules on 80 strings buried .8 to 1.5 miles below the ice, the IceCube telescope would effectively convert a cubic kilometer of Antarctic ice into the world’s largest scientific instrument.

The $15 million for UW–Madison was included in a fiscal year 2002 Veterans Administration-Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that also provides funding for the National Science Foundation. The bill cleared a congressional conference committee today, Nov. 6, and is expected to eventually win approval from the full U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and President George Bush.

Expected to be completed over the next seven years, the $250 million observatory will help physicists learn about the early formation of the universe and the behavior of the most basic particles of matter. The project involves both fundamental science and also science education and outreach. Both the importance of the science and the excitement of the location of the observatory capture the imagination of students of all ages.

UW–Madison leads the international collaboration of 20 institutions, which also includes UW-River Falls, and two historically black institutions, Clark University of Atlanta and Southern University.

Neutrinos are invisible, uncharged, nearly massless particles that can travel cosmological distances. Unlike the photons that make up visible light, or other kinds of radiation, neutrinos can pass unhindered through stars, vast magnetic fields and entire galaxies without skipping a beat.

To be able to detect high-energy neutrinos and follow their trails back to their points of origin promises unparalleled insight into such extraordinary phenomena as colliding black holes, gamma-ray bursters, the violent cores of distant galaxies and the wreckage of exploded stars.

IceCube would be one of the few scientific instruments to focus solely on neutrinos, rather than more common photons. One of the others is AMANDA, or Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array, a smaller, less powerful South Pole system developed by UW–Madison and already in use. Although AMANDA is 50 times smaller than IceCube, it was a successful prototype that proved that the concept was viable.

Since neutrinos can and do skip through the Earth continuously, it is logical to use the Earth to filter out other, confusing high-energy events. The Earth between the telescope at the South Pole and the northern sky filters out everything but neutrinos. Ice is a perfect medium for their detection.

The glass modules at the heart of IceCube work like light bulbs in reverse, creating electrical signals from the faint and fleeting streaks of light created when the occasional neutrino crashes head on into another particle such as a proton. The subatomic wreck creates a muon, another subatomic particle that, conveniently, traces an ephemeral trail of blue light through the ice identical to the path of the neutrino. In theory, that trail can be used to point back to the neutrino’s point of origin. The discovery of point sources of high-energy cosmic neutrinos is a long-standing quest of modern astrophysics.

U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., were instrumental in gaining support for the project at a time when new science funding has been difficult to obtain. The project has been approved by the National Science Board and peer reviewed many times.

In FY 2000, NSF funded 333 grants worth $47.1 million to UW–Madison. NSF is the second-largest single source of federal funding for UW–Madison research programs, after the National Institutes of Health.

In FY 2000, UW–Madison was the second-largest recipient of NSF funding in the Big Ten, the sixth-largest among universities, and the ninth-largest overall.

Tags: research