If the South Pole telescope is examining the universe on the galactic scale, another relatively new and equally impressive observatory is searching for evidence of the existence of particles at the subatomic level.
Built into the ice sheet, the one-cubic-kilometer IceCube Neutrino Observatory records the rare collisions of neutrinos--elusive sub-atomic particles--with the atomic nuclei of the water molecules of the ice. Some neutrinos come from the sun, while others come from cosmic rays interacting with the Earth's atmosphere and dramatic astronomical sources such as exploding stars in the Milky Way and other distant galaxies. Trillions of neutrinos stream through the human body at any given moment, but they rarely interact with regular matter, and researchers want to know more about them and where they come from.
In December of 2010, the last of 86 holes had been drilled and a total of 5,160 optical sensors had been installed to form the main IceCube detector, culminating a decade of planning, innovation and testing, construction. This landmark brought to a close one of the most ambitious and complex multinational scientific construction projects ever attempted. NSF contributed $242 million toward the total project cost of $279 million.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the lead U.S. institution for the project. In addition to researchers at universities and research labs in the U.S., Belgium, Germany and Sweden--the countries that funded the observatory--IceCube data are analyzed by the larger IceCube Collaboration, which also includes researchers from Barbados, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. For more information, visit the IceCube Web site at http://www.icecube.wisc.edu
Air and Ozone
The pristine quality of the air at the pole makes it an ideal benchmark for changes in the quality and composition of the atmosphere elsewhere. Such data has been collected since NOAA established its South Pole Observatory during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY)—one of the longest continuous records in atmospheric science.
Other atmospheric research at the pole includes releasing balloons to monitor the condition of the Earth's protective ozone layer. Data from these studies helps keep track of how well international treaties, aimed at curbing the use of harmful chemicals, are working to heal the seasonal hole in the ozone layer. To view recent and past ozone data collected by the balloons, visit the NOAA Global Monitoring Division Web site at http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/spo/
Eight kilometers (five miles) from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, scientists supported by USGS and others are recording shudders from earthquakes around the world. Seismographs have been operating at the pole since IGY, and data from high-latitude seismograph stations has helped to prove that the Earth's solid inner core spins at a slightly faster rate than the rest of the planet.
One of the newest stations in the Global Seismograph Network (GSN) is called SPRESO: South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory. Operated by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a research consortium of 100 universities, it is the quietest seismic listening post on the planet. It employs instruments installed roughly 300 meters (1000 feet) beneath the surface of the continental East Antarctic ice sheet to recorded seismic waves that ring through the globe like vibrations in a struck bell. Further information about GSN is available at http://www.usgs.gov/features/south_pole/
Even the relentless wind that carries and drifts snow across the Antarctic plateau, while a continual obstacle for designers of the new station, is beneficial to scientists. In 2004, the Tumbleweed Rover, a product of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, left South Pole station on a 70-kilometer (40-mile), wind-driven trek across Antarctica. The test was designed to confirm the rover's long-term durability in an extremely cold environment, with an eye toward eventually using the devices to explore the Martian polar caps and other planets in the solar system. Further information about Tumbleweed's trek across the Antarctic plateau is available in NSF press release 04-024 at http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100342&org=NSF&from=news
—by Peter West