MADISON, Wis. — The world’s largest telescope, currently under construction more than a mile beneath the Antarctic ice, is on schedule to be completed next year, according to a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, the lead institution for a scientific project called IceCube.
Ninety-five percent of the IceCube telescope, consisting of thousands of digital optical modules developed for scientists working to understand the universe, is already installed and operating at the South Pole, said Albrecht Karle, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in an interview with EE Times.
The IceCube telescope is no ordinary apparatus. With a volume of one cubic kilometer, the instrument is pointed not to the sky, but downward towards the center of the Earth, buried beneath tons of ice in the coldest spot in the world. No one will ever “look through” this telescope. Instead, it will convey its findings through vast arrays of digital sensors.
Scientists backed by the National Science Foundation are looking for very small, very elusive particles called neutrinos that can tell scientists much more about the universe than photons or charged particles.
Through an array of neutrino detectors embedded in the IceCube telescope, researchers are seeking “extremely high energy neutrinos that come from supernova explosions, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, and other extra-galactic events,” according to the University of Wisconsin. By correlating the number and energy of the detected neutrinos, researchers hope to understand the sources of high-energy cosmic rays -- including lingering mysteries like dark energy and dark matter.
Unlike Hubble space telescope. . .
What makes the IceCube project unique and “cool” is that it represents “extreme science” teamed with “extreme technology.”
Karle said 95 percent of the sensors used in the IceCube telescope are expected to last through at least 15 years of operation in extremely low temperatures.
Aside from ultra-cold temperatures, extreme pressure is a huge issue, Karle said. Cables, digital optical modules, internal electronics and cable connections -- all installed through drilled holes underneath the ice sheet -- “must be able to survive the high pressures and stress that arise when the water in the drill holes freezes,” he explained.
The toughest challenge of all is “the inability to access” the IceCube telescope, said Karle. Scientists cannot recover the telescope’s digital optical modules once they are buried at depths between 1,450 and 2,450 meters at the South Pole.