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Enormous 1km ice-cube machine fashioned at South Pole

Boffins in magnificent Futurama style feat

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International boffins have created an enormous particle detector by instrumenting up a kilometre-on-a-side cube of the utterly pure and transparent ice found thousands of metres beneath the surface at the South Pole.

Sensibly enough the boffins left the giant ice cube in place rather than trying to move it to somewhere more convenient. Sensitive optical instruments were lowered down holes drilled into the ice cap to depths of as much as 2,450m. Sealed up in the transparent darkness kilometres below the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the sensors are able to pick up tiny flashes of blue light ("Cherenkov radiation") produced when a neutrino collides with a particle amid the ice.

Such neutrino interactions are extremely rare - most neutrinos pass right through the Earth without stopping. That's why the Ice Cube sensor needs to be so big, and why it needs to be located deep down in the dark where nothing else is going on and the tiny Cherenkov flashes can be seen.

Neutrinos are generated in the Sun and by cosmic-ray impacts and other high-energy sources. As they aren't affected by anything much once they've been generated, scientists believe that a working neutrino sensor will be able to find out a lot of important things about the universe around us. That's why it was thought worthwhile to spend no less than $279m (mostly from the US National Science Foundation) to build the Ice Cube.

That building was no simple matter. Just getting to Antarctica is fairly troublesome, and after that the materiel and people to make the Ice Cube had to be shipped 800 miles from the main US base at McMurdo Sound to the Amundsen-Scott base at the Pole itself. This has to be done using specially modified C-130 Hercules military transport planes fitted with skis (and often using rocket-assisted takeoff, pictured on the next page). The Amundsen-Scott surface base installation had to be built mounted on powered stilts in order to lift itself out of snow which would otherwise periodically bury it.

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