A flash in the, er, ice?
May 8, 2006 1:42 PM   Subscribe

The world's largest scientific instrument is under construction beneath the polar ice. Encompassing a square kilometer of the Antarctic icecap, the IceCube array of photodetectors is designed to spot neutrinos, those most elusive of particles. You can see pictures of IceCube being built at the South Pole, or a video (quicktime) of what the detector network looks like. Other massive neutrino detectors are also photogenic, like the Super Kamiokande (other pictures), located in a mine a kilometer underground, or BooNe at Fermilab, filled with 800 tons of mineral oil.
posted by blahblahblah (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They're all doomed.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:44 PM on May 8, 2006

I think Sno deserves a mention too.
posted by edd at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2006

They're gonna crack the earth two, I know they will.
posted by marxchivist at 1:51 PM on May 8, 2006

You are right about sno, especially as it looks like the ultimate movie prop.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2006

My friend Steff works for Ice Cube and takes these cool aerial photos with his camera connected to a kite!.
posted by culberjo at 1:57 PM on May 8, 2006

[snark]Pretty stupid building it under an ice sheet that won't even be there a few years from now. [/snark]

It's very pretty and cool though.
posted by Artw at 1:58 PM on May 8, 2006

Prof. Doug Cowen, a former professor of mine, goes to Antartica every winter to work on the detector. He has some neat stuff on his website about both AMANDA and IceCube.
posted by Loto at 1:59 PM on May 8, 2006

Neutrinos are a lie I say!
A sinister lie!
posted by ozomatli at 2:32 PM on May 8, 2006

A lie? I thought they were put here by God to test our faith.
posted by Operation Afterglow at 2:35 PM on May 8, 2006

Ah, but will it detect the Great Old Ones?
posted by slimepuppy at 3:31 PM on May 8, 2006

I think all new scientific instruments should be named after rappers.
posted by hattifattener at 3:54 PM on May 8, 2006

It's not even close to being the largest.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:05 PM on May 8, 2006

No wonder the ice shelves are melting.

I have a hunch these neutrino things are behind it! Imagine how much faster the ice will melt when we go and start detecting them.

And the penguins....
posted by rand at 4:11 PM on May 8, 2006

Steven C. Den Beste: that's arguable at best, and it doesn't come anything like as close to observing neutrinos directly as these experiments do, if at all.

The VLA has, from your link, the sensitivity of a radio telescope 130m in diameter. That's not even the size of Arecibo, and it's certainly nothing like the area physically of the 1 square kilometre 'collection area' of Ice Cube - it's a little over 1% of that area.
posted by edd at 4:25 PM on May 8, 2006

(although on posting I recognise that you didn't claim it did observe neutrinos, made a connection that wasn't there - sorry)
posted by edd at 4:30 PM on May 8, 2006

Big science.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:58 PM on May 8, 2006

edd: i'm not a radio astronomer so i don't know how to evaluate the statements on the VLA website that it has the resolution of a 36km telescope and the sensitivity of a 130m scope. but i think it's disingenuous to point out that 1 > .130 when 36 > 1 as well.

also have to disagree with the "world's largest scientific instrument". the large hadron collider has a circumference of 27 km. the tevatron has a circumference of 4 miles. LIGO has 4km arms. the SLAC linac is 3km long. and so on. i guess a lot of this boils down to how you define "largest" but i don't see icecube coming out on top any of the ways i can think of.

thanks for posting this though. neutrino observatories are very cool.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:27 PM on May 8, 2006

(scrupulously avoiding snarky comments about the "world's largest scientific instrument")
posted by neckro23 at 5:38 PM on May 8, 2006

I realize I made a mistake in the FPP. It is not "encompassing a square kilometer of the Antarctic icecap" but rather a cubic kilometer how that changes comparisons with the large hadron collider or very large array is unclear.

And what is up with those instruments anyway, do they have something to prove using "Large" and "Very Large" in their names? Hrumph.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:46 PM on May 8, 2006

blahblahblah - ... something to prove...

Getting money from various agencies?

No no, ours is much bigger. In fact, ours is a very large array much better and more prestigious than the merrely large array the next country over has (or the previous administration approved).
posted by porpoise at 6:21 PM on May 8, 2006

The VLA is the "Very Large Array", the largest radio telescope in the world. It's made up of a large number of radio dishes on rails which can be place as needed on three radial tracks 120 degrees apart. In its "A" configuration, the VLA simulates a dish with a diameter of 36 kilometers, but with a collection area comparable to a single dish 130 meters in diameter.

The 36 kilometer number affects the imaging resolution. The 130 meter number affects the amplitude of the signal, which is to say the system's sensitivity.

Arecibo has more collection area but it only has limited ability to point at things, so in practice it can only look at a particular target for a few minutes at a time. The dishes which make up the VLA are fully steerable, so the VLA can observe the same target as long as it's above the horizon. (And daylight makes no difference to a radio telescope.)

When Voyager 2 had its encounter with Neptune, the VLA was used to receive its transmissions because no other radio receiver in the world was capable of doing the job.

Of course, it depends on how you define "big". Radio astronomers have done some pretty cool stuff. For instance, they've used radio telescopes separated by thousands of miles, ranging from Mauna Kea to St. Croix, to observe the same target simultaneously in order to simulate a single dish 8 thousand kilometers in diamater.

But the coolest thing of all they've done is to take radio telescope observations of the same object from a single telescope 6 months apart, and to use complex mathematics to combine those observations so as to simulate a single dish with a diameter of 285 million kilometers, the diameter of the orbit of the Earth. If you'll accept that as an entry in the contest then I think it wins the prize.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:08 PM on May 8, 2006

By the way, my pick for coolest superlative name is OWL, which stands for "OverWhelmingly Large". It's a project being developed by the European Southern Observatory to build a telescope in Chile with a 100 meter main mirror.

They're serious about it, too, though it remains to be seen whether they can get the funding.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:14 PM on May 8, 2006

Science Penis!!
posted by Balisong at 9:27 PM on May 8, 2006

Another such "telescope" is built in southern Greece and is part of an EU effort called the NESTOR project (I had to post this, my first physics prof ever manages it). I liked their title, cosmic fishing.
posted by carmina at 10:58 PM on May 8, 2006

Also check out the NOvA detector, which hopes to look at neutrino oscillations. Screw the debates over what's "largest," this will be the largest PVC structure ever built. And it will be filled, essentially, with baby oil.

Disclaimer: I'm about to start working on it, most likely swimming in pools of the oil to see if it's "baby" enough. Oh how I hope it is!

Side note: In the picture of the Super-K workers in the boat, what they're doing is going around individually cleaning each of the photodetectors on the wall. Then they raise the water level a bit, and repeat. Then they get awarded Ph.D.'s.
posted by dsword at 11:26 PM on May 8, 2006

1 cubic kilometer = 1 billion cubic metres.
1 billion cubic metres of pure H2O ice should weigh around 917 million tonnes.

Which is a lot.

To give an idea of how much that is, imagine that you have a VolksWagen Beetle.
Imagine that you have a whole lot of them.
Imagine that you have so many that if you put them bumper to bumper, they'll go all the way around the earth.

11 times.

Then those cars would weigh less than 1/10th of the cubic kilometre of ice.

I'm not sure of the definition of 'large', but I'm fairly certain that this qualifies as the most massive scientific instrument ever.

I have waaaay to much spare time.
posted by spazzm at 1:25 AM on May 9, 2006

Here's a great recent NPR piece about neutrino detection. I listened to it and thought "wow, all science pieces on the radio should have sound effects!" YMMV.

Oh, and that's a lot of ice. Nice post.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:20 AM on May 9, 2006

Nifty post
posted by Smedleyman at 9:43 AM on May 9, 2006

That's pretty dam big. And building it out of ice rather then liquid water means that they won't have to worry about the kinds of chain reactions and pressure that caused all the detector bulbs to implode.
posted by delmoi at 10:01 AM on May 9, 2006

What's the point of a neutrino detector? They exist, I don't see us doing any experiments with them, we know about how frequent they are.

What's to gain would be a nice addition to the article.
posted by Four Flavors at 2:08 PM on May 11, 2006

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