One of UW-Madison’s most far-flung laboratories received $23 million in federal funding to expand its research on subatomic particles that travel through space at nearly the speed of light.
The National Science Foundation awarded the funding earlier this month for the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, an international research collaboration led by UW-Madison and located at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica.
Buried about a mile beneath sheets of ice are more than 5,100 sensors connected by a series of 86 strings that make up the world’s largest neutrino detector.
Neutrinos, also known as “ghost particles” because they propel through the universe, were first identified beyond Earth’s galaxy in 2013 by IceCube.
The additional money secured by IceCube will allow researchers to add seven new strings and more than 700 sensors even further below the sensors already in place. The new sensors will be two to three times more sensitive than the current ones.
The upgrade will allow for more precise studies of the oscillation properties of neutrinos, according to Kael Hanson, director of the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center.
It will also open the door to a better understanding of the ice around the detector and improve the instrument’s performance.
The IceCube upgrade will be a “stepping stone” to a larger project upgrade known as IceCube-Gen2 by adding two new types of sensors that will be tested as candidates for Gen2, Hanson said.
The Gen2 project will increase the surface area and volume that sensors cover tenfold.
“With IceCube, we get about one astrophysically interesting event once a month,” he said. “We need thousands of events to understand what’s going on in the cosmos.”
One of those previous events led to IceCube researchers last summer cracking a more than century-old mystery — the origin of high-energy neutrinos and cosmic rays.
The upgrade will be installed in late 2022 and early 2023.
To install each new string of sensors, staff at the South Pole will drill holes through the ice using a specialized hot-water drilling rig.
UW-Madison’s Physical Sciences Laboratory, near Stoughton, will create the customized equipment and lead the drilling operations, according to lab director Robert Paulos.
Michigan State University and international partners in Japan and Germany will help on the project and contribute roughly $14 million, bringing the total project investment to about $37 million.