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Cool Science: The IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Floating around us at all times, there are tiny subatomic particles moving so fast it's nearly impossible to detect them. Scientists believe that these ghostly particles, called neutrinos, might even be able to pass straight through earth without ever running into another atom. Determined to trace these elusive neutrinos, researches in Antarctica have built a contraption to do just that: The IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

A light detector is lowered into the IceCube Neutrino Observatory near the South Pole, which acts as a neutrino detector in search of the elusive subatomic particle. NSF/B. Gudbjartsson, IceCube Collaboration hide caption

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NSF/B. Gudbjartsson, IceCube Collaboration

A light detector is lowered into the IceCube Neutrino Observatory near the South Pole, which acts as a neutrino detector in search of the elusive subatomic particle.

NSF/B. Gudbjartsson, IceCube Collaboration

In December, technicians finished installing more than 5,000 light-detectors deep in the ice below the South Pole. On the rare occasion when a neutrino collides with an atom in the ice, it will produce a flash of light that these detectors can record. Over time, astronomers can study these neutrino flashes to learn about the black holes, exploding stars and other exotic places in the universe where the neutrinos originated.

Workers float on a raft in the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory which lies beneath Mount Kamioka in Hida, Japan. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

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Wikimedia Commons

Workers float on a raft in the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory which lies beneath Mount Kamioka in Hida, Japan.

Wikimedia Commons

While diving into the world of neutrino science, we discovered the eerie sci-fi-ish world of neutrino detectors. These Kubrick-esque detectors can be filled with water, ice, chlorine, gallium and thousands of phototubes waiting for a reaction to occur between an otherworldly neutrino and boring old normal particle.

A 2009 London art installation, Super K Sonic Booum by Nelly Ben Hayoun, replicated a neutrino detector, allowing the public to ride in a boat accompanied by the physicists working on the Super-Kamiokande in Japan. Nick Ballon hide caption

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Nick Ballon

A 2009 London art installation, Super K Sonic Booum by Nelly Ben Hayoun, replicated a neutrino detector, allowing the public to ride in a boat accompanied by the physicists working on the Super-Kamiokande in Japan.

Nick Ballon

This 15-foot Bubble Chamber, from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., is a neutrino detector relic of the 1970s, the early days of high-energy particle physics. Michael Kappel hide caption

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Michael Kappel
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