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'Ghost Particles' In Antarctica Offer Glimpse Of Deep Space

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'Ghost Particles' In Antarctica Offer Glimpse Of Deep Space


'Ghost Particles' In Antarctica Offer Glimpse Of Deep Space

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Now to the South Pole where scientists have developed a new kind of telescope. They've embedded thousands of sensors deep into the ice to study the heavens. Today, researchers announced that this telescope has captured particles given off by violent events outside our solar system.

NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reached out to the scientists to explain.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Pretty much everything we can see in the universe glows. Astronomers capture the light from stars and galaxies using huge telescopes. But Francis Halzen has his eye on something else. Halzen is a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And he's obsessed with a ghostly particle called the neutrino. Neutrinos are fundamental. They're smaller than atoms. They're smaller than the things that make up atoms. Just like light, they're made inside stars. But there is one important difference.

FRANCIS HALZEN: Neutrinos go through walls and light does not.

BRUMFIEL: He's being modest. Neutrinos don't just go through walls. Trillions of them are passing through you right now. Most of them go straight through ground, through the Earth's core and out the other side.

HALZEN: So they may allow us to do astronomy that you cannot do with light, that's kind of the dream.

BRUMFIEL: Neutrinos are sort of the ultimate X-rays. They can shoot through the thickest dust and debris. So they can see the cores of exploding stars or the edge of black holes. There's just one little hitch. Since neutrinos hardly ever react with everyday matter, most of them will pass straight through the telescope you're trying to see them with.

So a neutrino telescope needs to be very different. It has to big so a lot of neutrinos go through it; very dense, so that a few will get caught; and transparent, that's because when a neutrino gets caught it gives off a flash of light.

Halzen's team came up with the perfect stuff for the job: Ice.

HALZEN: I mean it's the ultimate transparent medium, I don't think you can make in a lab a medium that is transparent as ice.

BRUMFIEL: And where can you find a lot of ice: The South Pole. So they went to the U.S.'s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The group marked out a huge cube of ice about a mile beneath the surface. They actually called it Ice Cube. The next step was figuring out how to put thousands of light sensors inside. Halzen admits it seemed like a long shot.

HALZEN: You know it is crazy. I mean people thought I was crazy when I talked about this.


PIERRE SOKOLSKY: Yeah. I have to say I thought it was on the edge of possibility.

BRUMFIEL: Pierre Sokolsky is a researcher at the University of Utah who studies high-energy particles from space.

SOKOLSKY: They had no idea how they were going to actually drill into the ice and drop these detectors, you know, kilometers into the ice.

BRUMFIEL: But they worked out a system. First, they used hot water to melt the ice. Then they dropped in strings of detectors.

SOKOLSKY: And it works like a charm now.

BRUMFIEL: Today, in the journal Science, the first results are in. After two years, Ice Cube has caught 28 neutrinos from beyond the solar system. That's enough to show it works, but Francis Halzen says they're still not quite sure what they're looking at.

HALZEN: You know, I don't think we have enough pixels to see the picture.

BRUMFIEL: In the years to come, the researchers hope that the telescope will slowly fill in more and more of the pixels, perhaps revealing the universe's most intriguing hot spots one neutrino at a time.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.


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