A Piece of IceCube Arrives at the Smithsonian

An Arctic sensor finally gets its day in the sun.

IceCube used pressurized hot water to melt shafts and place sensors into the polar ice.

Beneath the ice of Antarctica, more than 5,000 sensors—maintained by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory—keep watch for tiny flashes of blue light as subatomic particles traveling at the speed of light collide with molecules of ice. In May, one such sensor, a 25-pound sphere known as a Digital Optical Module, or DOM, instead of being sent to the South Pole, found itself arriving in Washington, D.C. to become part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.

“It’s quite an impressive technical feat,” says David DeVorkin, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who nominated the sensor for acquisition. “[IceCube] has opened up this otherwise invisible realm of ultra-high-energy particle physics.”

IceCube made history in 2017 when a sensor detected a very high energy neutrino, triggering an alert to observatories around the world. Additional data from those observers made it possible to trace the neutrino’s source to an enormous flaring black hole 3.7 billion light years from Earth. The mystery of the source of cosmic rays had been solved, while also demonstrating “the concern that no telescope works alone,” says DeVorkin.

Kael Hanson, IceCube’s director of operations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that some 200 collaborators were in Madison the day the sensor was sent to D.C., so it turned into a farewell ceremony.

“It’s a great honor,” Hanson says. “It’s the Smithsonian. It’s an invite-only club.”

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This story is a selection from the August issue of Air & Space magazine