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The IceCube Laboratory at the South Pole holds computer servers that collect data from sensors
under the ice.
Buried more than a
mile deep in the clear ice of Antarctica, the world’s largest
observatory of its kind is collecting data about neutrinos, high-energy
subatomic particles that speed through space, that helps scientists
explore the cosmos and seek to answer some of the fundamental questions
Known as IceCube,
the observatory at the South Pole has been in full operation since
2011, detecting hundreds of neutrinos from space and producing numerous
important findings in particle astrophysics. It’s made up of a
collaboration of about 300 physicists from 53 institutions, including
the University of Delaware, in 12 countries.
This summer, the data gathered by the massive telescope also provided
a group of 16 undergraduate and graduate students from UD and five
other institutions with the opportunity to contribute to the research.
The students, most on the UD campus and a few working remotely, used
supercomputers to analyze data from IceCube as they developed their own
research and computer skills.
The program was supported through a National Science Foundation (NSF)
grant awarded in 2020, part of plans to improve big-data infrastructure
in order to continue and expand the management and analysis of IceCube
data. The $6 million, four-year grant focused on six states, including
Delaware, targeted by EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate
Competitive Research), an NSF grant program to help states develop their
research capabilities and institutions.
“This summer program involved students from institutions in the six
states, all selected based on merit,” said Frank G. Schroeder, assistant
professor of physics and astronomy at UD and a Sloan Research Fellow,
who is a co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. The program will
move among the other EPSCoR universities in the future after its initial
session at UD.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
UD Prof. David Seckel speaks with students in the summer program as they take a break on the steps of Sharp Lab.
Participating students this summer began the program with a series
of lectures in which Schroeder and other professors and postdoctoral
researchers reviewed the skills and techniques needed for data analysis.
Each student then began a research project involving IceCube data under
the direction of the researchers with the project, including Schroeder,
postdoctoral researcher Alan Coleman and Prof. David Seckel, all from
the Bartol Research Institute at UD’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
To conduct their research, the students used supercomputing resources
from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the lead university in the
IceCube collaboration, to analyze the data or to run simulations. They
also gained experience in presenting their findings, through group
sessions held twice a week.
“They all worked on projects directly related to IceCube or
tangential to it,” Coleman said. “Some measured particles coming into
our galaxy, such as cosmic rays or neutrinos. Those are the kinds of
data that IceCube is collecting.”
As the students continue working at their home institutions this
fall, they will be applying what they learned about data science,
Schroeder said. The expectation is that their new knowledge and skills
will benefit them and their future research, which may or may not
involve the IceCube project.
“We hope that some of these students will get interested in this
subfield and continue to work in it,” Schroeder said. “But they had to
learn very technical computing skills, the kinds of skills that are used
in a lot of areas of research in physics, so what they learned this
summer will be useful to them even if they never work on IceCube again.”
With the IceCube Laboratory in the distance, Frank
Schroeder shovels a trench for cables leading to a radio antenna he
deployed at the South Pole in January 2020.
For Dana Kullgren, a sophomore in UD's Honors College who is looking
ahead to graduate school and a career in academia, the program offered a
perfect opportunity to begin exploring research and to develop her
computer and analytical skills. At first, she said, she was worried
about her lack of research experience.
“However, I found that everyone was willing to explain things to me
when I didn’t understand them, so now I feel much more confident about
my research project,” she said. “I learned new things by doing and by
asking questions. This program gave me my first experience with
research, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.”
Another participant, Diana Leon Silverio, is a physics graduate
student at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who was
already conducting research involving IceCube. But the summer program
greatly expanded her skills and her interest, she said.
“It also allowed me to meet many scientists and the role they play
within the collaboration [as well as] many contemporary students who,
like me, are working on Ice Cube,” Silverio said. “I really want to
continue growing and learning academically around IceCube—and maybe, in
the not too distant future, to contribute to this wonderful experiment.”
This schematic shows the IceCube telescope embedded over a mile
deep in the clear Antarctic ice sheet. It includes 86
strings holding 5,160 light sensors arranged in a three-dimensional
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory has been operating at NSF’s
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for more than a decade, briefly
catching neutrinos as they travel through space at almost the speed of
light and pass through almost anything they encounter.
The data from IceCube’s 5,000-plus optical sensors—suspended on 86
cables, like beads on a string, deep in the Antarctic glacier—has
allowed new research into violent events such as colliding black holes
and exploding stars. Now, the scientists who collaborate on the
observatory are working on an upgrade.
In 2019, the NSF awarded a grant to the IceCube Collaboration to begin upgrading the capacity of the observatory.
Planning for the next step, a large-scale extension called IceCube-Gen2,
is underway now. UD is playing a lead role regarding a surface detector
for cosmic rays that will complement the extension of detectors deep in
the ice. Construction of the additional detectors is proposed to start
in 2024, with installation at the Pole beginning two or three years
later and lasting several years, giving physicists access to its data
far into the future.
“This is a project that will go on to be worked on by the next generation of scientists,” Schroeder said.
The student research program at UD this summer was designed to train
some of that next generation. It was part of a larger grant supporting
the improvement of infrastructure in the EPSCoR states of Alabama,
Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
While UD is not the lead institution, it receives the largest share
of the $6 million, about $1.8 million, and Seckel serves as chair of the
collaborative grant’s executive committee. The grant supports early
career faculty, trains postdoctoral scholars and college students and
exposes high school students from underrepresented groups to IceCube,
big data and STEM fields in general.
“The success of this project will establish a diverse, competitive
and sustainable EPSCoR team with increased research capacity to ensure
that EPSCoR leverages a prominent role in IceCube’s future,” according
to the grant proposal.
To learn more about EPSCoR at UD, visit Delaware EPSCoR.
Article by Ann Manser; photos courtesy of Frank Schroeder, Alan Coleman and the IceCube Collaboration
Published Aug. 24, 2021