Neutrinos under Antarctica – Breakthrough of the Year

A team of international scientists that operate the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole has been awarded the 2013 ‘Breakthrough of the Year’ by British magazine Physics World.

The scientists are members of the IceCube Collaboration, which established and operates the huge particle detector. Last month, the scientists announced the discovery of astrophysical neutrinos, which they said heralded a new age of astronomy.

The award from Physics World not only recognises the neutrino discovery but also the challenge of creating and operating the detector under the ice at the South Pole.

Some of the scientists have spent seven summers in Antarctica overseeing the deployment of strings of optical detectors embedded in a cubic kilometre of ice.

Last month’s report in Science magazine was the first solid evidence for astrophysical neutrinos, very high-energy particles coming from distant regions of our galaxy or further. The scientists say this will lead to new ways of exploring the universe.

They reported the observation of 28 very high-energy 'particle events' and estimate that about half of these have come from distant, as yet unidentified, highly energetic sources. The discovery opens up the possibility for a new type of astronomy that astronomers can use to probe the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond.

The IceCube Collaboration involves 250 physicists and engineers from the United States, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Korea, New Zealand and Australia, and is led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"This is the first indication of high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system," says Professor Francis Halzen, IceCube principal investigator and professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"It is gratifying to finally see what we have been looking for."

Neutrinos are nearly massless subatomic particles. Because they rarely interact with matter, they can carry information about the workings of the highest-energy and most distant phenomena in the universe.

Billions of neutrinos pass through every square centimetre of the Earth every second, but the vast majority originate either in the Sun or in the Earth's atmosphere.

Astrophysical neutrinos are far rarer and have long been theorised to provide insights into potential sources of cosmic rays, the highest energy particles ever observed.

Runners-up in the Breakthrough award are listed in Physics World.