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Prince Harry and IceCube

Prince Harry and IceCube

by William H. Benson

December 19, 2013

     On Friday the thirteenth Prince Harry arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. The twenty-nine-year old British army helicopter pilot joined his six UK teammates as they gathered around the mirror-like chrome sphere set atop the red and white striped pole. “It will just prove to everybody,” Harry said, “that there’s so much that can be made possible when you think that nothing else is left.”

     His team wore red parkas and was one of three teams that raised funds for Walking with the Wounded, a charity that supports wounded servicemen and women. The United States team wore blue, and the Australian and Canadian team wore yellow. At first, the three teams raced, but then part-way through they gave up the competition and decided to cooperate and enjoy the 208 mile course.

     For over a week the three teams’ members walked across Antarctica’s ice on skis, while holding a pole in each hand and pulling a sled that contained food, supplies, and tent. Because the elevation at the South Pole is at 9301feet high, the air is thin, the average daily high temperature this month is -15.7 °F, and the wind blows strong every day. Most of that elevation, nearly two miles thick, is compressed ice.

     What did Prince Harry see once he arrived at the South Pole? First, he saw a settlement of no more than 200 people, mainly scientists: glaciologists, astrophysicists, and climatologists. He saw the unheated 164 foot wide geodesic dome, built in 1975, that holds the town’s supplies and fuel, and he saw the modern rectangular box-like building that stands on stilts above the icepack, and where the men and women live and work and relax.

     He saw the South Pole Telescope, first directed at the stars in 2007, and also he saw the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the South Pole’s most amazing attraction. The Observatory is a three-year-old telescope that is aimed not at the stars above, but at the ice underneath.

     Scientists drilled eighty-six holes deep into that ice, almost to bedrock. They then dropped a string of sixty Digital Optical Modules, each the size of a basketball, down each hole to depths of between 4750 to 8000 feet. The 5160 DOM’s detect the faint blue light that is emitted whenever a neutrino from outer space strikes an oxygen atom, part of the water molecule. The ghost-like neutrino is without electrical charge and mass, and passes through everything it touches, including planet Earth.

     For months, the astrophysicists watched but failed to find any neutrinos, and so they looked at the data again. On November 26, 2013, Professor Lutz Kopke announced that “we have found neutrinos that were very probably generated in the vast expanses of outer space.” He and his fellow scientists  discovered twenty-eight high-energy neutrinos that passed through IceCube between 2010 and 2012.

     The scientists believe that the neutrinos were created “in the proximity of supernovas, black holes, pulsars, active galaxies, or other extra galactic phenomena.” These cosmic accelerators drove the neutrinos outward in all directions. A reporter explained that IceCube is like a camera that develops “a long-exposure photograph” of what once occurred in deep space. Rather than seeing photons of light, it detects the neutrinos, the negative image of that light.

     Astrophysics is a science that promises future revelations, as well as exciting and intriguing glimpses into other galaxies, and into other worlds within our own Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers continue to discover other planets that revolve around their own sun, and their goal is to find a planet situated at that ideal distance from its sun, like Earth, neither too hot nor too cold, a place where plant and animal life could evolve.

     So back from the Afghanistan war are Prince Harry, a member of Britain’s royal, and his fellow warriors, some who walked on Antarctica’s ice with a prosthesis, or who saw none of it because they were blinded by a bomb. Harry was truly walking with the wounded. They met the scientists at the frozen South Pole, a place where neither native plant or animal lives, on a continent that receives so little precipitation that geographers label it a desert.

     Warriors and scientists have little to say to each other because they each hold different mindsets, distinct and divergent points of view of how to see and relate to the world. A ruler would not send his scientists to the battlefield, and he would not ask his warriors to conduct scientific experiments. But for a few hours last weekend, they met and talked about deep space, neutrinos, and a space observatory located in a dense block of ice a mile or two below their feet.


     Perhaps Harry and his team will stay long enough to celebrate the South Pole’s summer solstice on December 21, the day when summer begins, when the shadows are the shortest.