South Dakota Mines Professor Reflects on IceCube’s 10th Anniversary and Discoveries at the South Pole

Dr. Xinhua Bai, associate professor of physics at South Dakota Mines shown here at the South Pole (seated lower right) during his research in 1998. Dr. Bai is among a group of scientists whose work helped establish the international IceCube Collaboration, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week.

Ten years ago, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory fully opened its eyes for the first time, the eyes that allow curious scientists to “see” signals from passing astrophysical neutrinos: mysterious, tiny, extremely lightweight particles created by some of the most energetic and distant phenomena in the cosmos. IceCube is a gigantic three-dimensional detector for high energy cosmic rays, whose origins remained unknown, after they were discovered over a century ago.

South Dakota Mines associate professor of physics, Xinhua Bai, Ph.D., is among the original “dreamers,” which included a few dozen scientists, who helped start the international IceCube Collaboration. Today, the diverse group of researchers includes over 350 scientists from 53 institutions in 12 countries and five continents.

“I was extremely lucky to be one of the early scientists on this collaboration. After I received my Ph.D., driven by my curiosity, I started as a winter over scientist for the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array and the South Pole Air Shower Experiment  in 1998.” Bai says. “These two predecessor experiments not only proved the concept of doing astroparticle physics studies with the ice at the South Pole but also accumulated valuable operational experience that is essential for the success of the IceCube project.”   

Bai and his team have contributed to important breakthroughs at IceCube and were awarded a $6-million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2020 to enhance IceCube’s big data processing and astronomical capabilities.

IceCube has two components, a surface array called IceTop and an in-ice array consisting of a hexagonal grid of sensors embedded in a cubic kilometer of ice about a mile below the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet at the South Pole. The construction of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory was a nearly decade-long endeavor by dozens of intrepid technicians, engineers, and scientists who had traveled to the South Pole—one of the coldest, driest, and most isolated places on Earth—to build the biggest, strangest telescope in the world. Crews drilled 86 holes nearly two-and-a-half kilometers deep and lowered a cable strung with 60 basketball-sized light detectors into each hole. In the meantime, it was also a fun endeavor. Despite ten thousand miles away from home, hardworking and fun-loving IceCubers, for example, figured out a way to bring one of their comforts from home to the Pole by setting up a golf course and driving range.

Since IceCube began its full operation on May 13, 2011, IceCube has been watching the cosmos and collecting data continuously for a decade. The high-quality data supports multidisciplinary research by scientists from all over the world. In 2013 the collaboration announced the first evidence for neutrinos from outside our galaxy with the detection of two very energetic neutrino events and, soon after, the observation of 26 additional very high energy events. Since then, we’ve seen more astrophysical neutrinos and have made strides in the fields of neutrino physics, astrophysics, and multi messenger astronomy. From pinpointing potential neutrino sources to the recent detection of a Glashow resonance event, IceCube has proven again and again the value of capturing perhaps the most elusive particles in the universe. The success has led to the growing cohort of scientists using state of the art techniques to analyze IceCube data.

IceCube is also an excellent project that inspires the next generation of physicists by bringing education and outreach activities to people of all ages and backgrounds. The unusual instrument continues to expand its science reach by providing junior researchers and graduate students with rich data for the study of neutrino properties, dark matter, cosmic rays, and fundamental physics. “IceCube has shown us only the very beginning of what it will become. There is much work for us to do, many dreams for graduate students like me to achieve,” said Ms. Diana Leon Silverio, Ph.D. student in the Physics Department at the South Dakota Mines. “I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with so many wonderful scientists on such an amazing experiment.”

In the last decade, IceCube have also produced a web comic and translated it into 10 languages, created IceCube-themed arts and crafts, hosted countless South Pole webinars, supported multiple artinstallations, brought educators to the South Pole, and much more. More and more K-12 students are inspired by these educational efforts, including those in the Black Hills region in South Dakota and Wyoming. IceCube MasterClass in particular, gives high school students their first glimpse of how scientists formulate questions, design experiments, and analyze data to understand the universe and its minutest constituents. “IceCube, and the yearly masterclass, have given my Advanced Placement Physics students a platform to become exposed to the cutting edge of scientific research,” said Dr. Andrew W. Smith, Science Teacher at the Stevens High School, Rapid City, SD.  “The experiment, it's remote location, state-of-the art detectors, diverse team, and profound mission to better understand the foundational building blocks of our world draws them in and encourages them to deepen their foundational skill set so that they too may one day pursue a career in research.”

There is also much to look forward to in IceCube’s bright future. Though the pandemic has slightly altered the timeline, the National Science Foundation has provided funding for the next stage of our South Pole detector, the IceCube Upgrade, which will pave the way to the proposed larger, high-energy extension, IceCube-Gen2. SDM has been an associate member of IceCube since 2010 and a full member since 2014. The new NSF IceCube EPSCoR Initiative (IEI) Track-2 project will increase our research capacity at South Dakota Mines and five other universities in EPSCoR jurisdictions so that we can establish a more capable and diverse team to produce more science results with IceCube data and continue contributing to both the Upgrade and Gen2.

“I’m excited to be part of SDM community of extraordinary scientists,” said Matthias Plum, Ph.D. and newly hired assistant professor in the Physics Department at SDM. “I am ready to extend my science analysis and participate in the development and construction of the IceCube-Gen2, which hopefully will lead to more discoveries in the cosmic frontiers.”

To celebrate this milestone with us, keep an eye on our website and social media profiles—we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube—and follow the hashtag #IceCube10. Over the next five months leading up to our fall collaboration meeting in September, we will share highlights from the past decade—and earlier!


Last edited 5/13/2021 4:23:50 PM

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