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January 12, 2010

To escape the sometimes-nasty Wisconsin winter, several dozen scientists, engineers, and others headed south a couple of months ago. But these snowbirds took it to extremes -- they went all the way to the South Pole.

HAUGEN: If the Sun is shining and it's 20 below zero, 25 below zero, it actually feels pretty comfortable, especially a lot of us on the project are from Wisconsin and it gets mighty cold here. I wouldn't say that we're used to it, but you kind of develop a tolerance for those types of conditions.

That's Jim Haugen, a manager on a project called IceCube. It's sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and operated out of the University of Wisconsin. It's designed to look for neutrinos -- ghostly particles from far beyond our own solar system.

It'll do so with more than 5,000 light detectors buried more than a mile deep in the ice. When a neutrino strikes an atom in the ice, it creates another particle, which in turn emits a flash of blue light. Computers record the flashes and measure their direction, and filter out flashes caused by other particles.

The detectors are attached to cables that are sunk into the ice. A couple of months ago, 59 of the cables were in place. Up to 20 more are being installed right now, during the brief summer season at the South Pole. And when construction is completed next year, IceCube will consist of a total of 86 cables, each with 60 sensors.

We'll talk more about what those sensors are looking for tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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