Celebrating IceCube’s first decade of discovery

It was the beginning of a grand experiment unlike anything the world had ever seen. Ten years ago today, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory fully opened its eyes for the first time.

Over the course of the previous seven years, dozens of intrepid technicians, engineers, and scientists 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. The result was a hexagonal grid of sensors embedded in a cubic kilometer of ice about a mile below the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet. On December 18, 2010, the 5,160th light sensor was deployed in the ice, completing the construction of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

A schematic of the in-ice portion of IceCube, which includes 86 strings holding 5,160 light sensors arranged in a three-dimensional hexagonal grid.
(Click image to zoom.) A schematic of IceCube, which includes 86 strings holding 5,160 light sensors arranged in a three-dimensional hexagonal grid. Credit: IceCube Collaboration

The purpose of the unconventional telescope was to detect signals from passing astrophysical neutrinos: mysterious, tiny, extremely lightweight particles created by some of the most energetic and distant phenomena in the cosmos. IceCube’s founders believed that studying these astrophysical neutrinos would reveal hidden parts of the universe. Over the course of the next decade, they would be proven right.

IceCube began full operations on May 13, 2011—ten years ago today—when the detector took its first set of data as a completed instrument. Since then, IceCube has been watching the cosmos and collecting data continuously for a decade.

During its first few years of operation, IceCube accumulated vast amounts of data, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the observatory yielded its first major results. That year, 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 multimessenger 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 National Science Foundation took a dual gamble on IceCube related to the performance of the technology and the sensitivity of the instrument as a neutrino telescope,” said Francis Halzen, principal investigator of IceCube and professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, home of the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) where IceCube is headquartered. “The IceCube Collaboration has delivered a decade of data that continues to validate the high risk and high reward approach.”

This success has led to a growing cohort of scientists using state of the art techniques to analyze IceCube data. What started with a couple dozen dreamers is now the international IceCube Collaboration: a diverse group of over 350 scientists from 53 institutions in 12 countries across five continents. And we are actively working to inspire the next generation of physicists by bringing education and outreach activities to people of all ages and backgrounds. In the last decade, we have produced a web comic and translated it into 10 languages, created IceCube-themed arts and crafts, hosted countless South Pole webinars, supported multiple art installations, brought educators to the South Pole, and much more.

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!

There is also much to look forward to in IceCube’s bright future. The unusual instrument continues to expand its science reach, with leading results on neutrino properties, dark matter, cosmic rays, and fundamental physics. 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.

While our 2021 celebrations will be mostly online, we hope we can continue the festivities in person sometime soon when we can gather safely. For now, thank you for joining us virtually to celebrate IceCube’s first decade of discovery!

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (OPP-1600823 and PHY-1913607) and is headquartered at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center, a research center of UW–Madison in the United States. IceCube’s research efforts, including critical contributions to the detector operation, are funded by agencies in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The IceCube EPSCoR Initiative (IEI) also receives additional support through NSF-EPSCoR-2019597. IceCube construction was also funded with significant contributions from the National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS & FWO) in Belgium; the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Germany; the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, and the Swedish Research Council in Sweden; and the University of Wisconsin–Madison Research Fund in the U.S.