Category Archives: NSF

Astrophysics, IceCube, and Building a Muon Detector

by Maddy Boettner, Century College Graduate, and UWRF undergrad in Physics.

The summer has flown by and we now only have two weeks left of the internship! The last eight weeks I have learned so much about particle physics and astrophysics.

I am from Stillwater, MN, which is only about twenty five minutes away from River Falls. Most of the students are from all around the United States. I have been going to school at Century College which is a two year community college. I have decided that I will be attending the University of Wisconsin River Falls this upcoming fall for physics. Growing up I always wanted to understand how the Universe works and I have also always loved astronomy, but I didn’t know that I had any interest in physics at all. When I started college I kept changing my mind and switching my major because I had no idea what I wanted to do, until I accidentally discovered physics. I discovered physics much later than most who go into the field. It wasn’t until after high school and well into college that I started becoming interested in physics and taking classes.

I am very excited to be apart of the REU group this summer. One of my favorite parts was going to Madison for the IceCube bootcamp. It was a great opportunity where we got to learn a lot of physics and computer programming from IceCube professors from all over. Then in the evenings we would all explore Madison together. We ate delicious food and listened to music on the lake.

I believe that I was the only one who started the internship this summer with no computer programming experience. At first this intimidated me but it has been a wonderful experience for me to learn some programming skills this summer and to work with other students who do have previous programming experience. They have helped me out and taught me so much!

My project this summer has been to build a prototype muon particle detector for IceCube Gen2, which would be an expansion of the existing IceCube Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole. Last year a student made a prototype of the detector using optical fibers in a PVC pipe and this year I am using a 55 gallon drum. Inside the drum it is full of water and it has 8 wavelength shifting optical fibers spread out in it.

Here I am feeding optical fibers into a holder, which will be set near a SiPM, a silicon photomultiplier. The black drum contains water, our Cherenkov medium, and the fibers are spread out inside the drum.

When a muon passes through the water it is moving faster than the speed of light in the water which creates an effect known as Cherenkov Radiation. Cherenkov radiation is bluish light emitted in a cone. It is equivalent to a sonic boom but with light instead of sound. When the radiation occurs my fibers absorb the light. The light then travels to the ends of the fibers which are pushed up against a silicon photomultiplier. The Silicon photomultiplier detects the light and then sends a signal to an oscilloscope where we can read the signal. From there I use code in python to sort the the data.

I have been working to build and test a detector that is more cost efficient and potentially easier to move than the current design that IceCube uses. Eventually the rigid drum will be replaced by a flexible container, like a sack that is easy to transport and deploy.

Another Summer of Astrophysics Starts at UWRF

By Grace Zeit (UWRF Undergraduate, featured photo on left.)

It has been several weeks since the start of the program and everyone is already hard at work. We have a wide variety of projects revolving around both IceCube and the South Pole Neutron Monitors(SPNM).  The projects include:  leader fraction analysis on the SPNM (my project), simulating SPNM and factoring in the dead time of the electronics, testing the SPICE model using CDOM flashers, PMT linearity testing ,  modeling Muons from Cascades, characterizing the ICEACT lens, understanding the declining count rate of the SPNM, and understanding the neutron monitor code. The bootcamp is being held later in the summer this year than past years,  so we were all able to start working on our projects within the first week. We settled into a routine pretty quickly; wake up, morning exercise, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, take a break to enjoy some ice-cream, leave work at 5 to get dinner together, rinse and repeat. Most of the researchers this year are keeping to this schedule in some form or another with varying faces in the activities outside of work, as a result we have become fast friends.

Most of the previous weeks have been spent learning different programing languages and understanding the basics of particle physics and beginning our projects.  Many of us are learning new skills and strengthening old ones for our projects. My project in particular requires me to learn how to calculate the leader fraction, understand what the number means, be able to read and understand the data files coming from the South Pole, and program the required calculations in Python.

Left: REU and neutron monitor student is Madison for the boot camp. Right: Amy Zingsheim, Maddy Boettner, and Joseph Jahn. Maddy is assembling optical fibers for her Cherenkov muon detector.

A couple of weeks most of the group journeyed to Madison for the IceCube bootcamp. I however, was still in River Falls since I have attended the bootcamp before. I really enjoyed my week in Madison last year, in particular the end of the week project and the talk by Francis Halzen. This year I was curious as to what my new found friends/co-research students, thought of the experience. Francis Halzen has once again captivated those in attendance with his talk. The presentation on the nature of the various impurities of the ice in the detector and how that affects the DOM readings was another favorite. In their spare time in Madison the students enjoyed the many food choices Madison has to offer and even an open mic night.

Below are some photos of the summer students at work.

Maria del Valle Coello in the Optics Lab with the Fresnel lens from the IceAct telescope. Patrick Sheehan-Klenk working on his GEANT4 code.
Left: Amy with Dr. Waraporn Fhon Nuntiyakul, and Kathryn Grutkoski running code, right..
Kyle Lueckfeld, Rachel Schnell, and Laura Rosen, busy pushing back the frontiers of physics.

South Pole: At Last

By Lindsay Berkhout (University of Chicago Astronomy and Astrophysics Undergraduate)
Pole day 1
The morning of our last day in McMurdo we decided to venture out again in search of wildlife, and this time were rewarded as we headed to the Observation Hill trail. We could see some open water, and movement in the water, as well as some black dots on the edge of the ice. As we came closer we realized we were watching two whales circling two penguins on the ice. We sat and watched in awe until the penguins slipped back into the water (fortunately, none of them were eaten on our watch).
Penguins vs whales off the Obs’ Hill Trail. The penguins eventually slipped into the water.
Later in the afternoon, we hopped back onto “Ivan” the Terra Bus, and were on our flight to the pole! After a 3 hour flight on the LC-130 with some mixed knitting, reading, and napping, we arrived at the station around 8:00 p.m. Martin, one of the IceCube collaborators at the station, greeted us before our briefing and showed us around so we could get our bearings. The last item of the day, of course, was pictures. We headed out for our first trip into the cold to visit the geographical and ceremonial south poles, as well as the welcome sign for Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, and took in the vast ice around us.
The marker at the geographic South Pole . Each year the new marker is designed and made by the people who “winter over”.
Pole day 2
The morning after we arrived, we got an early start to work. We started the day by meeting with Rob, the winter-over assigned a few ours a week on the neutron monitors, and performing a chip swap on the indoor rack for the neutron monitors. We were tasked with removing the current chip on the master board for the third neutron monitor on the platform, which was swapped a few weeks beforehand, and putting the original chip back in.
Swapping a chip on a “Master” board from the neutron monitor rack at inside the South Pole Station.
Replacing the Master board after chip swap.
Then, we headed out to the platform to swap the remote chip that was inside of the neutron monitor, and get a good look inside the monitors for the first time.
The neutron monitor remotes are on a platform between the South Pole station and the clean air sector. They are proportional counters that respond to neutrons produced in cosmic ray interactions in the atmosphere.
Now, we just had to wait for the remote collaborators to check the data and let us know how it looked. After lunch, we spent the afternoon doing some inventory on the current neutron monitor supplies, which mostly consisted of checking the spare heaters to make sure that they were working. We then spent the evening relaxing and experiencing the station life.
Taking the cover off the remote to access the circuit board.
Pole day 3
Our morning consisted of doing the heater checks out on the neutron monitor platform, so we geared up and walked out again. We brought our some of our spares that we had checked the day before, but thankfully none of the heaters had failed, so we brought our spares back to the lab in the station.
Martin Rongen (IceCube, Aachen Group) helps with closing up a remote after testing the heaters. Three IceCubers came out to see the neutron monitors while we were testing the heaters.
Then, after some lunch, we took a walk out to the IceCube lab to check out the server room and pack up the old IceAct lens that had been removed, which will be used for a student project at River Falls next summer.
Suruj Seunarine inspects the old IceAct lens. We packed it for sending north and it will be used for an REU project in summer 2018.
We also got some great views of the Keck, South Pole Telescope, and BICEP experiments (see featured photo), as well as a look over where the IceCube detector is buried. It was incredible to see the span of the detector that I had spent the summer working on, and the large scale science experiments that are going on at the pole. In the afternoon, I got the opportunity to launch a small meteorology balloon, used to measure how high the cloud ceiling sits. After letting go of the balloon, it is timed to see how long it takes before we can no longer see it, and the cloud height can be extrapolated from this.
Launching a balloon used to determine the height of the clouds.
For the rest of our afternoon, we spent our time in the B2 lab with some of the IceCube collaborators, hanging out and getting some work done. Here are some more photos from the first days at the South Pole.
Suruj, with Pete and Chip at the IceCube Lab.

 

On the roof of the IceCube lab where Martin showed us the IceAct telescope. In the background are SPT, BICEP, and Keck. And, buried 1.5 km below, is IceCube.
The greenhouse, inside the South Pole Station, were you can get away from everything except the 10,000 feet altitude.
Frosty hair.

 

Frosty eyes.

On The Ice, At Last!

By Lindsay Berkhout (University of Chicago Astronomy and Astrophyics Major)

1/26/18

On the LC-130 flight to McMurdo Station.

Per the usual drill, we woke up for a 5:45 AM shuttle to the CDC, hoping today would be the day we flew. We were bumped off our 9:00 am flight, but given seats on the next flight out at 2:00 pm. After an anxious few hours of waiting, we went through security and were finally on a plane to McMurdo! We flew for around 8 hours on the LC-130 plane.  After about five hours blocks of ice could be seen floating in the sea, after about six hours ice flows and icebergs appeared.

After about five hours flying south, icebergs appeared in the sea.

And short while after we were over the Antarctic continent.

Approaching the continent of Antarctica.

During the flight some of us were invited to the flight deck. We landed and loaded up onto “Ivan” the Terra Bus for a half hour ride into town. We were dropped off at the Chalet for an in-brief and then we collected our checked bags at midnight. Then I promptly turned in for the night after a long day of flying.

1/27/18

The next morning we woke up for a meeting and tour of the Crary Lab, where most of the science offices are housed. In the afternoon, we took a walk down to Hut Point Peninsula, to have a look at Discovery Hut.

Discovery Hut, built by Robert Scott’s expedition in 1902.

The hut was build by Scott in 1902, during the Discovery mission, and was used for shelter on a few later missions. We couldn’t go inside, but we got a good view of the items left outside, including a seal carcass that was still there after all the years, and got a look through the windows. Because a shipping vessel was docked in town, we had to take the long way to the hut, so on our way we searched for some wildlife.

At Hut Point on Ross Island at McMurdo Station.

Our search for penguins was in vain, but we did see some skua and skua chicks. Skua are large, aggressive brown birds, and under protection from the Antarctic treaty, you cannot disturb them in any way (even if they disturb you). This happened to us on our walk as 3 different skua managed to block all our paths down to the hut, and we had to try to creep quietly past without disturbing them. We also saw a few seals, one in the far off distance sleeping, and briefly one in the water near Hut Point. 

1/28/18

Today was our last scheduled day in McMurdo, so after a good night’s rest and some breakfast, we decided to summit Observation Hill.

Observation Hill, our destination for today. Volcanic rocks and sand are everywhere around the station.

After a hike up the rocks, we were privy to incredible views over McMurdo and the ice shelf, as well as a look at Mt. Discovery and Mt. Erebus.

McMurdo Station from Obs Hill.

In the afternoon, we took a shuttle over to Scott Base, the Kiwi Antarctic station a few minutes from McMurdo. We spent some time walking around the store there and admiring the seals sleeping on the ice all around Scott Base. 

 

Still Here: Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass

By Lindsay Berkhout (University of Chicago Astronomy and Astrophyics Major)

Christchurch day 7

After an early morning ride to the airport, we were informed that we had been bumped from our flight, and headed back to the hotel. After a quick lunch, I made

Kea,, a native New Zealand bird.

my way to the Willowbank Wildlife reserve on the outskirts of Christchurch. The reserve housed many native species to New Zealand, including the famous Kiwi bird, Kea, Tuatara, and a very friendly wallaby.

 

 

 

Day 8

Another delay and another day in New Zealand, so I made my way out to the port town of Lyttelton. After a delicious seafood lunch, I rode the gondola up to the hills that split Lyttelton from Christchurch, and took a walk back down. The ‘Crater Rim Walkway’ offered beautiful views over both Lyttelton and the Canterbury plains.

On the Port Hills between Christchurch and Lyttleton.

Day 9

Today, we hired a car and took a drive to Arthur’s Pass, a National park nestled in the Southern Alps. After a scenic mountain drive and some lunch, we took a short hike to the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’, a spectacular waterfall coming from one of the peaks.

The scenic West Coast Road to Arthur’s Pass.
West Coast Road, the route to Arthur’s Pass

 

Devil’s Punchbowl, a one hour walk from the visitor’s center.

Exploring Christchurch

By Lindsay Berkhout (University of Chicago Astronomy and Astrophyics Major)

We started off our second day in New Zealand by travelling to the CDC to receive our cold weather gear and receive the safety briefings. Depending on the weather, our flight to McMurdo station was scheduled for the next day, so we spent the morning preparing our gear for the flight.

Then, it was off to the University of Canterbury to meet some of the IceCube collaborators who work there. The university was fairly empty due to their summer break, but the collaborators were still hard at work, and I got to take a beautiful walk around the campus in the 80 degree weather.

The Avon River that runs through the University of Canterbury.

After that, we headed back towards our hotel where we split up and I took a walk around downtown, stopping into “Rutherford’s Den” at the old University of Canterbury buildings, where Ernest Rutherford spent his early university days.

The old University of Canterbury campus in downtown Christchurch. After the university moved the suburbs the old campus became the city’s arts center.

Most of it was blocked off for a Buskers festival, but it was still cool to walk around the buildings (and, of course, the gift shop was open). Then, it was a quick stop at the Canterbury museum before heading for a walk around the botanic gardens to look at some of the native (and non-native) New Zealand flora.

The botanic gardens.

Christchurch New Zealand, 2018

By Suruj Seunarine, Associate Professor of Physics ,UWRF

Today we arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand, the first stop on the way to Antarctica. Lindsay Berkhout (U. Chicago undergraduate) is deploying as well this year. Lindsay was a student in our 2017 REU group at UWRF.  We got to Christchurch after a thirteen hour flight from San Francisco to Auckland and then a short one hour flight to Christchurch.

Lindsay at the Re:Start container mall. The container mall was built to give businesses a chance to get going again after the earthquakes.

This is a homecoming for me, I lived in Christchurch for about nine years and left just before the big earthquakes hit. Everywhere there are wide open lots where buildings used to be. But there a many new buildings too and though most of my favourite restaurants are no longer around it was still easy to find something to eat. And there’s art and sculpture everywhere.

The cathedral at the heart of the city still needs a bit of work. But all around  it there are signs of the rebuild of the city.

Tomorrow we go to the CDC to get our extreme cold weather clothing and to have our laptops checked. On Friday, if the weather is good, we will fly out to McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

South Pole! Nowhere from here but North

By Dylan Frikken – UWRF Undergraduate in physics

When I was told this summer that I would have the opportunity to work in Antarctica, there was one small catch. Only Sam and Dr. Madsen would be going to the South Pole, leaving me behind at McMurdo Station on the coast. After finishing up our work at the Cosray building in McMurdo, Sam and Dr. Madsen began to prepare for their journey to the bottom of the world, and I started to volunteer myself for anything needed around the community to keep myself busy. About 30 minutes before they were supposed to go bag-drag (checking bags/weight for the flight), Dr. Madsen told me that I had been added to the manifest, leaving me a half hour to pack for the expedition of a lifetime.

After we had checked in and weighed for the next day’s flight the realization of where we would be going started to set in. Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is located at the geographic South Pole at an elevation of 9,301 feet above sea level. We were going from sea level to nearly 10,000 feet in just under 3 hours.  In order to combat altitude sickness, it was recommended that we take ‘something’ to ease our adjustment.

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The next day we hopped on a shuttle to the Willy airfield near McMurdo, and boarded our flight. There was only five passengers including us, so we got to move around freely and enjoy the breathtaking scenery below the plane. Three hours later we landed, and were greeted by a few of the IceCubers who brought us into the station to receive our welcome brief. The South Pole station is an amazing feat of engineering and design. The elevated station looks like something from science fiction, and was designed to be raised since the snow drifts quite heavily there.

Reflections at the South Pole.
Reflections at the South Pole.

The first day at the South Pole it is recommended you take it easy to acclimatize to the sudden change in altitude.  We toured the station, enjoyed the great food and played a couple board games. Day two started off much quicker.  We toured the IceCube Lab and the South Pole Telescope (a cosmic microwave background observatory). Then in the afternoon I volunteered to assist scientists with the ARA project, a radio wave based neutrino detection array.  I helped dig a 7 foot hole to find an instrumentation hole that had been augured 5 years prior.

Locating the ARA pinger.
Locating the ARA pinger.

Physical labor is no small task at the South Pole between the altitude, cold, wind and blowing snow.  It was much slower work than it would be anywhere else. While I was busy undoing 5 years of Antarctica’s drifting snow, Dr. Madsen and Sam started their work collecting a sample of the insulating foam surrounding the South Pole neutron monitors deployed outside on an elevated platform.

Our last morning at the pole started at 3 am to join an outreach web cast with some of the IceCubers and Kate Miller, a high school physics teacher here with the PolarTREC program.  She also blogged and posted videos about her trip.  After the web-cast and a much needed nap, Sam and I went back out into the frozen wasteland to assist the ARA scientists once again. After we found two of the holes the day prior, we were tasked with deploying a radio transmitter and receiver in order to calibrate their sensors.

Our time at the South Pole was short. We only had about 48 hours due to our time constraints for redeploying back to the USA.  The uncooperative weather this season caused a lot of flight cancellations and delays to the pole.  So we played it safe and got on the first flight back to McMurdo on Friday.  It was a good thing we did, because the next three scheduled flights were canceled. Even though we had a short time, the South Pole was an amazing experience.

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Samantha and Dylan, UWRF physics undergraduates, leaving McMurdo for the South Pole.

Wildlife and Hut

By Samantha, Dylan and Dr. Madsen  – UWRF Undergraduates

As mentioned before, we have seen very little wildlife here in Antarctica. All wildlife in Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty and the Antarctic Conservation Act, making it illegal to disturb wildlife and the ecosystems. The most exciting wildlife “interactions” we get are run-ins with Skua. Skua are large brown birds that are slightly aggressive when searching for food. Because of the treaty, no one is allowed to feed the birds or bother them in any way. Even if one happens to land on the roof of a vehicle. This happened to one of the shuttle vans, and no one could do anything until it moved on its own. This particular Skua must have found comfort in the roof of the van, as he stayed such a long time that the driver got a new vehicle to complete her run. Apparently it happens once or twice a season.

Other than Skua, we have seen plenty of seals, specifically Weddell seals. They don’t really do much. They sun bathe, and rarely move. We have gotten so close to these seals, that we could hear them snoring!

Wendell Seal.
Wendell Seal.

Sometimes it is possible to see penguins near McMurdo, but this year the sea ice went out much farther than in the recent past, so the already small chance of seeing an Adélie penguin dropped significantly. We have not seen any penguins so far. Other types of seals, and whales do come near the station on occasion, but not that we have seen.

Another highly protected area is the Discovery Hut. This historic building was built in 1902 to be a storage place and a rendezvous point for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. From the Discovery Hut, the South Pole is approximately 850 miles.

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Inside Discovery Hut

Another highly protected area is the Discovery Hut. This historic building was built in 1902 to be a storage place and a rendezvous point for Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. From the Discovery Hut, the South Pole is approximately 850 miles. Imagine walking in extreme cold weather for months without the gear we have today. Elaine Hood, the communications specialist of the Antarctic Support Contract, gave us a tour of the building. It was absolutely stunning to see the building in near pristine condition. Some of the explorers left seal carcasses in and just outside the hut, and yes, these have been left exactly as they were too.

Seal carcasses left in Discovery Hut by early explorers are still intact.
Seal carcasses left in Discovery Hut by early explorers are still largely intact.

About ten years later, in a mission by Ernest Shackleton, 5 men were trapped in the hut for 5 months. It was sobering to be standing in the same place that these men had struggled to survive. Visiting the hut was a humbling experience, and is one of my favorite parts of our adventure so far.

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Items in Discovery Hut.

Community Fun

By Samantha Pedek – UWRF Undergraduate

There are many exciting thing to do in the community, and we have been fortunate enough to have witnessed some of these events. One of the goofy events was the 1st Annual Antarctic Applesauce Chugging World Series. It is exactly what it sound like. People volunteered to chug applesauce in hopes of winning an assortment of different prizes. These community events, or odd contests, really make the community special. It is a blast to watch, and it is a great opportunity to try new things.

Dylan with is 2nd place prize.

The biggest events of the week was the Beard Contest and Mustache Roulette. The Beard Contest was broken up into different categories, including Big and Bushy (which is exactly what it sounds like), Free-style (curls, loops, glitter and ornaments), College Beard (the thin, not quite complete beards), Ginger Beard (which is exactly what it sounds like), and the Fake Beard (where anyone can be creative and make their own). The contest also featured live beard-themed music. Dylan competed in the Ginger Beard category, and got 2nd place!

The following night was Mustache Roulette. It is a charity event supporting Doctors Without Boarders, where people can place bids on the opportunity to shave someone’s beard into whatever shape they would like. It was super fun! One regular here at McMurdo, Dale, has had his mustache for over 47 years! He offered to donate his glorious mustache for $3,000 in donations. The goal was reached and Dale did indeed part with his mustache.

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Astrophysics is not the only work being done at McMurdo. There are many different projects happening during the summer season including biology, microbiology, geology, glaciology, paleontology, atmospherical science, volcanology, chemistry, and a artist and writer program and a teaching program. Every week, different people have the opportuinty to give a talk about their project. Since coming here, we have listened to many wonderful lectures. The first being Dr. Neil Shubin, a leader in the paleontology community most well known for his work with finding the connection between aquatic animals and land animals. We then listened to a talk by Maris Wicks, a New York Times Bestselling illustrator and author who aims her graphic novels towards science outreach. The next talk we sat in on was by Dr. Chu, who works with gravity waves in the upper atmosphere. Last night we heard our very own Dr. Madsen give a talk about cosmic messengers, including cosmic rays and neutrinos, and how we detect these astrophysical particles. People from all backgrounds attend these talks, science experience or not, and it is really amazing to see the community support. Everyone here is excited to learn something new, and is not afraid to step outside their comfort zone. It truly is wonderful to see.