USF Engineer at South Pole for 'One Cool Project'

Project IceCube involves constructing a telescope to peer deep into the polar ice cap to explore the cosmos.


South Pole Station


By Vickie Chachere News Manager


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 30, 2010) – Nine months out of the year, Graham Tilbury’s workplace is at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science’s balmy, waterfront complex on Tampa Bay. But for the other three months, the engineer for the Center for Ocean Technology plunges himself into the icy, forbidding world of the South Pole as a volunteer in a monumental effort to build one of the world’s most advanced scientific instruments.


Tilbury spends months in Antarctica as a part of Project IceCube, a $271 million effort led by the National Science Foundation and the University of Wisconsin to build a telescope that will explore the cosmos by peering  into the polar ice cap.


Tilbury has spent four  seasons working on Project IceCube - which even while working in Antarctica’s “summer” involves endless days of working in freezing, windy and hazardous conditions drilling into the polar ice cap to install the high-tech sensors.


The IceCube telescope will search for neutrinos, the subatomic particles produced by the decay of radioactive elements and elementary particles that lack an electric charge. The tiny neutrinos – described by Project IceCube scientists as so tiny they can pass through solid matter without colliding with any molecules – travel from the cosmos to Earth at the speed of light, making them miniscule “intergalactic messengers” traversing the universe without interference from other particles.


Neutrinos originate from violent astrophysical events such as exploding stars, gamma ray bursts and the creation of black holes. The IceCube telescope will be capable of detecting a subatomic particle called a muon, which is created when the neutrino collides with an ice atom and produces a nuclear reaction that emits a blue light in transparent ice.


Tilbury works as one of the “drillers” who are digging vertical channels into the polar ice cap as deep as 2.5 kilometers to install the sensors that will detect the blue light created by the neutrinos’ collisions into the polar ice cap. South Pole is considered to be the largest and clearest quantity of pure ice on Earth, and thus the best place to detect that rare blue light.


Long fascinated by scientific efforts in the South Pole, Tilbury has traveled to that end of the Earth for 11 seasons on various projects. This is his fourth season on Project IceCube, one of about 100 scientists and support professionals who push the project forward during the austral summer. Tilbury arrived in November and will stay until the end of January, a shorter season than usual as the project is nearing its scheduled completion date of summer 2011.


In a recent email to USF News, Tilbury wrote: “I followed  the  link to  the  Project IceCube  website,  read  the employment advert  for  …drillers, applied,  and  here I  am.  … My qualifications in electronics instrumentation and data monitoring were of particular interest to the drilling team, as the entire System is monitored and controlled by a number of computers.  This morning it’s a relatively warm -22F, but with a wind of 12 knots, It feels like -44F outside.”


Communications with the South Pole are contingent on satellites passing overhead, but Tilbury did manage to email one prize souvenir photo to the folks back home: the USF flag being planted at the South Pole.


Tilbury’s previous work in the Antarctic included supporting operations at Palmer Station, on the Antarctic Peninsula, at Patriot Hills in the Ellsworth Mountain Range, and at the South African National Arctic Expedition in Queen Maude Land on the Antarctic East Coast.


Tilbury writes that he reached the drilling site after a 2,000-mile flight from the U.S.’s McMurdo ice station aboard a C-130 cargo plane crowded with cargo and baggage. The ski-equipped plane is capable of landing on the ice-hardened runways of the South Pole. Once completed, Project IceCube will be the world’s largest neutrino detector. It will consist of 5,000 very sensitive optical detectors deployed in strings of 60 each in pressurized capsules then dropped through the ice cap through 24-inch diameter holes, Tilbury wrote.


Continuing his dispatch from the South Pole to his colleagues at the College of Marine Science, he wrote:


“It then  takes approximately 24 hours  for the  water  in  the hole to freeze, and once that  happens, there is no way  to retrieve anything  from  that  hole. This  season  we  will complete the  last  7  of the 80  holes  which make up  the  complete array.


“The South Pole station is at 9,300-feet elevation, so effectively we are ‘drilling’ 80 holes down thru the polar ice cap, almost to sea level. Pretty awesome!”


Tilbury further explained: “The drill team consists of 30 drillers, arranged in three teams, working around the clock 24/7.  Skills  are varied  and  include people  with mechanical, electrical, electronic, hydraulic and  high pressure  hot  water experience.


“Drill team  members  participate  in all activities associated  with the drilling operation  - whether it be  clearing the  piles  of snow  that  cover  everything  at  start  of season, or operating  the drill system  control  computers  whilst drilling operations are under way.


“My  particular area of expertise involves  working  with  the hundreds of electronic  sensors  that  monitor  the  drill system. Basically we need to ensure a supply of hot water at 88 degrees centigrade, at  200 gallons  per minute and at 1,000 pounds per square inch pressure down  3,000 meters of  4-inch high  pressure hose.


“All  this in an environment  where the average air temp hovers around minus 40 degrees centigrade,  and at the equivalent of 10,500 feet altitude. The actual altitude of the South  Pole station  is 930 feet, but because the Earth’s atmosphere is thinner at  the poles, its equivalent  to  being  at  an  altitude of some 10,500 feet.


“Because  we are  at  90 degrees North latitude  the sun is constantly above  the horizon, so it’s  always  broad  daylight outside. It will reach its maximum height above the horizon on December 21st and after staying there for a few days, will slowly start dropping. As  you  might guess, working  on  this  project in  this  amazing environment, often  takes my  breath  away!”


To read more about Project IceCube and other scientific efforts in the Antarctic, check out the Antarctic Sun, the National Science Foundation’s news source. You can also follow the IceCube Neutrino Observatory project on Facebook.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.