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How to turn a continent into a telescope

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Ever since Galileo turned "telescopio" into a household word, tiny packets of light have helped inquisitive people unlock the mysteries of the universe. From radio frequencies to visible light to gamma rays, these photons have led to one stunning discovery after another.

Nearly 400 years later, Peter Gorham is hoping to use far more ephemeral cosmic particles to delve into the most violent processes of the universe - a task in which photons are of little help. And to do it, the University of Hawaii physicist and his colleagues have embarked on a unique project to turn an entire continent - the Antarctic ice sheet - into the world's largest telescope.

Call it astronomy beyond light. Instead of relying on common photons, researchers are turning to elusive neutrinos to unlock secrets about the universe. These particles have virtually no mass and carry no electrical charge, so they rarely interact with other matter.

Such qualities make neutrinos extremely useful in detecting objects beyond the energy limits of today's astronomy. Besides helping researchers understand some of the most violent processes since the Big Bang, neutrinos could shed light on the mysteries of very high-energy cosmic rays and test theories about the formation of the universe.

"We've got this entire regime of astrophysics that we cannot explore by traditional astronomy. How are we going to get there?" asks Dr. Gorham. "Neutrinos are the obvious choice."

But the same qualities that make neutrinos so valuable also make them terribly difficult to detect. That's why astronomers are trying to fashion such huge "telescopes." At least four other high-energy neutrino projects are in various stages of planning, where neutrino detectors are lowered into Antarctic ice or submerged in the Mediterranean Sea.


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