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Specialist cable for mission that’s out of this world

The Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) wanted an exceptionally long, continuous-length cable for the IceCube Neutrino Observatory located in Antarctica. The facility uses a cubic kilometer of ice to catch nearly massless (but highly energetic) subatomic ‘ghost’ particles, known as neutrinos. Neutrinos travel from the farthest reaches of the universe and occasionally collide with the nuclei of atoms in the Antarctic ice. Detectors in the ice relay multiple signals from space to the observatory so scientists can discover more about astrophysical phenomena such as exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts and black holes.

Within four months, high-performance synthetic materials were prototyped and a two-mile-long (3,300 meter), one-inch (25.4 mm) diameter cable was developed and deployed. This cable provided electrical connection and mechanical support for an instrumented drill head that continuously monitored critical parameters including depth, temperature, flow rate, pressure, and hole diameter during hot-water drilling operations in the ice.

The Challenge

This was an extremely challenging mission that few companies in the world have the ingenuity and equipment to fulfill.

The materials used in the manufacturing process had to be strong, durable and resilient to survive the hostile Antarctic environment, where temperatures average -57°F (-49°C), yet be lightweight to adhere to maximum shipping restrictions and ease manual handling.

Supplied on a large reel, the single-length cable would also need to be robust enough to repeatably drill boreholes in the ice using hot-water drilling techniques.

The timeframe for the entire construction, from prototype to production, had to be within six months to meet logistical and operational requirements at the remote South Pole observatory.

The Solution

The strength member used was constructed with Vectran® material, which is more than five times stronger than steel, and the cable boasted a multiple signal core.

The exceptional strength, durability and rigidity of the manufactured fiber have seen it used by NASA as a lining for space suits and for all the airbag landings on Mars. It was manufactured using large capacity equipment in Cortland’s 150,000 square foot facility in New York.

An extruded jacket with the highest levels of temperature resistance was selected. Prior to delivery, detailed measurements were taken to verify electrical signal and tensile strength.

It was rigorously tested to ensure it could withstand the expected load generated by the cable itself when lowered into the drilled hole, as well as the extra weight of the instrumentation. End-terminations and breakouts were added to complete the cable.

The Result

The high-performance, strong, lightweight and flexible materials used made the purpose-built cable easier to transport and handle on site. The Vectran braid and jacket ensured strength and protection so the core cable bundle was protected from external sources of damage. Cortland had the capabilities to produce the cable in one of the longest single lengths possible.

The ultimate achievement was a reliable cable that enabled the drilling of 86 holes in glacial ice to a depth of 1.6 miles (2,600 meters). The cable withstood the thermal shock resulting from cold-soaking at -50⁰C in the dry top-portion of each hole, which was typically 40 meters below the surface, before plunging into the ice-cold column of water that filled holes at full depth (2,450 meters).

IceCube/WIPAC lead electrical engineer, Andrew Laundrie, said: “We’re working with many partners on a project that is pioneering in terms of particle physics research and also logistically challenging as it is at the South Pole. We therefore require the most reliable products in the world. The cable supplied by Cortland was clearly crucial in continuously monitoring a range of variables and it fulfilled its unique purpose.”

Since the completion of the first project, which took around four months from start to finish, Cortland has been commissioned to revitalize existing cable and develop another unique version of the cable.

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