South Pole Telescope a Harsh Environment for Astronomers

South Pole
Image Credit: NOAA

The South Pole can be a rather brutal environment for scientists to carry out their research as the Sun doesn’t come out at all in the southern winter (March–September), causing temperatures to drop to an astounding -100 degrees Fahrenheit. While it may be a harsh environment for those brave souls who work there, it does also come with some benefits as far astronomers are concerned, one being that the South Pole’s dry atmosphere helps stop any water vapor from interfering with their observations of space.

Those scientists that are stationed at the National Science Foundation’s dedicated Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, which usually number around 50 people in winter, work at 2,835 metres above sea level and get to utilize the South Pole Telescope (SPT), a 10 meter diameter telescope that can make sub-millimeter wavelength observations with the goal of measuring the cosmic microwave background (CMB), or the radiation left over from the time of the Big Bang.

Keith Vanderlinde, an experimental cosmologist from the University of Toronto, says that this type of work attracts a distinct sort of person, one who doesn’t really need to be around other people in order to have a happy working environment. The behavior of the group that Vanderlinde studied with over an 11 month period was said to vary from being ultra social and interacting in shared quarters, to preferring their own space at the end of the day, especially as they grappled with being isolated from their families for extended periods of time. Furthermore, those people who did not work outside at all were more susceptible to experiencing a personality change that causes them to become highly temperamental.

Nonetheless, scientists are prepared to put up with these harsh social and emotional conditions because the opportunity for scientific discovery is worth all of the strenuous demands. The South Pole Telescope that they work upon helps map out the energy leftover from the expanse of the universe, called cosmic microwave background (CMB), which refers to a recombination period that took place 378,000 years after the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago). As John Kovac from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explains:

“The South Pole is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground. It’s one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the Big Bang.”

As the CMB travels through galaxy clusters, some of its light scatters hot electrons, that subsequently shows up on their findings as excess energy. By studying these shadows, scientists are then able to make a range of different findings, including determining the location of the largest structures in the universe, how clusters of galaxies actually formed during different universal eras, as well as even more fundamental questions, such as how gravity works to pull dust and gas together into these clusters, along with how dark energy works.

In the meantime, Prof. Keith Vanderlinde has made a number of visits to the South Pole during the summer (September–March) to see how the research was progressing, a time of the year when the Sun never sets below the horizon and average temperatures are around -18° F. Vanderlinde has also concluded that one trip during the dark winter when average temperatures are -76° F was more than enough, and that while it was in no way a bad experience, the thought of repeating such an expedition did not appeal to him.

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