Take a Trip to the South Pole Telescope with NCSA May 23, 2023 Profiles AstrophysicsCAPSEarth and EnvironmentInstitutional PartnershipsStudents Share this page: Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Email Melanie Archipley standing on the roof of the Dark Sector Lab with a view of the telescope’s primary mirror. By Megan Meave Johnson There’s an enormous telescope at the South Pole. Measuring 32 feet in diameter, it’s the largest telescope dedicated to measuring cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). The CMB consists of light particles left behind after the big bang, and astronomers can tell a lot about the evolution of the universe by measuring these cosmic microwaves. The South Pole Telescope (SPT) was designed specifically for this task. You may be wondering why such an important telescope was built in one of the harshest environments on the planet. The sky is filled with moisture in the form of tiny droplets, like those that make clouds. When the air is cold, it can’t hold as many of these particles. Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you look at the night sky in the cold of winter, you see the moon and stars more clearly. Nowhere on Earth is colder than Antarctica, so it’s a perfect spot for setting up an enormous telescope. Even Antarctica has volcanoes. Seen here, Mt. Erebus with its smoke plume hovering above on a low-wind day. It is the world’s southernmost active volcano. Such a telescope still needs people to help operate and maintain it. The international team that supports the telescope is made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds and expertise, and due to the isolated nature of the job, they rotate collaboration members in to work there. Center for Astrophysical Surveys (CAPS) fellow Melanie Archipley has been studying SPT data since she began as a student, and she was given the opportunity to deploy to the telescope to supplement her work. Her advisor, and CAPS director, Joaquin Vieira, has been a member of the South Pole Telescope collaboration since his time as a student. He was a strong advocate for students interested in having the experience of working with the telescope and helped pique Archipley’s interest in going. “It’s standard for many SPT collaboration members to have the chance to go to the South Pole,” Archipley says, “This telescope doesn’t have, for example, a full-time staff that would otherwise be manning the telescope, or maintaining it. Other sites around the world might have people like that.” Archipley didn’t want to pass up such a unique opportunity when it came up. “Students doing their Ph.D. use the data but never go to the telescope,” she says. “I raised my hand in 2020 when I was in my third year, which is about when a student would go to the SPT if they were going to. But that was COVID. So that just did not happen. After a couple of years, I got my chance.” Slide 1THE ARRIVALLining up to board our plane to McMurdo station in the passenger terminal.Slide 2THE ARRIVALThe entrance to the United States Antarctic Program passenger terminal, showing the National Science Foundation logo, which funds USAP, and the USAP logo.Slide 3THE ARRIVALThe wall at the Clothing Distribution Center in Christchurch, NZ showing all of the Extreme Cold Weather gear available to USAP participants, depending on their job functions.Slide 4THE ARRIVALInside the C-130 taking us from Christchurch, NZ to McMurdo station, Antarctica. There were about 40 passengers, which is nearing the maximum passenger capacity. On a C-130, this trip takes about 8 hours.Slide 5THE ARRIVALThe first views of the Antarctic continent: broken up sea ice, viewed when flying from New Zealand to McMurdo.Slide 6THE ARRIVALA mountain range across the Antarctic continent, viewed from the air when flying from the coast to the South Pole.Slide 7THE ARRIVALA full wide view of the whole Amundsen-Scott station taken from the Ceremonial Pole, showing the “beer can” on the far left and the entrance to the station on the right. (Photo credit: Matt Hadley)Slide 8THE ARRIVALThe copper wire spooled out to the LC-130 is what earths the plane to the level of the station. Archipley flew down in late 2022, the summer for the southern hemisphere. Archipley had a lengthy stay in isolation, not unlike the isolation astronauts need to go into before they launch. “That was rough,” she said. “I spent two weeks in isolation due to COVID policies. And I thought that was the worst of it. But then I found out that I was going to be at McMurdo over Christmas. I hadn’t thought about it beforehand. It was an afterthought, this part of the process. But then you’re there, and there’s this whole town you couldn’t engage with, even friends I had made in Christchurch. It was just a lot of waiting because there was no work for me to do in McMurdo. It was a holding ground for people waiting to go to the South Pole. Then Christmas came around, and I couldn’t see my family. That was the lowest point for me.” There was an upside to being isolated at a place like McMurdo station in Antarctica at Christmas. Because it’s so difficult and expensive to ship supplies to such a remote location, the price difference between lobster and peanut butter and jelly is negligible compared to the cost of getting it there. “Christmas dinner at McMurdo was to the nines. Lobster and crab, and all these baked goods. Everything from the pastry chef was dangerous. I tried to limit myself to dessert only once a day. I told myself, you either pick lunch or dinner to get dessert. I did not stick to that at all because all the time it was amazing.” Slide 1THE BASEThe galley at the Amundsen-Scott station full to capacity during a science talk by one of the other experiments taking place at the South Pole.Slide 2THE BASEThe galley at the Amundsen-Scott station decorated for winter celebrations.Slide 2THE BASEMy Christmas dinner at McMurdo station, including numerous irresistible desserts. I was still in isolation, hence the take-out containers.Slide 3THE BASEI got to marshal an LC-130 upon landing – which just means indicating to the pilots to stop advancing so the plane could be hooked up to the fuel lines. (Photo credit: Alex Pollack)Slide 4THE BASEThis is an escape hatch located in the fuel arches outside of the station. If the normal entrance and exit is blocked, one could still access the surface using this staircase.Slide 5THE BASEA view down the ice tunnels, which contains hundreds of feet of pipe that carries water from the wells to the station. No matter the season, the tunnels stay at a constant -60 F.Slide 6THE BASEStepping into the ice tunnels for a tour. Finally, with her isolation finished, it was time to go to the South Pole. When Archipley first arrived, the station was packed. The Admundson Scott station was at 98% capacity with nearly 150 people. The backlog of work that had to be done due to COVID delays kept the bustle going until winter approached. During the winter, Archipley says the station population drops to around 40. But this is also when some of the most important work is being done. Remember that the colder the skies, the better the view. “We observe the sky during the summer, but our primary science happens during the winter due to contamination from the sun that happens in the summer. We are fully operating in the winter, just with fewer people. And we do SPT observations for the primary patch of the sky that we’re looking at. All the data that I’m using for my Ph.D. thesis, that’s taken during winter. We also do Event Horizon Telescope observations during the winter, where we fully switch out the secondary and tertiary mirrors and detectors to observe calibration sources for the black hole pictures that were very famous.” Archipley’s days took on a specific cadence. Since she was in the South Pole, each day was very similar. “I would get up and first get coffee,” she said. “Because of the satellite internet schedule, we were limited in times when we could access the internet. The morning time during the summer was when the internet was up. If I had emails or work to check, or I wanted data from the north to work on that day, I had to get it early in the morning. My team would meet in the mornings to do our work that required internet access before lunch.” Without internet access, Archipley busied herself with tasks around the station and work on the telescope. “I’d check in with the winter-overs and see what telescope tasks they wanted to do that day. I spent a lot of time in the beginning just trying to learn as much as I could from the winter-overs about how the telescope operated and its quirks. I wanted to learn the machine that I’ve been using data from all these years.” Slide 1THE TELESCOPEThe very first time I walked to the telescope – showing the Dark Sector Lab with the South Pole Telescope on the left and the BICEP experiment on the right.Slide 2THE TELESCOPEStanding on the roof of the Dark Sector Lab with a view of the telescope’s primary mirror.Slide 3THE TELESCOPESPT winter-overs completing a once-every-few-years maintenance task on the telescope. We had to use a crane to lift them to the correct height, then they climbed out onto the supporting struts of the telescope to reach the back of the primary mirror.Slide 4THE TELESCOPEThe SPT being operated on by our winter-overs and the heavy machinery team. Slide 5THE TELESCOPEThe telescope’s main base structure and gear along which it rotates. I am giving a tour in this photo, showing the height of the base to scale.Slide 6THE TELESCOPEPart of the telescope’s base and gear along which it rotates.Slide 7THE TELESCOPEOne of the SPT winter-overs greasing the gear above the telescope’s base. He is standing on the floor of the lab, which has a foundation separate from that of the telescope.Slide 8THE TELESCOPEOn the left: From the roof of the Dark Sector Lab with a view of the back of the telescope. On the right: Standing on the baffling in front of the telescope’s primary mirror.Slide 9THE TELESCOPEOne of the SPT winter-overs standing on the baffling of the telescope with the primary mirror behind him.Slide 10THE TELESCOPEThe five SPT deployers closing out the summer – including two winter-overs – pose in front of the telescope’s 10-meter primary mirror. (Photo credit: Alex Pollack) Finally seeing the telescope in person was something of a dream for Archipley. “It was so magical to finally see the telescope,” she said. “It was just so cool to get a chance to be around it and see all of the weird things about how it moves, such as the power generation to make hundreds of tons of steel shift and to think about the real feat of engineering involved to create it. My background is in astrophysics. I’m studying the galaxies. It was a unique opportunity for me to get in touch with the engineering side of the telescope.” While the telescope was the main reason Archipley made this trip, she got a lot of interesting opportunities to learn about how a station in such an isolated and harsh environment functions. She also ended up working on projects that connected back to UIUC. “One thing that I got to help with that was really cool was the SPIDER recovery.” This spider isn’t the eight-legged creature you might be imagining. SPIDER is the name of an impressive balloon-borne instrument measuring primordial gravitational waves. The project has been running for almost a decade, and the most recent launch was headed up by Jeffrey Filippini, a UIUC physics and astronomy professor. “I got to watch the 2022 launch when I was at McMurdo,” Archipley said. “Then it came down while I was at the South Pole. The SPIDER team recovered all of the material, and then they needed volunteers to pack up hard drives, remove the trash pieces from the not trash, and bubblewrap these hard drives to send them back north. I spent a few afternoons doing that kind of work.” Slide 1ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEThe SPIDER balloon inflated but not yet launched from LDB.Slide 2ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEThe SPIDER balloon shortly after launch, showing the balloon and payload hovering above the launch site, the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Facility at McMurdo station.Slide 3ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEHardware components recovered and dissected from the SPIDER experiment in preparation for shipment back to the north.Slide 4ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEPrepping important components for shipment, such as hard drives and expensive and reusable materials, from the SPIDER experiment.Slide 5ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASECrossing the finish line of the South Pole half marathon at the Ceremonial Pole.Slide 6ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEPlaying cards with station members on Karneval as a recreational activity.Slide 7ACTIVITIES AROUND THE BASEThe annual geographic pole moving ceremony: every year on January 1, all station members participate in formally moving the geographic pole marker to its new location, as the Antarctic ice sheet underneath the pole marker moves some 30 feet every year while the magnetic pole stays stationary. Archipley learned some surprising things while at the South Pole. “Fire risk was a big deal,” she said. “Firefighters were very present all the time. There’s a whole team of them, and they are doing drills all the time, watching planes come and go. Because the station is literally just on kilometers of ice, it’s not grounded. That makes static electricity extremely dangerous. When a plane comes in, they use a spool of copper wire to ground the plane as best they can. Fire would be super dangerous because there’s no water.” Archipley’s rotation wasn’t all work. When she wasn’t working on tasks or her Ph.D. thesis, she spent a lot of time with all the other people stationed there. They played cards and games to pass the time. They could work out in the on-site gym, and a popular location was the sauna. Her shifts were six days a week, but even with all she had to work on while there, she found time to run a half marathon for the first time. “My favorite part about the experience was the telescope. But my second favorite was the South Pole Marathon. I was really stoked about it. It was an amazing challenge I gave myself. The altitude is basically twice the altitude of Denver. And the cold. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something like that. I was really very proud of myself and my team.” Slide 1THE SCENESThe ceremonial Pole as seen from the station galley, with the tourist camp on the far right and their plane on the left.Slide 2THE SCENESA view of BICEP3, BICEP Array, and the Amundsen-Scott station from standing on the SPT. The SPT is about a 1 km walk from the station.Slide 3THE SCENESOn a clear day, the view of the mountains from McMurdo station is really breathtaking.Slide 4THE SCENESObservation hill (“ob hill”) and McMurdo as seen from Hut Point Ridge.Slide 7THE SCENESA view of McMurdo station from a route along Observation Hill, with Hut Point Peninsula in the back to the left.Slide 5THE SCENESA wide view of the frozen Ross sea along the continent.Slide 6THE SCENESOne of the survival apples on the Castle Rock Loop hike, with Castle Rock itself off to the right. There are 3 such apples on this hike, for hikers to regroup if caught in bad weather while too far from McMurdo station. They are equipped with survival kits, such as thermal blankets and food rations, but they can also be used to simply take a break. When asked if she would recommend this work to others after her trip, Archipley wholeheartedly said yes, with a few caveats. “You have to be in a certain place in your life to go. It’s really hard to stay connected to friends and family. When you’re down there, given the lack of internet and ways to communicate back home, you have to be of a mindset to handle it. You feel like you’re on another planet, you’re so separated. It really feels like a completely different life. But for people that have a couple of months where they’re thinking, where do I want to go next? Then you should definitely go because there’s nothing else like it. The experience in and of itself is amazing. The people who go down there are so unique and come from such different worlds and backgrounds. They make the experience like nothing else on earth.” All photographs for this piece were taken and provided by Melanie Archipley unless otherwise noted.