Cosmology's Winter Warrior

By Grant, Andrew | Science News, May 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

Cosmology's Winter Warrior


Grant, Andrew, Science News


The wind chill is -80[degrees]Celsius in Antarctica when Steffen Richter, donning a red parka, hops on a snowmobile and heads to work. Lighting his path are the stars, a sliver of moon and the faint green glow of the aurora australis, the southern lights.

It's the kind of day that might make him miss home--but Boston is nearly 15,000 kilometers away, and no pilot would dare fly anywhere near Richter's location for months. Plus, the Harvard engineer has a job to do. Hitched to Richter's snowmobile is a vat of liquid helium, the lifeblood of a telescope built to detect and dissect the universe's oldest light.

On March 17, scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that the telescope, BICEP2, had detected ripples in spacetime dating back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (SN: 4/5/14, p. 6). It's a potentially Nobel Prize-winning discovery, and it could not have been made without Richter. His daily maintenance checks and semiweekly helium deliveries during three consecutive Antarctic winters allowed BICEP2 to remain fixated on exposing the earliest moments of the universe.

Even in the South Pole's frigid temperatures, the telescope must be kept much colder to detect radiation, emitted just after the Big Bang, that hovers just a few degrees above absolute zero. Missing one delivery of liquid helium coolant could cripple the telescope for weeks. "You have to do it no matter what the weather is," he says. "Running out of liquid helium is not an option."

The Amundsen-Scott research station, where Richter works, is inaccessible by air for nearly nine months of the year. …

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