South Pole Telescope Scans the Skies Physicists are using the largest telescope in Antarctica to probe the farthest edges of the universe. South Pole Telescope scientists discuss their 280-ton scope, what they hope it will show them — and what it's like to live and work on the southernmost continent.
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South Pole Telescope Scans the Skies

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South Pole Telescope Scans the Skies

South Pole Telescope Scans the Skies

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You hear a lot about Antarctica as being a great place to research snow, ice, global warming, but the cold, dark six months of polar nights are perfect for something else - astronomy. That's what physicists down at the South Pole are doing there, using the continent's largest telescope to look at the outermost edges of the universe. That's an area of the sky that is about 14 billion years old.

And they're hoping to learn about dark energy. You know, that's that mysterious cosmic, repulsive force that scientists believe exists even though it has never actually been found. This search back in time is being conducted at the coldest continent on Earth, where the sun sets for six months, planes can't fly in or out most of the year. What's it like to work down there? How do you survive for such a long stretch of time in the polar darkness without going, shall we say, a little bit nuts?

Here to talk about the South Pole telescope and what it is like working at the bottom of the world are my guests. John Carlstrom is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago and one of the telescope team leaders. He joins us today from Chicago. Welcome to the program, Dr. Carlstrom.

Dr. JOHN CARLSTROM (Professor, Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Chicago): Thank you. Hi.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Zak Staniszewski is a Ph.D. student in physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He spent the last year living in Antarctica, having wintered over there, stayed over there during the darkest, coldest period. He joins us today by phone from Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ZAK STANISZEWSKI (Ph.D. Student, Physics, Case Western Reserve University): Oh, thank you very much.

FLATOW: How long have you been back?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: I took a one-month vacation and then have been back in the States for three weeks ago.

Dr. CARLSTROM: I have yet to see you, Zak, since last February.


FLATOW: Zak, what was it like being over there with six months of darkness?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: The darkness was not very fun in, you know, walking out to the telescope everyday. But it was more the isolation that was the difficult part.

FLATOW: And have - did you find yourself going a little batty at times?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Towards the end, yeah, a little bit stir-crazy. We were definitely ready to leave.

FLATOW: John Carlstrom, why do we need people out there in the dark?

Dr. CARLSTROM: Uh-oh, why do we need them. Well, if you have a telescope down there as complex as this one, you certainly need people that can get their hands on it every day and make it work. And Zak was very good at doing just that. We're down there because we want to observe this radiation from the early universe from 14 billion years ago.

And it turns out that even though this was light, you know, light that your eyes would be able to see 14 billion years ago, it has been stretched out. The wavelengths have stretched out with the expansion of the universe, and it comes to us in a microwave now, very long wavelengths.

And microwaves get absorbed by water vapor, that's why your microwave oven can heat up a cup of coffee quickly. So you want to go somewhere where there's very little water vapor in the atmosphere and get above as much at the atmosphere as you can. And it turns out the South Pole is just perfect for that.

It's so cold that even if the atmosphere is saturated, 100 percent humidity, there's very little water in it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How far back can you actually get to?

Dr. CARLSTROM: When you can look back as far as you can see with light. Now what do I mean by that? You look out in the universe, and of course you're looking back in time because the light takes time to travel to us. So we can look back as far as light can travel in the edge of the universe. And you can't really see farther than that because there's not enough time for the light to reach us.

And that's effectively what we're doing, looking almost back to the beginning of time. It's about 14 billion light years - sorry, 14 billion years ago that that light was emitted.

FLATOW: And how are - how can you find this dark, mysterious energy. And what do you look for?

Dr. CARLSTROM: Well, what we're - what we know about this - I'll back up a little bit. We know that in the universe - through these measurements of cosmic microwave back from the South Pole and other places and even from space - we've learned a great deal about the universe. And the big surprise is that all the stuff we know about, all the stuff you'll find in physics textbooks only makes up about 4 percent of the universe.


Dr. CARLSTROM: The rest is unknown. Although of the rest, we know about a third or a half of it is coming - about a third of it is coming from something that interacts through gravity. So we can see it's there. Although we can't see it directly, we can see it's there because it holds the galaxies together and it holds clusters of galaxies together.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. CARLSTROM: So we know it's there from its effect, you know, from its gravity. But the big surprise is that the universe is not just expanding, but expanding as accelerating. And we know there's some component out there. It's not clumped up. We can't see it through its direct influence on gravity, but it's causing the expansion to accelerate.

And that's the so-called dark energy, and that's what we're trying to find out about. We're using the concept of microwave background, and for this particular experiment, as a backlight. It's lighting up the whole universe and we're using it to find all the structure in the universe, all the massive structure in the universe.

And the reason we're doing that is that structure, how it forms, when it formed, it depends on this interaction between dark energy trying to push things apart and all the dark matter and all the gravity in the universe trying to pull everything together.

So were trying to find - trying to get a snapshot or a timeline of when did this dark energy become important and what is it. We're trying to get any clues at all as to what the stuff might be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And this experiment will run for some time then?

Dr. CARLSTROM: It will take - this experiment with the telescope will take at least a few years. That's right.

FLATOW: Yeah. Zak, tell us about what your life is like then. Are you going to back and forth? Stay over through another winter and darkness?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Probably, I'll never going to do another winter. I will be, you know, coming back to the telescope to help the rest of the team do upgrades now and then, but the winter stuff is over. It's time for me to get back to school and look at some of the data.

Dr. CARLSTROM: He sounds pretty certain of that, doesn't he?


(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I remember I was down at the South Pole in 1979, and there were just a few people staying over on those days, wintering over. And there were some wild stories about things that were going on at the South Pole because they had a depression. They didn't know about the depression that people would get normally from that isolation.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Yeah. It's all true. It really is. Some people took it better than others. You know, the - everyone was at least somewhat affected and, you know, glazed over eyes by the end of it. But some people took it a little bit harder than others.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Who's paying for this research? Who's sponsoring it?

Dr. CARLSTROM: This is all paid for by the National Science Foundation. And in fact, they have a station there. The telescope is one of a number of projects, and it's all funded by the taxpayers through the National Science Foundation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Have you got any preliminary data yet that you've collected?

Dr. CARLSTROM: So the last year, a little less than a year ago, we got the telescope fully built and what we call first light, to be able to first time to see an object, astronomical object, through the telescope. That was in February. Since then, of course, we all left the sac(ph) and another winter the sac down there. The first order of business then is, you know, doing things like focusing the telescope, making sure the drives all work correctly and we know where we're pointed.

And so the beginning of the year, started doing that, you know, we started doing that work. And by the end, we were doing fulltime science. And we do have data, and we're able to see some of these effects we were looking for in the cosmic microwave background.

FLATOW: Nothing you can talk about yet.

Dr. CARLSTROM: Well, nothing that's going to, as yet, tell us what dark energy is, but the - what we're doing, using the cosmic microwave background to light up the universe in effect, look for these big structures, clusters of galaxies, we're able to confirm that we do see these and we can find ones that we -before these measurements were unknown.

So it's working as planned, but we need to improve the sensitivity a bit and we need a lot of time to finish the project.

FLATOW: Zak, what's a day like down there for you? Are you totally isolated? Could you have, for example, Internet service you can keep in touch or…

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: The Internet's up for about, you know, 10 to 12 hours each day, and that changes - the time that it's up changes by four minutes each day. And, yes, sometimes you - you're sleeping, during most of the Internet, and sometimes you're able to, you know, make a lot of phone calls and keep up with what's going on through the Internet.

FLATOW: John, I know that you've been going down to the Pole for a while, has the station changed in the times you've been down there?

Dr. CARLSTROM: Oh, it's changed a great deal. You said you were down in 1979?

FLATOW: Right after the dome was finished. Yeah.

Dr. CARLSTROM: Right. So now, the dome then was above the snow. What's left of the dome is mainly buried. And there's a new station that's on pillars(ph) -rising above the snow. And it's - gees, it's about, oh, five times the size of the dome - a hundred and - about 100 people can sleep there. You can sit in the dining room and look out windows over the ice. It's really changed a great deal. No longer do you have to march outside to go to the, you know, to a bathroom. You can just go down in your socks down the hallway now. It's a big change.

FLATOW: Zak, have you joined the 300 Club yet?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: The problem was that it was only minus a hundred for about a minute and a half for - so I did, you know, maybe about the 280 Club, something there about.

FLATOW: Tell us what that is, for those of us who don't know.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: So the 300 Club is you wait until the temperature reaches -outside temperature - reaches minus a hundred degrees Fahrenheit without wind chills. And at that time, you jump in the sauna and heat it up to about 200 degrees and then, you know, store lots of heat in your body and then you strip naked and run down to the South Pole and back.

FLATOW: So you're only in the 280 Club.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Yeah, the 280 Club. There was - we probably could have done 298 for about a month and a half but we were - didn't have the ambition at that time.

FLATOW: So that's the geographic South Pole. How far away is that?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: It's only 100 feet or so away. You have to run down this tube which is, you know, 50 steps and then you're outside. And then about 100 feet after that.

FLATOW: What's pretty is that people don't realize how dangerous that is out there.


FLATOW: The wind - the weather can change in a second.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: It really does. Not enough so that the weather would change while you were running out there. But walking out to the telescope, there are times when the, you know, over a few minutes, the wind will pick up and then you can't see anything. And it's completely dark anyway. So it's difficult.

FLATOW: Wow. So you're going back when?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: I'm supposed to go back in February, just for two weeks.

FLATOW: That will still be - so the end of the summertime.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Yeah. Yeah. So that's when - at the very end of when people can come in and out, I'm going to go in and help train the person that's going to take over my winter duties and hand over some things. And then I'll get out right on - probably right on the last flight.

FLATOW: And once last flight happens, there's no getting in or getting out, is there?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Right. For about eight months or so.

FLATOW: Wow. There was that famous story of the woman who had to be flown out of there. Where she treated herself for some medication years ago. But I remember saying once…

Dr. CARLSTROM: A big event, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Dr. Carlstrom, what is your - in the 30 seconds I have left, what's your immediate future here?

Dr. CARLSTROM: Well, I just came back. I had gone down to hopefully overlap with Zak but, as Zak will tell you, the weather didn't cooperate and we both got held up and passed each other probably in mid-air or close to it. And I'm back for the holidays. And depending on how things go, I'll either be back down in February with Zak or wait it out until next year…

FLATOW: All right.

Dr. CARLSTROM: …because we're busy improving the telescope right now.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back and talk more about it. Stay with us. We'll talk more with John Carlstrom and Zak Staniszewski.

1-800-989-8255, if you've got questions about the South Pole. We'll talk a little bit about Antarctica in general and about astronomy. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the astronomy that gets done at the South Pole with my guests. Dr. John Carlstrom, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Zak Staniszewski is Ph.D. student in physics at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Zak, there's other research that goes on down there. Is there not?

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Yeah. There's actually quite a bit going on there. Some other astronomy and astrophysics, and then a lot of geology and weather stuff goes on as well.

FLATOW: When I was down there, there was - that many years ago, they were setting up the neutrino experiment, trying to find neutrinos under the ice.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Yeah. The second generation of that experiment is - or the second incarnation, anyway, of that experiment is going on down there. And that is a very large presence down there.

FLATOW: Need a lot of ice…

(Soundbite of laughter)


FLATOW: …to stop a neutrino.


FLATOW: Now, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Carter(ph) in Edina, Minnesota. Hi, Carter.

CARTER (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.


CARTER: So I have a question about how, like, when the telescopes can see back in time; if there would be a way to like look at a mirror or have like a telescope that's really far away and then look at Earth, would you be able to see like Earth's past?

Dr. CARLSTROM: If you could work out all the geometry and have enough sensitivity, yes. The light could leave the Earth, you know, travel for many years, bounce off a mirror and then come back. The problem of course, is seeing that light. It would be diluted. You'd have to have a heck of a sensitive telescope and also a very, very big one to have enough resolution to see it. As you probably know, we have a hard time seeing - and have not yet really seen Earths around other stars. We see big planets but not something as small as the Earth.

CARTER: Oh, okay.

FLATOW: Theoretical question, though.

Dr. CARLSTROM: But theoretically, yes. That's the right way to think about looking back in time.

FLATOW: Thanks, Carter.

CARTER: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Robin(ph) in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

ROBIN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ROBIN: Thank you very much. I'm a biology graduate from the university here. And my question for you is why don't you just know that the dark force is entropy or chaos? Why spend so much time and energy pursuing this? I don't understand what's so…

Dr. CARLSTROM: We don't know what it is, actually. If we knew what it was, then we'd want to do the experiment to prove to ourselves that we were correct, I suppose, and we had a good idea. And we do have some ideas. But there are many, many different thoughts and theories as to what the stuff would be. And we don't know what it is. So this isn't just, you know, looking at one more thing to confirm, you know, that yes, one more thing out there. It's - we call it dark energy to really sum up what we don't know. Dark and that it doesn't interact with light, and energy in that it affects, in a very serious way, the whole energy balance of the universe.

FLATOW: And if I understand it correctly, one of the really strange parts about it is it only showed up in the later stages of the universe, correct?

Dr. CARLSTROM: That's right. In the last, of course, billion years. It sounds like a long time. But that's the recent past for the universe. And that's when it started to show up.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, I want to thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us. And have a good holiday season and good luck to you, Zak.

Mr. STANISZEWSKI: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

Dr. CARLSTROM: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: You too, John.

John Carlstrom, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. And Zak Staniszewski, a Ph.D. student in physics at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

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