Stargazing From The Bottom Of The World

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When astronomer Giles Novak flies south for the winter, he goes to a remote research station where summer comes in January and the sun doesn’t set for four months at a time. But with summer temperatures that don’t go higher than the 50s, the South Pole Station isn’t exactly the ideal place to get a tan.

Giles Novak and then-undergraduate student Jen Marshall inspect the SPARO telescope at the South Pole Station in February 2000. (National Science Foundation) Giles Novak and then-undergraduate student Jen Marshall inspect the SPARO telescope at the South Pole Station in February 2000. (National Science Foundation)Novak studies the formation of stars, and the Antarctic skies are some of the clearest and driest on the planet.

Since 1992, Novak has made the trip ten times for two different projects. But some of the details have started to blend together. He thinks it’s an even split: five times for a cosmology project while he was a post-doc at Princeton University and five times for a telescope project called SPARO that studied interstellar clouds.

“Maybe it was four or six. I can’t remember,” he said from his laboratory in the basement of Northwestern University’s Dearborn Observatory.

Hearing that, graduate student Tristan Matthews glanced up from his computer at the far side of the room.

“How many people do you think there are, Giles, who have been to Antarctica so many times they can’t count?” Matthews asked.

Novak shrugged. “Well, I remember the total.”

Life on the Ice

Novak, a professor at Northwestern, made his first trip to Antarctica in 1992. It was also his longest. After he was away for two months, his one-year-old daughter Lily didn’t recognize him.

“She sort of ran and hid,” he said. “It took her about a week before she would remember who I was.”

This photo from the BLAST telescope reveals a giant molecular cloud filled with dense clusters that will eventually form stars. (BLAST Collaboration) This photo from the BLAST telescope reveals a giant molecular cloud filled with dense clusters that will eventually form stars. (BLAST Collaboration)

For Novak, the trek to Antarctica begins in New Zealand. After stocking up on multiple layers of clothing, he boards a plane to the McMurdo Station and hopes the pilot doesn’t decide to turn around halfway – which isn’t unheard of.

“I’ve been on flights called boomerangs, where you fly from New Zealand, you fly halfway to Antarctica, commence a little farther, and then you have a decision to make,” Novak said. “Because at that point, you can keep flying, but you can’t go back because you’ll run out of fuel. If the weather’s not right, at that point you can still turn around and make it back to New Zealand.”

If the weather in Antarctica is safe enough, scientists alight on Ross Island, a 45-mile wide island of volcanic rock off the Antarctic coast that opens into the Pacific Ocean. The bustling McMurdo Station serves as a transit stop for all U.S. scientists doing work in Antarctica. But with a chapel, library, and a summer population of a few thousand, it makes Novak think more of an Alaska mining town.

Most of the astronomers proceed to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, appropriately positioned directly on top of the South Pole.

Once there, scientists are well equipped to deal with the cold. The new $150 million station slightly resembles a high school cafeteria with private rooms – a vast improvement over the heated tent-like structures with beds called Jamesways Novak stayed in on his first trip.

Novak says the greater struggle is with isolation.

Like the cold, it’s not as bad as it once was. Scientists formerly were allowed only one ten-minute phone call home per week. Advances in Internet phone calls have started to change that.

Still, he admitted, it’s hard being away from home. Fortunately he’s only had to repeat the two-month experience once.

Summer in Antarctica lasts from October until March. After that, the population at the South Pole Station drops from a few hundred to a skeletal crew of 50 to 75. Novak depends on "winter-overs," such as Paolo Calisse, who stayed to collect data for him in the Antarctic winter of 2003. They watch the last helicopter leave the station and commemorate its departure by watching a cheesy sci-fi flick called The Thing.

The cradles of stars

Novak’s latest project involves taking a telescope similar to the one used in his last project, SPARO, and launching it into a balloon.

Called BLAST, the enterprise began in 2000 as the brainchild of University of Pennsylvania astronomer Mark Devlin. Devlin wanted to look at galaxies outside the Milky Way in submillimeter wavelengths. But Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the vast majority of those waves, making it nearly impossible for ground telescopes to detect them.

“It’s like looking through mud,” Devlin said.

To solve the problem, Devlin and a small team proposed sending the telescope up in a balloon that would get past more than 99 percent of the atmosphere. The idea turned into an international collaboration of scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Over the next eight years they ran into more than a few glitches. Twice pieces of equipment broke off during flight: first during the 2005 flight from Sweden (the mirror broke and landed somewhere in northern Canada) and second during the 2006-2007 flight from Antarctica (the entire telescope broke off and was carried more than 100 miles over the ice before they found it).

“Broken is probably the wrong word,” Devlin said. “Completely disintegrated is probably the right word.”

After the January 2007 incident, they had to completely rebuild the telescope. They managed to recover the data and the detectors, but not much else.

But the galaxies they studied had a few surprises of their own – in particular the enormous interstellar clouds of gas thought to be the birthplaces of stars.

These gas clusters, also known by the more official name “giant molecular clouds,” represent the first stage of a star’s life. The clouds can last for millions of years and create thousands of stars in their lifetimes before they collapse under their own gravity.

The BLAST team discovered the clouds weren’t collapsing as quickly as they should be. Some other force seemed to be acting against gravity to hold the clouds together. That force, they believed, could be magnetism.

But in order to get a picture of the magnetism, they needed a telescope that could polarize the light waves emitted by the cloud’s magnetically aligned dust grains.

That’s when Devlin decided to bring in Novak.

Novak had worked with a ground-based telescope that could polarize light in his previous SPARO project. As the principal investigator, Devlin wanted to alter the BLAST telescope so it could do the same.

The upgrade works something like polarized sunglasses. Regular, unpolarized light can oscillate in infinitely many angles as it travels toward our eyes – horizontal, vertical, and everything in between. To reduce glare, polarized sunglasses filter the light, absorbing only the light that oscillates at a certain angle and reflecting back everything else.

In the same way, the new telescope will filter out the light the scientists don’t want to enable them to see more clearly.

Once the upgrade is complete, the telescope will be able to create magnetic maps of the giant molecular clouds. If the magnetism lines up in one general direction, it supports the idea that magnetism is prolonging the clouds’ lives. If it’s a chaotic mess, it doesn’t.

The reconfigured telescope, renamed BLAST-pol, is scheduled to launch from McMurdo Station in December 2010. That’s when Novak plans to make his eleventh trip to the continent.

After ten treks to the South Pole, he still finds the light unnerving.

“It’s a little hard to get used to the fact that when I go there, it’s daytime all the time,” Novak said. “I’ve never stayed for the winter. I’ve hired other people to do that. But it’s always a little odd to never have the sun set.”

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