April 17, 2007

Fighting the bitter cold for a love of a new telescope

Case grad student Staniszewski fine tunes new telescope during South Pole winter

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The sun has set at the South Pole. It will not appear above the horizon for another six months. Wind chills have dipped into the minus three-digit numbers.

Zachary Staniszewski, a Case Western Reserve University graduate student in physics, braves these harsh conditions as he begins a year in Antarctica to work and observe the universe with the new 280-ton, National Science Foundation South Pole Telescope (SPT) for Case scientists and researchers from other institutions who will return in November for the next austral summer to make upgrades to the instruments.

It is during the winter season when researchers gather data through their observations.

When temperatures reached minus 65 degrees in mid-February, the Air National Guard evacuated the last of the South Pole's 260 summer people and left behind the fifth-year graduate student and 53 others to live in this icy environment where the night sky is alight with millions of stars.

"And Auroras almost every night!" he exclaimed.

These polar dwellers are called "winterovers."

The researchers are equipped by Raytheon Polar Services with cold weather gear, food and housing for their stay.

Although Staniszewski will not travel far from his living and working environment, he was briefed on polar survival.

Besides the scientists, there are power plant people, chefs, a doctor, cargo people and others, who are running the newly built station just 100 feet from the Geographic South Pole. They live in a college dormitory-like building with its own full basketball court and gym with treadmills and weights. To fill his free time, he brought along books, movies and a large supply of his favorite coffee.

This is Staniszewski's second trip to the South Pole as a member of astrophysicist John Ruhl's research group in the department of physics at Case. The researchers study the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) to understand the history and contents of the universe. During the graduate student's prior trip to the Pole, he worked on a smaller telescope called ACBAR doing similar work.

Staniszewski's research is in optic designs. He was responsible for putting together a cryostat which contains the telescope's one-meter secondary mirror, which is cooled to 10 degrees above absolute zero. For several years, he has experimented with mechanical and cryogenic designs for that system. Over the past year, he concentrated on making it operational for the telescope's deployment.

"The reason I knew this winter would be a good experience is that we were to both build the telescope and deploy the receiver in a short time. This meant that a lot of the important work was going to be left to the winterovers," said Staniszewski. "A lot of what we need to learn about how to run both the telescope and camera has to be done by both winterovers at once, so it is a very exciting and busy time."

Staniszewski is among a number of graduate students from Ruhl's group who have wintered in Antarctica as part of their research toward their graduate degrees.

Ruhl hired a postdoctoral researcher a few years ago, Kechen Xiao, who had previously spent a winter at the Pole, but Staniszewski is the first graduate student to winter over. Ruhl and other graduate students have spent summers in Antarctica, one working with Ruhl at the Pole and two others spent months working on the coast at McMurdo station. Staniszewski is one of six polar scientists staying this winter, and one of two who are specifically putting the new telescope into operations.

SPT is 75 feet tall and 33 feet across. It will be used not only by Case researchers, but also by some from the University of Chicago, University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, McGill University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

For a student who never had a telescope as a child nor thought of planets as particularly "fun" until he studied physics in high school, Staniszewski now thinks they are "beautiful."

"But studying the early universe is way more exciting," he said.

He will calibrate the telescope's receiver which is similar to a digital camera with a large CCD array, but the pixels in the SPT are individual superconducting detectors made by the Berkeley group.

"My biggest challenge is that the number of detectors we are trying to operate is much larger than any experiment in our field," he said. "To contrast, other experiments are doing CMB research with fewer than 50 pixels while we are trying to operate at 1,000."

So far, the scientists have been focusing the telescope by pointing it at Jupiter.

Once they are able to get all the pixels of the digital recordings in focus so that Jupiter appears as a sharp image, they will know the telescope is ready to look into the far-reaches of space and thousands of galaxies at the edge of the universe.

"We are looking at known sources, which other telescopes have looked at before in order to figure out how sensitive our system is," he said. "So far, everything looks great, but we need to understand all of these calibration measurements very well in order to interpret the size and brightness of objects we observe."

Eventually the data collected from the telescope's observations will help the research group figure out what the universe is made of and why it is expanding like it is, said Staniszewski.

"After the big bang, you might expect that the expansion would slow down," he said. "Just like you throw a ball up in the air, you would expect it to slow down as it rises."

Evidence portrays a different story of a universe that is expanding ever more rapidly.

"In order to overcome gravity and accelerate the universe's expansion, we need a force acting in the opposite direction of gravity," Staniszewski explained.

Dark energy is something scientists are proposing as a property of space that is making the universe expand more rapidly as time goes on.

Information gather from the telescope may answer whether dark matter exists or not.

The new SPT and the older ACBAR telescope projects are not the first for Staniszewski. While an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin and working with physics professor Peter Timbie on his senior thesis, Staniszewski operated COMPASS, a telescope located 30 miles outside of Madison, where he also encountered Ruhl, who was part of the group. That meeting began the research work and connection that would eventually bring him to Case and the South Pole.

Staniszewski became enthralled with physics in the eighth grade when he read books by Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, which he admits that he did not fully grasp but was in "love with the ideas."

Posted by: Heidi Cool, April 17, 2007 03:14 PM | News Topics: College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate Studies, HeadlinesMain, Physics, Provost Initiatives, Research, Science, Technology

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