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A photo of star trails in Antarctica.

Star trails seen during the Antarctic winter over the Harker Glacier on the island of South Georgia.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SAM CRIMMIN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic

Published March 19, 2014

The South Pole in winter is a far from ideal spot for humans. The temperature averages -72 degrees Fahrenheit (-58 degrees Celsius), it's dark for six months, and it's as bone dry as you can get on Earth.

All those extremes and more, however, make it an ideal spot for astronomers—particularly those interested in detecting the tiny wavelengths of radiation that were created when the universe was new.

And so the discovery this week about the moments that followed the Big Bang—the first physical evidence that the universe expanded at a stupendous rate—came from years of observing cosmic microwave background radiation from the very bottom of the Earth.

Using a small but powerful telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station high up on the Antarctic plateau, the team of researchers put up with the harsh conditions to come up with one of the most important breakthroughs in cosmology.

"The South Pole is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground," said John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, and leader of the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP) collaboration. "It's one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the Big Bang."

A photo of the South Pole Telescope.
The South Pole Telescope at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is constantly scanning the universe.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL LUONG-VAN, NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

The absence of water vapor and generally thin atmosphere are particularly important for observing radiation at miniscule, submillimeter wavelengths. Where the atmosphere is not so dry, water vapor can absorb microwave signals that come in, producing confusing and incomplete results.

"You're standing on almost two miles of ice at the South Pole; that's what happens to water there," said Jamie Bock of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, another BICEP team member. "The air pressure is also low because of the altitude, and all this greatly reduces noise from the atmosphere."

The bitter cold keeps winter wind to a minimum—and that provides stability for telescope observations as well.

Using a telescope at the Pole can reduce noise not only from Earth's atmosphere, but from interstellar radiation and dust, too. That's because a telescope at Amundsen-Scott has perfect access to what is known as the Southern Hole—a patch of unusually clean sky that allows for optimal viewing into very deep space and consequently to the very early universe.

A photo of the BICEP2 telescope.
The building to the right of the South Pole Telescope contains the BICEP2 telescope, which is searching the skies for signs of inflation, the rapid expansion of the universe that occurred after the Big Bang.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEITH VANDERLINDE

Relentless Data Collection

The Amundsen-Scott station is now a substantial science outpost funded and managed by the National Science Foundation, with several hundred scientists and support staff in the summer. The staff shrinks to fewer than 50 during the long winter nights, but that's when most of the observing gets done.

The telescope's location at the geographic South Pole allows for generally easy operations and aiming. Since the stars don't rise and set but rather appear unmoving, the telescope operators can find the one spot they want to study and basically stay on it with little change for the full six-month winter.

"All we need is one person down there with the instrument during the winter," Bock said. "Everything is set up to relentlessly collect our data."

The scientist who usually stays with the telescope is Steffan Richter of Harvard University. For nine long Antarctic winters he has tended the instruments—walking almost a mile every day from the base to the telescope.

"Yes, it is very, very cold and dark," he said. "But the project is so compelling. And how many other people see amazing auroras in the sky, these spectacular light shows, on their way to work? We see them all the time."

A regular at the South Pole, Richter never works with the same telescope for too long.

There's a kind of Moore's law of telescope technology, he said, with regular exponential improvements as in the world of computing. Three different and increasingly capable telescopes have already been used in the Big Bang-inflation study, and one more is on the way.

A photo of the BICEP2 telescope.
Using these telescopes at the Pole can reduce noise from Earth's atmosphere and from interstellar radiation and dust.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KEITH VANDERLINDE

"A Continent Dedicated to Science"

The BICEP instruments were put together with one purpose: to look for cosmic microwave background radiation that had been changed by the gravitational forces unleashed by the Big Bang. Like most of the instruments in Antarctica, the telescope is small as major telescopes go; its aperture to take in light is only 26 centimeters (10.25 inches) across. But it has two lenses inside that deflect and intensify the signal—rather like Galileo's first telescope.

The largest telescope at Amundsen-Scott is the National Science Foundation's South Pole Telescope. With a 10-meter (33-foot) radio dish, it collects radiation with the primary goal of identifying early galaxy clusters through their interaction with the cosmic microwave background.

Long used as a window into the cosmic microwave background, Antarctica is also being used to collect radiation at other wavelengths. In 2012, for instance, a telescope that captures the far infrared portion of the spectrum was transported to Amundsen-Scott and then flown 500 miles (805 kilometers) to a ridge 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) above sea level.

From that perch, the High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz (HEAT) telescope has already been credited with detecting carbon in a vast and distant molecular cloud forming in the Milky Way. It's the kind of discovery generally made from orbiting telescopes, but is now possible from a robotic (and much less expensive) telescope on Earth.

And it's no surprise the finding came from Antarctica. Vladimir Papitashvili, program manager for Antarctic Astrophysics and Geospace Sciences at the National Science Foundation, says: "It's a continent dedicated to science and science alone. Doing work down there is hard, and the conditions set limits on what's possible. But the conditions also make for some unique science."

36 comments
Remigiusz Zarosinski
Remigiusz Zarosinski

Date could be perfect but interpretation is wrong. I was told that they know the Big Bang is not good theory but they have not better idea and that they need to collect the dates and record them. All is so funny but there is ONE BIG PROBLEM. Universe does not wait, processes go and we have to understand them if we are going survive to next very interesting level of evolution. Before Copernicus Revolution we had Geocentric Model. From Einstein science-fiction we have Egocentric Model if not thinking about our existence it would be the best Comedy Club. Sorry, I am not good with drawing so You need use your imagination.

1. Two scientists are sitting near a deep hole in earth and they are lowering an equipment inside. First asked: "Look , we spend nearly $300 million on this experiment. Are you sure we are going to find a dark matter there ? Second  Scientist: " Shure  !!! There is not lighting down there!!'.

2. We know that scientist abuse alcohol. Big Bang theory is result of this abuse. Drunk scientist butted his head in a lamppost and saw in one moment all Universe. Next day he said: " Yes!!!, now I know! And I have to tell you that I still sense the waves and vibration."

500 years ago was Copernican Revolution- the shift from a geocentric to heliocentric model of the Universe. Today we have Egocentric Model of Science Society.

To continue the progress of science we have to again confront deep questions about space and time, quantum theory, and cosmology. I am extremely concerned about a trend in which only one or two directions of research is well supported. It is a trend with tragic consequences. Never before have we been better prepared to discover the fundamental laws of Nature. Yet, and regrettably, there is also much that is ludicrous being sold under the name of physics and I will deal extensively with this issue. Today, the major part of theoretical physics has gotten lost in bizarre constructs that are completely disconnected from reality. I asked few vexing questions to which I know answers and I asked professors who should know the answers. They do not and I learned that in Science Society it is impolite to not agree with their theories and present new revolutionary. Think about it; Mass is one of the most important defining quantities of matter. So? What is the origin of mass?, Where does it come from?, What makes mass happen?, What shapes and controls and sculpts the elementary constituents of matter and their masses ? Believe me and sorry to Albert but his E=mc^2 has nothing to do with reality.

We know how important Entropy is. But what is a source of the Entropy. Yes! I know.

Whatever Universe has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be man has to understand, for ignorance and wrong knowledge are self-destruction. The goal of physical science is to explain what the Universe is made of and how it works. Believe me, Universe has in store for mankind a life forever but we are on the way to lose all.

HA AH
HA AH

زمستان در قطب جنوب بیش از یک ایده آل است.
دمای هوا به -58 درجه سانتیگراد می رسد، برای چندین ماه تاریکی همه جا را در بر می گیرد،  و هوا شدیداً خشک است. اما چنین آب و هوایی برای اخترشناسی و اخترشناان ایده آل است...

Savas Ozyurt
Savas Ozyurt

I've seen pictures like the first one in this article before and they always confuse me.


What am I looking at in that picture?


If you look at that star trails you see that there is a center, you can see it somewhere on the top somewhat to the left. So what's that?


Is that where the camera was pointed at?

Is that where the south pole is pointing to?


It can't be the center of our galaxy.


Any clues or guesses out there?

Klitos Christodoulou
Klitos Christodoulou

If you mathematically try to model the whole universe then it has to be infinite. However the Nobel goes to the person who models the universe mathematically and finds the end of it, as mathematics won't apply for the first time. 

Then people we have found God.

Tyler Greenwell
Tyler Greenwell

It doesn't sound like he is. He's trying to dispute scientific data, but can't even spell.


jack colgan
jack colgan

What makes you qualified to make such a statement?

Thanh Pham
Thanh Pham

very nice for project in South Pole

david calvin
david calvin

Space has always been infinite. Galaxies and Universes are limited and there are many more than one of each.  Space, being infinite, is non-dimensional.  Also, if either a galaxie or a universe exploded, they would cease to exist as such.   What they are seeing thru their telescopes has not a thing to do with a so-called "big bang".  Also, our universe in totality, is not expanding except in large parts.  We can't even see by any means our total universe, and quite a bit of it that we can see is not expanding and has not been proven otherwise.  There is so much bunk being verbalized about what these cosmologists see. 

Donald Law
Donald Law

Why if only one is needed to run the telescope there are 50 people during the winter?

Swag Valance
Swag Valance

It's also the best place to watch your own tissues decay from cosmic radiation.

David Wetherell
David Wetherell

So, since it is highly likely there is an infinite set of universes, and perhaps an infinite number of sets, do the universes collide? If so, what happens when they do? if not, why not? (There is a Nobel prize for the right answers.)

Vijayalakshmi Krishnan
Vijayalakshmi Krishnan

So close to heaven ,yet on this beautiful Earth. It is indeed a heaven on earth !!

Aaron Stone
Aaron Stone

If the first picture is the south pole shouldn't the center point be overhead?  These stars are circling a point that I would expect to see much further down in latitude.

Tom Butler
Tom Butler

" Since the stars don't rise and set but rather appear unmoving, the telescope operators can find the one spot they want to study and basically stay on it with little change for the full six-month winter."

The earth still rotates so the stars will appear to move around the south celestial pole once a day.

Tom Cloyd
Tom Cloyd

What an amazing glimpse into the extremes to which we go to increase our learning. A gripping account, and the photos are wonderful. Made me cold just reading about it!

Lou J
Lou J

@Savas Ozyurt Since this is a photograph, taken from Antarctica, the North Star is not visible.  These photographs are long exposure and may be a composite of multiple images.  Because Earth is nearly spherical and rotates easterly about its North-South axis once every 24 hours, and stars appear to rise in the East and set in the West.  If you imagine Earth's equator projected outward into space as well as the Earth's geographic North and South poles, the points directly above the poles appear to remain fixed, while the other stars appear to revolve around those  fixed points.  For observer's in the northern hemisphere there is a reasonably bright star very close to, but not exactly, the North Celestial Pole (point directly above Earth's North Pole).  That star is named Polaris, also called the North Star.  Currently there is no bright star close to the South Celestial Pole, so the sky appears to revolve around an empty spot.  If you leave a camera pointed toward either of these spots with the shutter opened, you will see the stars making circular arcs about the poles.  If you point your camera toward the Celestial Equator, star trails will appear to be straight lines.  It's a matter of perspective.

Kevin Kmetz
Kevin Kmetz

@Savas Ozyurt It's the north star. The earth rorates on its axis and the north star, on the axis, stays fixed.

Klitos Christodoulou
Klitos Christodoulou

People please, take it easy!! 


As everyone believes that the universe has no end, imagine proving the opposite what impact that would have. Don't forget we are only talking about theories and not facts. Don't be so judgemental, I'm not here for teaching you religion.

Debi Baughman
Debi Baughman

@Klitos Christodoulou  uh huh.  are you saying that the end then shows us God, or are you saying that the person who is able to model the universe  mathematically and find the end of it is God?

Josus Daz Ortega
Josus Daz Ortega

@Klitos Christodoulou  can you really find your god?where?if you believe in both,to your so called faith and in science then tell me if you have evidence that your imaginary god exist...then we'll tell you our scientific evidence that your god exist only in your imagination..

jack colgan
jack colgan

@david calvin  What makes you qualified to say this?  I really would like to know where you are coming from.  

Debi Baughman
Debi Baughman

@Donald Law  You might want to check and see what other tasks are being done; it's hard to say.  Might be an interesting study.

Debi Baughman
Debi Baughman

@David Wetherell  at some point they need to do away with the nobel prize long enough for people to truly research simply for the sake of the discoveries

Donald Law
Donald Law

@David Wetherell well I have seen on the internet where a black hole suckup a total universe. Since there is a high magnetic force in a black hole it is looking for the other pole to suckup anything. This is why the universes do not collide since they are either sucked up by black holes or they are the same pole pushing away from each other since all is just a frequency as everything and two like magnets apose each other.  

Kyle Paolino
Kyle Paolino

@David Wetherell  Sorry, i just saw the other article about the possibility of additional universes based on the recent Big Bang discovery.  I supposed it would be much like with the galaxies. Unless there is anti-matter or some sort of negative energy keeping apart, I would assume it is completely possible.

Kyle Paolino
Kyle Paolino

@David Wetherell  Do you mean galaxies?  They do collide, it has been witnessed, very far away.  Very violent too. The galaxies are allegedly all being slowly pulled to the center of the universe by a possibly very large black hole, supposedly. Not sure this has been validated yet.

Debi Baughman
Debi Baughman

@Josus Daz Ortega @Klitos Christodoulou  I think that he made a very mature statement.  As a scientist you should know, as most other scientists do that the absence of evidence in no way proves a nonexistence.  It amazes that people know how long this earth and Universe has been around and still think that there are not new things constantly coming to light.  I also think that part of the maturity displayed by Klitos is that he knows that he might be mocked; 

check out the many many scientists who have been mocked for years before their discoveries or beliefs were accepted and you might realize that mockery is something that often goes with the brightest most intelligent of the lot.

Carole Moore
Carole Moore

@Josus Daz Ortega @Klitos Christodoulou  If humans were able to explain God or prove that God exists, that would put humans on the same level as God.  Humans will never have the intelligence or knowledge to PROVE that God exists.  We can't see the wind, but we feel it, right?  Anyone can see a creator when he or she looks at this beautiful earth and the heavens, and into the intricate human body and brain ... or the living beings in the ocean and on the earth.  Humans who think they know everything will never be able to see the God that permeates everything that is known to us.  We live in a creation, and every creation has a Creator with a purpose.  If you look into genetics and the many other fields of science, you will see that all this is not an accident.

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