PhD student Jamil Shariff is one of a team of researchers from the University of Toronto working on the SPIDER experiment in Antarctica (all photos © Jamil Shariff)

Welcome to Antarctica: counting down to the launch of SPIDER

Nineteen researchers from seven universities are in Antarctica assembling SPIDER – an experiment consisting of six telescopes that will be attached to a helium balloon and carried about 36 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. 

One of those researchers is University of Toronto astronomy and astrophysics PhD student Jamil Shariff

“The experiment's goal is to understand more about what happened at the very beginning of the Universe, the tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang," he says, writing via e-mail from McMurdo Station. 

“SPIDER does this by observing fluctuations in the light left over from the intense heat of the Universe's birth. This primordial light appears as a glow across the whole sky, and is referred to as the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation." 

SPIDER is expected to launch in mid- to late-December. (See Shariff's photo gallery of the experience so far.)

photo of the cryostat“The reason for lifting the telescopes to this altitude is to get them above most of Earth's atmosphere,” Shariff says. “Glow from the atmosphere itself tends to partially obscure the light from the early Universe that we are trying to observe, so it is advantageous to lift your telescope above it."

(Pictured at right: the cryostat,a large vessel of liquid helium that cools the telescopes down to a temperature of only 0.3 degrees above absolute zero.)  

“That's one of the reasons why we are going to the trouble of putting the experiment on a balloon, instead of just observing with ground-based telescopes, which is also being done by other projects.”

Although the CMB appears as glow across the whole sky, this glow is not visible to the human eye. “It's light from a different part of the spectrum, called microwave light,” Shariff says. It's invisible to us, but SPIDER's specialized cameras can detect it.”

(Read the Scientific American article about SPIDER

Shariff, who arrived at McMurdo Station October 27, is joined by five other colleagues from U of T: Professor Barth Netterfield and PhD students Steven Benton, Natalie Gandilo, John Hartley and Ivan Padilla. Most members of the SPIDER team will remain in Antarctica until early to mid-January, depending on when the experiment is able to be launched.

“Even after we launch, we have to continuously monitor the experiment and occasionally send commands to it,” says Shariff. “So the length of our stay also depends on how long it takes the balloon to go around the continent.”

Shariff’s PhD thesis is on the SPIDER project and the trip is the culmination of six years of work in designing, building and testing various aspects of the experiment.

“We’re down here to launch the telescope and have it observe the CMB for approximately 20 days so that we can get the scientific data we need. We're finally within sight of the end goal that I've been working towards for all this time.”

It’s summer in Antarctica now, and the temperatures resemble those of a Toronto winter, says Shariff. 

“As the season progresses, it will become even warmer, approaching zero, to the point that the sea ice will begin to melt and break up.” 

The team has been fortunate to have a lot of sunny, brilliantly clear, and calm days, he says, although bad weather caused the first wave of SPIDER scientists deploying to the ice to be delayed by a whole week in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

“The weather in Antarctica can change very quickly. A bad system can come in and catch you unawares. In the worst cases, visibility can be reduced to almost zero, or winds can be too high, in which case planes cannot land.”

A fun summer side effect thanks to their extreme latitude of 78 degrees south: the sun never sets. 

“We are in perpetual daylight. That takes some getting used to. In the winter time, it is perpetual night, and bitterly cold; I'm glad we're not down here under those conditions.”

Despite the relatively balmy temperatures of an Antarctic summer, scientists are issued clothing known as Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. The key item is a large, bright red, down-insulated expedition parka from Canada Goose, the company transformed by U of T alumnus Dani Reese.

Even if the weather is warm enough that the researchers aren’t wearing the coat that they call “Big Red”, they must still bring their ECW gear with them on the journey between McMurdo Station and "LDB" – the Long Duration Balloon Facility several kilometres away, in case a vehicle breaks down or the weather worsens and they are stranded. (Pictured above right: Padilla and Gandillo.)

“McMurdo Station has many of the amenities of a small U.S. town, including a gymnasium, an exercise room, a post office, a library, a chapel, two bars, a coffee house that serves wine, the galley and more,” Shariff says. For outdoor recreation, there are a number of great hiking trails right within or near McMurdo itself, as well as others that are more distant. Our accommodation is basically dorm rooms, and those have WiFi, although bandwidth is limited; the bandwidth to the entire station is comparable to the bandwidth to a single large household in North America.

“While some scientists (geologists, etc.) do spend some of their time in very remote field camps with very few creature comforts, that's not what we are doing. At McMurdo we have heat, power, running water, and I am even able to take showers, but only every second day, in order to conserve water.”

For now, Shariff’s work requires a fair amount of activity. 

“At this stage we are busy assembling SPIDER, so I spend a lot of time using tools to bolt things together, drilling, soldering and wiring electronics, routing cables, etc.,” he says. “Later on, once the whole payload is assembled and we're in more of a testing phase, the emphasis will switch to software – writing and fixing bugs in the code that controls the telescope during flight and monitoring things at computer workstations.”

Fascinated by astronomy and astrophysics since he was a small child, Shariff studied applied science in the engineering physics program at UBC as an undergrad. 

“After a few summer internships in astronomy instrumentation labs, I realized that I wanted to get into the more technical side of astronomy, to be one of the people who develops the actual hardware that enables new scientific discoveries. So I could do the science I've always been interested in, but in a way that enabled me to put my engineering skills to good use. 

“By the time I was accepted into grad school in astronomy at U of T, it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to join the lab of Professor Barth Netterfield, someone who actually builds balloon-borne telescopes. That's how I ended up on this amazing adventure!”


(See a photo gallery of the expedition.)

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