South Pole centennial history includes UChicago telescopes

Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. The following year, Arctic explorer Admiral Robert Peary wondered about the scientific merits of making a continuous year of astronomical observations from the South Pole. So Peary sent a letter to Edwin Frost, director of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, asking about the idea.

Frost rejected the idea, but his UChicago successors thought differently. In 1986 they established the first in a series of telescopes at the South Pole to take advantage of its high elevation (9,301 feet), its clear, dry atmosphere, and its uninterrupted view of the same patch of sky. UChicago scientists have since become a scientific fixture of the South Pole, which now enters its second century of human activity.

UChicago deployed its first telescopes as part of the Cosmic Background Radiation Anisotropy Experiment (COBRA). The largest COBRA telescope, called Python, recorded measurements of the cosmic microwave background — the big bang’s afterglow — that were 10 to 100 times better than any other Earthbound site conducting such studies.

Then came Chicago’s South Pole Infrared Explorer (SPIREX), the only telescope in the world that had a continuous view of the crash of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in July 1995.

The Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI), which began operating in 2000, soon recorded slight temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. DASI’s precise measurements enabled cosmologists to verify the theory that ordinary matter, of which humans, stars and galaxies are made, accounts for less than 5 percent of the universe’s total mass and energy.

DASI also made the first detection of the much fainter polarization in the cosmic microwave background, which made the cover of the Dec. 19, 2002 issue of Nature.

Succeeding DASI was the South Pole Telescope, which collected its first data in February 2007. SPT studies the mysterious phenomenon of dark energy, which makes the expansion of the universe accelerate.

The South Pole Telescope will be featured as a Science Bulletin next summer in a high-definition, seven-minute documentary at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.



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Norway’s Roald Amundsen and his team arrived at the South Pole at 4 a.m. Dec. 14, 1911. Today, Norway’s flag flies in front of the ceremonial South Pole marker, flanked by the flags of 11 other Antarctic-faring nations.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

The National Science Foundation dedicated the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in January 2008. The U.S. Navy established the first South Pole station in 1956. The NSF’s first Amundsen-Scott Station succeeded the first station in 1975.

Photo by José Francisco Salgado

A frayed U.S. flag attests to the harsh conditions that make living and working difficult at the South Pole. U.S. Navy Adm. Richard E. Byrd became the first person to fly over the pole in 1929.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

All cargo to the South Pole is delivered by ski-equipped Hercules LC-130 aircraft. The Hercs never shut down their engines at the pole because the cold would make them too hard to restart. In austral winter, it is too cold for aircraft to land.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

Two scientists venture outside the warm confines of the South Pole Station. It is summertime at the South Pole, with temperatures averaging between minus 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in late November.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

The South Pole Telescope shares a complex with the BICEP2 telescope (right). The $19.2 million SPT is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

The South Pole Telescope stands 75 feet tall, measures 33 feet across and weighs 280 tons. It was test-built in Kilgore, Texas, then taken apart and transported to the South Pole.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

A front-on view of the South Pole Telescope’s primary dish. The SPT is design to pierce the mystery of dark energy, an unknown force that pushes the universe apart, counteracting gravity.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

The South Pole Telescope sits atop a glacier two miles thick, taking “snapshots” of the infant universe, when it was only 400,000 years old.

Courtesy of José Francisco Salgado

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