Sunday, May 15, 2011

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(Blog from my first season at the South Pole in 2006-2007 is shown below).

Monday, October 22, 2007

SEASON 1 (2006-2007)

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Bit About The Science

The South Pole Telescope doesn’t look at the kind of light that’s visible to human eyes; it looks at microwave light with wavelengths of a few mm. If you go outside at night and look up at the stars, what you mostly see isn’t stars but black, empty space. If instead you went outside with beach-ball-sized microwave eyes and looked up, the whole sky would be glowing with light. This light was released very early in the universe’s history and is known as the “Cosmic Microwave Background” or “CMB”. Amazingly, careful study of this light has allowed cosmologists to measure the age of the universe (13.7 billion years) and what it is made of (4% normal matter, like what you and I and stars are made of; 22% dark matter, a type of matter that doesn’t interact with light and is thus dark; and 74% dark energy, a completely strange and poorly understood force that is causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate).

The first big goal of the South Pole Telescope is to get a better handle on this mysterious dark energy. Here’s a breakdown of how this will happen:

  • Stars are grouped into galaxies. Our Sun is only 1 out of the 100 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
  • Galaxies themselves are grouped into massive clumps of galaxies known as galaxy clusters. These are the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe. (“galaxy cluster” is a misnomer; these things are essentially big globs of dark matter with a sprinkling of galaxies tossed in).
  • The Cosmic Microwave Background acts as a backlight to these galaxy clusters. That is, the galaxy cluster distorts the CMB, and observing this distortion allows you to see the galaxy cluster.
  • The SPT will employ this method to hopefully discover 1000’s of new galaxy clusters.
  • A careful analysis of these galaxy clusters will allow us to learn a lot about how and when dark energy came to dominate our universe.

If that last sentence is a little unclear, here is some further explanation:

The universe began as a much simpler place than the one we see today. Whereas the current universe contains a rich structure of stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters, the early universe was a soup of smoothly distributed matter. How did the smooth, early universe become the clumpy universe of today? The answer is gravity. Gravity makes matter collapse upon itself. In fact, because there is a lot more dark matter than normal matter (remember from above: 22% vs 4%), the main structures in the universe are dark; all the stars and galaxies you’ve ever seen pictures of are just along for the ride.

So dark matter (along with gravity) causes the growth of structure in the universe. As it turns out, dark energy inhibits the growth of structure. It’s actually a very simple battle between the two; dark matter is trying to pull stuff together (--> <--), and dark energy is trying to blow stuff apart (<-- -->). Now, this is where the South Pole Telescope comes back into the picture. By discovering 1000’s of new galaxy clusters, the SPT will catalog the history of structure formation in the universe. This, in turn, will allow us to study the battle between dark matter and dark energy, and to see how and when dark energy came to dominate the battle, as it is believed to do.

Hopefully we'll begin to probe this exciting science when we finish the telescope in about a month. It should be a thrilling year!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The reflector is on the telescope!

A few days ago we reached a huge milestone for the South Pole Telescope. 43 days after we arrived, the reflector has been installed on the telescope. My internet connection is about to die, so I've got to leave it at that, but I promise more later!

More later: so this was a really big deal for us. To begin with, Steve, Tom, Jeff, Joaquin and I had spent the better part of the past 7 months working on the reflector in some form or fashion, including a multi-month test build in +100F East Texas Summer. More recently were the 2000 man-hours of work involved in assembling the reflector here at the Pole. Of course none of this would matter if we didn't have a telescope to put the reflector on, so let us not forget our rock-solid iron crew, led by Erik "Grande" "Baby" Nichols. Not only do these men and women work wonders with 5 ton pieces of steel in -60F weather, but also consistently risk social humiliation by hanging out with us beakers (south pole for "scientists"). They are a very fun group of people and are, 4000 man-hours later, responsible for building the bulk of the South Pole Telescope.

Due to the impressive logistical and managerial skills of the higher-ups (such as Steve Padin), the telescope and reflector were finished within days of each other. What followed was a multi-step, multi-day lift of the reflector onto the telescope. Here are some photos of the lift.

The reflector is lifted from the adapter cone (which, for those of you who know a little about materials with extremely low coefficients of thermal expansion, is supposedly one of the largest pieces of invar in the world).

The adapter cone is lifted onto the telescope.

The big day arrives. About 40 people -- SPT people, iron workers, station managers, photographers, film makers -- were present at the lift. The two crane lift was captured nicely in this photo by Jerry Marty. That's Jeff, Tom and me on the left, doing what we do best.

And we're done! Iron worker Brian Hardin rightfully celebrates the flawlessly executed lift.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

new pictures

I've posted some exciting, new photographs which were taken over the past few weeks.

the New Year and Skiing

The New Year's party here was pretty great. Beneath the canopy of an enormous cargo parachute, two homegrown bands (including Snow Blind, which featured our very own Tom Crawford on bass and vocals) rocked the crowd until the early morn. I don't have any photos, but I do have this horribly shot record of the countdown.

The next day we all woke up to amazingly warm weather; an overnight heat wave had shot the temperature up to -0.7 F. In order to take advantage of this freak occurrence I decided to go skiing down the airplane runway, or "skiway", as it's known here. Stupid as my plan might sound, as long as no planes are scheduled to land during the next 2 hours, this is an officially sanctioned form of recreation. As it turns out, telemark skiing is pretty hard, especially for someone who has never tried it. After a while I got the hang of it, and it became pretty fun. It was certainly nice to get away from the sounds and sights of the station for an hour and to just stare out at the ice shelf. Here are some skiing photos.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

new webcast

We did another webcast with the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco yesterday, which was fun.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

All the panels are on the reflector!

For those of you who keep up with the other SPT blogs, you might have already heard, but all 218 precision-machined, aluminum panels are on the reflector! This was a huge milestone for us. The following is a transcription of Tom's transcription of Jeff's email to the collaboration to announce this exciting news:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Hi all,

Last night we placed the last panel on the bus, and here is the
picture to prove it. The dish may look flat, but that is just the
fish eye undoing its curvature- every indication is that it is very
close to the correct shape. Just wanted to send out a picture so
you can share in our enthusiasm.


ps. The sun dog picture is from right after we finished.

The (almost) fully populated reflector:

Auspicious omens in the sky on the occasion of the placement of panel #218:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - end transcription

So we get to go home now, right Steve? Actually, I know full well that I will (gladly) be here until the end of January. After all, this is only 1 of 3 BIG MILESTONES for the season. The other two are

2) installation of the optics cryostat, an automobile-sized, very fancy metal box that holds our secondary mirror (a 1-meter diameter mirror)
3) installation of the receiver, our astoundingly fancy camera, built by our collaborators at UC Berkeley. (By the way, I promise to give these components of the South Pole Telescope a better description in a later post).

In fact these two installations will happen in parallel. I will most likely be helping with installing the optics cryostat, which should be a lot of fun (and stress!).

Monday, December 11, 2006

Big Update

Sorry I've been so bad about adding new posts, but here is a big update on my past 3 weeks at the Pole.


The hardest thing about living at the South Pole is the little tent I call home. It would be fine to use such a cheap tent for camping back in the US, but it is wholly inappropriate to live in such a thing for 3 months at the bottom of the earth. Although the majority of my time and thoughts are centered on the numbing pain of my frostbitten extremities, I have found the howl of the wind to be a decent distraction.

Just kidding, Mom. In fact, I live in a very nice, very modern South Pole Station. This new station has replaced the old dome, the 30-year-old icon of humanity's presence at the Pole. The old dome is still here but is used mostly just for frozen food storage. Here in the new station I get my own heated room, plenty of hot meals, and an array of comforts you really wouldn't expect to find here: a United States Post Office (sort of), a game room, a music room, a gym, a full-court basket ball court, and a really nice sauna. They let us do laundry and take 4 minutes worth of shower each week. There are about 100 of us that live in the new station, and 100 more that live out in "Summer Camp", a collection of buildings that is temporarily put to use to house the summer crowd. To get a better picture of all this, check out the awesome New Station video tour put together by coworker Tom Crawford.

For the 20 or so days that I have been here, I have worked the "night shift", which only means that my schedule is out of sync with the rest of the station by 12 hours. The "what time is it? what should I be doing right now?" confusion is only compounded by the fact that the sun never sets. That's right: this is summertime in the southern hemisphere, and that means the sun never sets at the South Pole. In fact, the South Pole just has one "day" per year. The sun rises up in October, peaks in January, goes through a dramatic, month-long sunset in March, goes under for April-September, and does another slow-motion, month-long sunrise in October. Those may not be the exact months, but you get the picture: the sun just goes around and around and around, slowly traveling up and down over the course of a year. These days it's perched at about 20 degrees above the horizon, and will peak at 23 1/2 degrees at summer solstice. Nowadays I can tell the time to within 1 hour by noting the sun's location on the horizon.

The mixture of day-shifters and night-shifters at the Pole makes for some odd moments. For example, the meals are a bit strange. Someone is always starting their day with Cheerios while another downs a huge steak. Joe quietly sips coffee to wake up while Mary & Friends loudly drink beer to wind down. Another way to look at it: at any given time, someone is sleeping and someone else is drinking.

The food is surprisingly good here. I eat about twice as much as I do at home. I have eggs at almost every meal. I have two desserts per meal. At every meal I can look out the window and see the geographic South Pole, the point about which the Earth spins, located only about 50 feet away. I take great pleasure in this.

What is it like to walk around outside? To begin with, it is cold. For the time that I've been here, the average temperature has hovered around -25 F (-30 C), and even the slightest wind can send the windchill down into the -40's F. The key strategy for dealing with these extreme temperatures is layering. Including underwear, I typically have on 5 lower-body layers, 5 upper-body layers, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of socks, a pair of vacuum-insulated boots, and all manner of neck-warming, face-warming hat things. Luckily, all of this stuff actually works, and I'm usually quite comfortable outside. On several occasions I've taken my gloves off and worked with bare hands (though only for 30 minutes at a time). It is amazing how quickly your brain can adjust to a new environment; after only 3 weeks at the South Pole, my Texas-conditioned body thinks that -30F is cold, -10F is warm, and +10F is unimaginably hot.

The other obvious feature of walking outside here is the simplicity of the landscape. To being with, it is perfectly flat in all directions. There is white below the horizon, and blue above it. The ground is a crunchy mix of packed ice and snow that has been sculpted into 1 inch tall dunes by the wind. Up above is the deepest blue sky you can imagine. There are no features on the horizon, there are usually no clouds, and there are definitely no signs of life (except for us humans). So for those of you who were imagining me romping through dramatic Antarctic mountains with penguins everywhere, I'm sorry but you were dead wrong. In many ways I think this is much cooler.


There are four of us (Tom, Joaquin, Jeff and me) whose sole mission here is to build the main mirror of the South Pole Telescope. This is a circular dish 10 meters in diameter that focuses light from the sky onto the telescope's camera. Over the past few weeks, we've hit some milestones for the reflector's assembly:

Putting together the backup structure (or "BUS") of the mirror. The BUS is made of extremely stiff carbon fiber and will support the reflecting aluminum panels that go on top of it. Putting the BUS together was the coldest, toughest work I've experienced yet at the South Pole.

Completing the BUS and moving it the Dark Sector Laboratory, where the rest of the telescope is being built. Although it took us about 10 days to finish the BUS during our test build in Texas, it took us only 3 days at the Pole.

Installing the first 4 aluminum panels (only 214 to go!) . These panels make up the mirror surface, which is a large paraboloid.

And now we're about 2/3 of the way done. Our big goal is to be finished with the mirror by Christmas.

So that's all for now. I will upload a large batch of new photos pretty soon, so stay posted.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The people living at the South Pole are predominantly American and pro-Thanksgiving. This past Saturday was the big Thanksgiving celebration, and it was quite the party; there were hors dourves, live music, a candlelight dinner and very attentive wine-servers. They even put heavy curtains on the windows to keep the blinding sun out and create a nicer ambience for us.

After a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, some youngins put on music and started dancing right there in the galley. Soon the older and more responsible contingent of the crowd went to bed, and we were left with a full-on Thanksgiving dance party. At some point the galley sound system went out, and it seemed that the party would soon end. Instead, someone initiated a drive to move the party to "The Smokers’ Lounge" , which is essentially just a bar in the Old South Pole Station. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the path to the Smokers’ Lounge was through a frightening, non-heated industrial tower, the party was successfully brought back to life.

Anyway, Thanksgiving was a lot of fun. The next morning all of us SPT guys got up early to do a live webcast with the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, which went just fine. The rest of the day was spent lounging around the station and hanging out in the sauna. You might get the impression that every weekend at the South Pole is so fun-filled and relaxing. More realistically, this was probably the last full day of rest I will have until Christmas or New Year's. The telescope has to be built!


After only 6 days of travel, we've made it to the South Pole!

Our 3 hour flight from McMurdo to the Pole went off without a hitch and gave us some spectacular views of inland Antarctica (see photos). The plane landed, I stepped outside, and the inside of my noise instantly froze (it was -37 F when we landed, with the wind chill bringing it down to about -55 F). We were cheerily greeted by our PI John Carlstrom and Project Manager Steve Padin.

The South Pole sits on top of about 2 miles of packed ice and has an effective elevation of about 11,000 ft. This means that altitude sickness is a serious concern up here. So of course we've taken it really easy so far: no work, lots of water, lots of rest. Poor Jeff had a strange reaction to the anti-altitude sickness medication that we all took and has had legally-blind vision for the past 24 hours. His vision is slowly and steadily improving.

After lunch we did take a walk over to "The Dark Sector", the region of the polar base where electromagnetic noise is kept to a minimum for the sake of the telescopes which live there. This is where the South Pole Telescope (locally known as "10 Meter") will be built. Along the way we got to see a piece of CMB (cosmic microwave background) history, "DASI", an earlier and extremely successful telescope of John Carlstrom's. DASI was the first telescope to detect the polarization of the CMB light waves. Its current incarnation is a telescope known as QUAD, which is also studying the polarization of the CMB. (Sorry for all the science lingo without any explanation. If you'd like to learn more about this science, please check out these great introductory CMB pages by Wayne Hu).

So anyway, after months of anticipation, I am very glad to have finally made it to the South Pole!

Sunday, November 26, 2006


As is often the case when flying to Antarctica, our flight from Christchurch to McMurdo Station was delayed. First by 24 hours and then by 3 hours. So we had 27 hours to kill in Christchurch, which wasn't a bad deal at all. We basically just hung out at cafes and bars and went kayaking through the botanical gardens. I have photos to prove it.

Eventually our real flight time came and we found ourselves at a Kiwi airfield, shuffling through security lines (much like you would in a standard airport), but while dressed head to toe in our extreme weather clothing (which was stiflingly hot in Christchurch, but required of us anyway). An hour later we were strapping down our seat belts on a US military jet, preparing for takeoff. All in all it was a very comfortable ride. The aisles were huge. We were given enormous brown bag lunches. Surprisingly friendly US Air Force personnel let us get up and walk around and look out the window at the ice floes we were flying over.

Only 5 hours later we touched down at McMurdo Station. The aircraft door opened, the cold air poured in, and we all shuffled onto the snow tarmac. Spinning around several times to take in the gorgeous mountains around us, I was floored. I am standing on Antarctica! I am up-side-down! This is actually happening!

McMurdo Sound was much more beautiful and mountainous than I had thought it would be. It was also pretty warm (about 30 F, 0 C), allowing for a pleasant walk outside after dinner. Tom, Jeff and I walked over to an old hut constructed in 1902 by the British explorer R.P. Scott and his men. There is even a frozen seal on the ground outside the hut, presumably killed by Scott and his men but never eaten. Although quite disgusting to look at up close, the 104-year-old seal has been remarkably well preserved by the cold temperatures at McMurdo. Check out photos.

And that's it for my trip in McMurdo. Tomorrow morning we should be on a plane to the South Pole!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

En Route

The trip to the South Pole is not a short thing. For me it began in Chicago about 2 days ago, on Thursday November 16, as I boarded a plane (with coworkers Tom and Jeff) headed to LA. There we met up with fellow graduate student Joaquin and took a 12-hour overnight flight to Auckland, New Zealand. In crossing the International Date Line during this flight I was completely robbed of the day Friday, November 17, 2006. Next up was a short flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, where I write this post.

Our time in Christchurch has been very nice so far. We've had a little time to walk around town and check out some cafes and restaurants (very impressive food so far), and last night we were even fortunate enough to experience the city's nightlife scene. Today Joaquin and I took a walk through the city's amazing botanical garden, the most beautiful one either of us has ever walked through (I'll post some photos when I have a better internet connection). The main purpose of our stay in Christchurch was taken care of this afternoon when we were assigned the 40-odd articles of extreme weather clothing which keep us warm and functional when we work outside at the South Pole.

Anyway, we have a few more hours to enjoy Christchurch before our "zero six hundred hours" appearance at the military airport tomorrow morning. Then we all pile into this noisy plane and fly to Antarctica. Should be fun.


Hi everyone,

This is the blog of Ryan Keisler, a graduate student in physics at the University of Chicago, while he is working at the South Pole. I (Ryan) will be there for about 3 months during the 2006-2007 austral summer to help build a new radio telescope called the "South Pole Telescope". This 10-meter telescope will, among other things, help us to understand a force in our universe known as "dark energy". Dark energy is causing the expansion of our Universe to accelerate and is one of the most puzzling physical phenomena ever observed.

I'll be at the South Pole with a bunch of other people (about 10) that also work on the South Pole Telescope. We'll be working outside every day in -30F weather, trying to put together this giant telescope bolt by bolt. It should be tough but rewarding work.

I'll keep a record of my South Pole experience on this blog. There is also a blog which other members of the SPT team will contribute to. Check this blog out by clicking on its link on the side of this page (or just go directly to ).

Ok, thanks for visiting!