Cosmology's winter warrior.
The wind chill is -80[degrees]Celsius in Antarctica when Steffen Richter, donning a red parka, hops on a snowmobile and heads to work. Lighting his path are the stars, a sliver of moon and the faint green glow of the aurora australis, the southern lights.
It's the kind of day that might make him miss home--but Boston is nearly 15,000 kilometers away, and no pilot would dare fly anywhere near Richter's location for months. Plus, the Harvard engineer has a job to do. Hitched to Richter's snowmobile is a vat of liquid helium, the lifeblood of a telescope built to detect and dissect the universe's oldest light.
On March 17, scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced that the telescope, BICEP2, had detected ripples in spacetime dating back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (SN: 4/5/14, p. 6). It's a potentially Nobel Prize-winning discovery, and it could not have been made without Richter. His daily maintenance checks and semiweekly helium deliveries during three consecutive Antarctic winters allowed BICEP2 to remain fixated on exposing the earliest moments of the universe.
Even in the South Pole's frigid temperatures, the telescope must be kept much colder to detect radiation, emitted just after the Big Bang, that hovers just a few degrees above absolute zero. Missing one delivery of liquid helium coolant could cripple the telescope for weeks. "You have to do it no matter what the weather is," he says. "Running out of liquid helium is not an option."
The Amundsen-Scott research station, where Richter works, is inaccessible by air for nearly nine months of the year. Once the sun dips below the horizon in March, it doesn't return until September, leaving a frigid, dry environment that's ideal for astronomy but abysmal for human habitation.
That doesn't bother Richter, an adventurer whose passions include riding motorbikes in remote parts of the world. In his nine winters at the polar station (which puts him in a tie for the most spent there), he has served as the only line of engineering defense for multimillion-dollar experiments such as BICEP and IceCube, which recently detected neutrinos from beyond the solar system (SN: 12/28/13,p. 6). Everyday, he trekked out in temperatures averaging -58[degrees]Celsius to inspect the instruments and their data. In his free time, Richter became a proud member of the 300 Club, running outside naked in -100[degrees] Fahrenheit temperatures after roasting in a 200[degrees] sauna.
He's now back in Boston and plans to return to the South Pole later this year to install upgrades for the new and improved BICEP3 telescope. But he won't spend the winter--the team found another willing victim to take his place. "I have high confidence in him," Richter says of his stand-in. "Hopefully he'll be great so that I won't have to do it every year."
Caption: As the engineer in charge of maintaining the BICEP2 telescope, Steffen Richter made frequent trips to fill the instrument with helium to cool it to nearly absolute zero.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||THE SCIENCE LIFE; Steffen Richter|
|Date:||May 3, 2014|
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