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Steffen Richter

Steffen Richter

Steffen Richter

To Discover Gravitational Waves, Someone's Got to Keep the Antarctic Telescope Cold

When researchers announced last week that they had detected gravitational waves from an instant after the big bang, team members doffed their hats to electrical engineer Steffen Richter, who has wintered at the South Pole for the past 3 years to help operate the telescope that made it all possible, known as BICEP. Richter, 42, has spent several additional winters at the South Pole starting in 1997, when he first traveled there to work on another instrument, AMANDA, which laid the groundwork for the IceCube neutrino detection experiment. He shared his experience working at the bottom of the world in a conversation with ScienceInsider. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What do you remember of your first trip to the South Pole?

S.R.: It was very exciting. We had a really small crew over the winter—just 28 people. I remember getting all these medical tests before I could begin working. Being there is the closest thing there is to being an astronaut.

Q: What is it like to live there over the winter?

S.R.: You have about 4 months of darkness. We all live at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. When you look out the window, you can see the geographic South Pole. It's like a college dorm, a long hallway with shared bathrooms.

Q: What’s involved in taking care of the BICEP telescope?

S.R.: I go out to the telescope every day, and I check out the telescope, make sure it's running OK. Every few days, we have to fill it with liquid helium to keep it cold. We transfer liquid helium from a storage facility, put it on a snowmobile with a crane, and drive it out to the telescope, which is three-quarters of a mile away from the base. While I’m working on the crane to pour the helium, my partner drives the snowmobile in circles. We don’t want the engine to stop. Vehicles don’t like the cold at all.

Q: It’s already freezing there. How cold does the telescope have to be to detect cosmic microwaves?

S.R.: The telescope is cooled to 4 kelvin. The detectors operate at a quarter of a degree above zero. At that temperature, it takes very little energy to excite the detectors. If you jump up and down next to the telescope, that’s enough energy that you will see a signal.

Q: Have you jumped up and down next to the telescope?

S.R.: Yes. I do that to make people aware that they shouldn’t be slamming car doors or anything when they are nearby. You can of course subtract this type of noise from the signal, but still.

Q: How do you stay sane?

S.R.: I work out a lot. I run on the treadmill, I do a lot of rowing on the rowing machine. I listen to music. We have a huge movie library. There are parties. People organize art shows.

By August, most people at the station are pretty worn out. They are emotionally and physically drained. The whole energy level of the station goes down. And then, as soon as you see first light of spring, people run outside into the sun.

Q: What do you like about your job?

S.R.: It’s an adventure, and it suits my personality. I go outside every day, even when it's dark. You can really enjoy the stars. It's amazing how much you can see because there is no light pollution. You see a beautiful aurora. I enjoy the spectacular show that's on every single day. What's the point of being at the South Pole if you’re simply going to sit in an office?