Antarctic boffins hope stratospheric gravity wave hunter returns to Earth

Telescope circles globe propelled by polar winds


Boffins in Antarctica are nervously watching the skies for the planned descent of an instrument package hoisted into the stratosphere on January 1 with the aim of seeking out gravity waves.

The experiment, called SPIDER, combines a polarimeter designed to look for signals that would either validate or exclude “GUT-scale” (grand unification theory) inflationary models.

Two secondary experiments will look at the interstellar medium in the Milky Way; and measure the weak gravitational lensing of the cosmic background radiation (CMB) polarisation.

The craft's six 30cm-apeture telescope inserts are helium-cooled to 1.5˚K.

The instruments on board SPIDER include six cameras, and the whole package is travelling around Earth at roughly 36,500 metres (120,000 feet), propelled by circumpolar winds.

The video below shows the launch near McMurdo Station.

Youtube Video

On January 3, Princeton research scholar Zigmund Kermish wrote that SPIDER had reached its “float” altitude successfully, that flight systems like attitude control were operating, and that the team was ready to begin working with the craft's instruments.

However, it's after the balloon returns to ground level that the researchers will have perhaps their most difficult challenge: with no way to precisely control the craft's descent, the researchers will only have a week to locate SPIDER and retrieve its data.

Collaborators in the project include Princeton University, with funding from NASA, the NSF and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency. ®

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • James Webb Telescope launch delayed again, this time by weather
    New launch date could be a marvelous Christmas gift to humanity

    The James Webb Telescope has been cleared for launch, only for weather to delay its ascent for at least a day.

    Work on the ‘scope commenced in 1996, ahead of a planned 2007 launch. The instrument’s journey to the launchpad has been long and hard: in 2005 it was redesigned to control cost overruns, construction occupied another 11 years, then the craft was damaged during tests in 2018.

    Then came COVID, which in 2020 slowed the process of integrating the ‘scope with the Ariane rocket that will (eventually) lift it into orbit. Further issues with that lifter, and the ‘scope, saw October 2021 slated as the launch date.

    Continue reading
  • Gas giant 11 times the mass of Jupiter discovered in b Centauri binary system
    Orbit roughly 100 times wider than that of similar planets in our solar system

    Scientists have discovered a gas giant planet 11 times the mass Jupiter orbiting the binary system of b Centauri A and B.

    The b Centauri star system, located roughly 325 light years from our solar system, hosts stars with a combined mass between six and 10 times that of the Sun.

    A team led by Markus Janson, an astronomy professor at Stockholm University, has confirmed the existence of the distant gas giant, about 11 times the mass of Jupiter, using data from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile.

    Continue reading
  • AI algorithms can help erase bright streaks of internet satellites – but they cannot save astronomy
    'We are absolutely losing some science'

    Feature Hundreds of scientists around the world have been quietly volunteering their time to prevent low Earth orbit satellites from destroying astronomy.

    Space is getting more and more crowded. As technology has advanced, lobbing things into space has become cheaper and more accessible for commercial entities. Private companies are elbowing in and flinging their own satellites into low Earth orbit, typically promising to deliver faster and faster wireless broadband internet from their constellations.

    When SpaceX began sending its Starlink birds up in 2018, the astronomy community realized the flying blocks of metal brightened up the night sky and threatened to drown out the glow of distant stars and galaxies. Constellations of Starlink satellites whizzing in front of telescopes left dazzling streaks in their wake, making it difficult for astronomers to observe the cosmos.

    Continue reading
  • Think your phone is snooping on you? Hold my beer, says basic physics
    Information wants to be free, and it's making its escape

    Opinion Forget the Singularity. That modern myth where AI learns to improve itself in an exponential feedback loop towards evil godhood ain't gonna happen. Spacetime itself sets hard limits on how fast information can be gathered and processed, no matter how clever you are.

    What we should expect in its place is the robot panopticon, a relatively dumb system with near-divine powers of perception. That's something the same laws of physics that prevent the Godbot practically guarantee. The latest foreshadowing of mankind's fate? The Ethernet cable.

    By itself, last week's story of a researcher picking up and decoding the wireless emissions of an Ethernet cable is mildly interesting. It was the most labby of lab-based demos, with every possible tweak applied to maximise the chances of it working. It's not even as if it's a new discovery. The effect and its security implications have been known since the Second World War, when Bell Labs demonstrated to the US Army that a wired teleprinter encoder called SIGTOT was vulnerable. It could be monitored at a distance and the unencrypted messages extracted by the radio pulses it gave off in operation.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022