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What Does The End Of Winter Look Like In The South Pole?

At 4:21 a.m. eastern time, autumn began in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the opposite is true at the South Pole, where spring is on the horizon.

For six months, the sun has been below the horizon at the South Pole, making it the coldest, darkest spot on the planet. The cold, dry weather is perfect for Samuel Harrison, a scientist there. He operates a microwave telescope — called the BICEP3 Telescope.

Harrison is beginning to see a little bit of light from the sun. It’s been a long, slow, protracted rise of the sun, though, he says.

On the phone from the South Pole, Harrison speaks with Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd.

Interview Highlights: Samuel Harrison

What’s happening there?

“We’re supposed to be at a very climactic moment, just today. The sun should be rising over the horizon, but it’s very much different than what I expected. It’s been a long, slow, protracted rise. In fact, we’ve missed most of it as we’ve had a windstorm for the past five days, so we’ve been sitting in a cloud of blowing snow.”

Can you see the light slowing building on the horizon? 

“We’ve been able to see the light building since about mid-August when the moon set. And ever since then, it’s been bit-by-bit, every day, a little bit lighter. And in the past week, you begin to see the sun as the light bends through the atmosphere even before it’s supposed to rise. And so we did see a little bit of a burning fire on the horizon about a week ago. But ever since then we’ve seen nothing.”

“In the darkness there’s sights that you just have no opportunity of seeing anywhere else on the planet.”

What is the anticipation like — after days and months of sitting in the dark? 

“I did imagine, before I came down here, that we’d all be eagerly standing outside, watching it come up and shouting and hollering and being very much excited. But in fact, it’s kind of the opposite. The darkness is, in many ways, much more exciting and rewarding than this intermediary time that we’re experiencing now.”

“In the darkness there’s sights that you just have no opportunity of seeing anywhere else on the planet. We’re up here at 10,000 feet — which is kind of surprising. When most people think about the South Pole they think of icebergs and mountains and things like that. We’re actually sitting up on two miles of ice and it’s incredibly flat. It’s almost like you’re either standing in a Nebraska cornfield or you’re out on a ship in the ocean.”

What kind of science are you doing? 

“I’m down here operating and running a microwave telescope, called the BICEP3 Telescope. It’s a new telescope that was deployed this year. So in the summer season, which only lasts for about three months, we packed up everything, we shipped it down here and we furiously assembled it while we still had a large team here and the station was open and operational. And then in February, the last plane left and our team left one member behind — which unfortunately was me. And I’m here running the telescope.”

Have you been alone this whole time?

“Well, I’m not completely alone. We’ve got 45 people on station that are wintering along with me.”

What is the winter like in the South Pole?

“It’s a dry cold. … The goal of every winter is to make it to 100. We were very fortunate to have a long, cold stretch right around the middle of the winter. And our coldest day was actually July Fourth, which was very exciting, and we hit 109.1 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s below, of course.”

What can you see with your telescope? 

“Well, it’s funny. My telescope doesn’t actually have an eye piece, or anything really to look at at all. It’s a microwave telescope and we’re looking at things that are very broad and diffuse on the sky — that are extremely, extremely faint and take many, many years to actually see. So in some ways it’s incredibly unexciting — the things that we’re looking at with our telescopes, at least on a personal level, as far as my enjoyment of the night sky.”

“But the dryness is exactly what we’re down here for. And that cold weather actually freezes the water molecules out of the air and allows the microwaves to pass directly through the atmosphere — similar to being in space, but not quite as good.”

Guest

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Working inside the BICEP mount, Jamie Tolan inspects a high pressure Helium hose. (Samuel Harrison)
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Working inside the BICEP mount, Jamie Tolan inspects a high pressure Helium hose. (Samuel Harrison)
Auroras light up the sky over the BICEP3 ground shield and the Dark Sector Lab. (Samuel Harrison)
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Auroras light up the sky over the BICEP3 ground shield and the Dark Sector Lab. (Samuel Harrison)
Milkway over the BICEP3 ground shield. (Samuel Harrison)
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Milkway over the BICEP3 ground shield. (Samuel Harrison)
Reconfiguring the BICEP3 telescope for the winter observing season. (Stephan Richter)
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Reconfiguring the BICEP3 telescope for the winter observing season. (Stephan Richter)
The BICEP3 telescope with it's calibration mirror installed above the aperture. The Keck Array and main station is in the distance. (Samuel Harrison)
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The BICEP3 telescope with it's calibration mirror installed above the aperture. The Keck Array and main station is in the distance. (Samuel Harrison)
Sam Harrison leveling the the ground shield in preparation for winter observations. (Robert Schwarz)
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Sam Harrison leveling the the ground shield in preparation for winter observations. (Robert Schwarz)
Bryan Steinbach guides the BICEP3 receiver up into the mount. (Samuel Harrison)
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Bryan Steinbach guides the BICEP3 receiver up into the mount. (Samuel Harrison)
View from the New York Air National Guard LC130 over the Transantarctics. (Samuel Harrison)
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View from the New York Air National Guard LC130 over the Transantarctics. (Samuel Harrison)
Glow from the rising sun behind the Dark Sector Lab about a week before sunrise. (Samuel Harrison)
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Glow from the rising sun behind the Dark Sector Lab about a week before sunrise. (Samuel Harrison)
View from DSL roof a few weeks before sunset. (Samuel Harrison)
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View from DSL roof a few weeks before sunset. (Samuel Harrison)
A view from the main station roof looking Northwest at the glow from the rising sun a few weeks before sunrise. (Marissa Goerke)
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A view from the main station roof looking Northwest at the glow from the rising sun a few weeks before sunrise. (Marissa Goerke)
The sun setting before the winter behind the KECK Array and the MAPO lab. (Samuel Harrison)
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The sun setting before the winter behind the KECK Array and the MAPO lab. (Samuel Harrison)
The South Pole Telescope (SPT) observing the Cosmic Microwave Background with the rising moon and glow of setting sun visible. (Stephan Richter)
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The South Pole Telescope (SPT) observing the Cosmic Microwave Background with the rising moon and glow of setting sun visible. (Stephan Richter)
BICEP3 on the roof of the Dark Sector Lab in late summer. (Samuel Harrison)
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BICEP3 on the roof of the Dark Sector Lab in late summer. (Samuel Harrison)
BICEP3 observes the Cosmic Microwave Background during the depth of the winter season. Auroras light up the sky overhead. (Samuel Harrison)
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BICEP3 observes the Cosmic Microwave Background during the depth of the winter season. Auroras light up the sky overhead. (Samuel Harrison)
Milkyway as well as Small and Large Magellanic Clouds behind some faint red and purple auroras. (Samuel Harrison)
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Milkyway as well as Small and Large Magellanic Clouds behind some faint red and purple auroras. (Samuel Harrison)
The research team celebrates the Fourth of July with the coldest temperatures of the winter season so far. (Samuel Harrison)
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The research team celebrates the Fourth of July with the coldest temperatures of the winter season so far. (Samuel Harrison)
The research team celebrates the Fourth of July with the coldest temperatures of the winter season so far. (Samuel Harrison)
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The research team celebrates the Fourth of July with the coldest temperatures of the winter season so far. (Samuel Harrison)