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National Science Foundation
U.S. South Pole Station - A Special Report

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Still from video of Richard E. Byrd's flight
Byrd's Flight
Richard E. Byrd's flight and how it contributed to science exploration.

Credit: National Science Foundation and National Archives
Statement by Karl A. Erb, Director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, on the Death of Martin A. Pomerantz
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Inflation at South Pole:
New telescopes search universe for signs of rapid expansion after the Big Bang
Pole an ideal spot for astronomers
Bigger is better:
Science goals guide construction of South Pole Telescope and its 10-meter dish
Eye on the Past:
South Pole Telescope is the newest tool for figuring out the origins of the universe
Science Goals
This timeline depicts selected highlights from a century of study at the pole
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Forbidding and remote, the South Pole is also a uniquely and enormously valuable research site. The National Science Foundation (NSF), as manager of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), supports a wide variety of projects there, from cosmic observations to seismic and atmospheric studies. The following are only a few examples.

Science has been integral to the mission of South Pole Station since the first station was erected over the Southern Hemisphere summer of 1956-57. In some cases, records from the South Pole are among the longest continuous observational data sets available, including, for example, the record of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases in the air at the Pole.
In addition to NSF, other U.S. government agencies including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) also fund researchers at the pole. And, in keeping with the cooperative spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, scientists come to the pole from nations around the globe to pursue a host of interests.

Sitting at a fixed point while the Earth rotates, telescopes at the pole can track celestial objects for long periods of time from the same elevation in the sky. For many years, the equipment there was used to make long, continuous solar observations—some lasting more than 100 hours.

The extremely dry, cold air is also perfectly suited for observing the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation—the faint light signature left by the Big Bang that brought the universe into being nearly 14 billion years ago. The pattern of these ancient photons reveals the contents and structure of the infant cosmos. Astrophysicists know that the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago. In the late 1990s, astronomers using exploding stars as cosmic tape measures discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This led them to the idea that Dark Energy pushes the universe apart, overwhelming gravity, the attractive force exerted by all matter in the universe.

In 2007, the massive South Pole Telescope--the largest radio telescope ever built in Antarctica—collected its first observations and has since been gathering data about the accelerating expansion of the Universe. The $19.2 million telescope was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with additional support from the Kavli Foundation of Oxnard, Calif., and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation of San Francisco.

The telescope stands 75 feet (22.8 meters) tall, measures 33 feet (10 meters) across and weighs 280 tons (254 metric tons). It was assembled in Kilgore, Texas, then taken apart, shipped across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, and flown from there to the South Pole. For more information about the South Pole Telescope, its science mission and its findings to date, see http://pole.uchicago.edu/.


Photo of Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI)

The man standing next to the 10-meter South Pole Telescope (SPT) provides a perspective to the size of this enormous project. The SPT collects data on cosmic microwave background radiation and Dark Matter.

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If the South Pole telescope is examining the universe on the galactic scale, another relatively new and equally impressive observatory is searching for evidence of the existence of particles at the subatomic level.

Built into the ice sheet, the one-cubic-kilometer IceCube Neutrino Observatory records the rare collisions of neutrinos--elusive sub-atomic particles--with the atomic nuclei of the water molecules of the ice. Some neutrinos come from the sun, while others come from cosmic rays interacting with the Earth's atmosphere and dramatic astronomical sources such as exploding stars in the Milky Way and other distant galaxies. Trillions of neutrinos stream through the human body at any given moment, but they rarely interact with regular matter, and researchers want to know more about them and where they come from.

In December of 2010, the last of 86 holes had been drilled and a total of 5,160 optical sensors had been installed to form the main IceCube detector, culminating a decade of planning, innovation and testing, construction. This landmark brought to a close one of the most ambitious and complex multinational scientific construction projects ever attempted. NSF contributed $242 million toward the total project cost of $279 million.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, as the lead U.S. institution for the project. In addition to researchers at universities and research labs in the U.S., Belgium, Germany and Sweden--the countries that funded the observatory--IceCube data are analyzed by the larger IceCube Collaboration, which also includes researchers from Barbados, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. For more information, visit the IceCube Web site at http://www.icecube.wisc.edu

Air and Ozone
The pristine quality of the air at the pole makes it an ideal benchmark for changes in the quality and composition of the atmosphere elsewhere. Such data has been collected since NOAA established its South Pole Observatory during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year (IGY)—one of the longest continuous records in atmospheric science.

Other atmospheric research at the pole includes releasing balloons to monitor the condition of the Earth's protective ozone layer. Data from these studies helps keep track of how well international treaties, aimed at curbing the use of harmful chemicals, are working to heal the seasonal hole in the ozone layer. To view recent and past ozone data collected by the balloons, visit the NOAA Global Monitoring Division Web site at http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/spo/

Seismic Science
Eight kilometers (five miles) from Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, scientists supported by USGS and others are recording shudders from earthquakes around the world. Seismographs have been operating at the pole since IGY, and data from high-latitude seismograph stations has helped to prove that the Earth's solid inner core spins at a slightly faster rate than the rest of the planet.

One of the newest stations in the Global Seismograph Network (GSN) is called SPRESO: South Pole Remote Earth Science Observatory. Operated by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a research consortium of 100 universities, it is the quietest seismic listening post on the planet. It employs instruments installed roughly 300 meters (1000 feet) beneath the surface of the continental East Antarctic ice sheet to recorded seismic waves that ring through the globe like vibrations in a struck bell. Further information about GSN is available at http://www.usgs.gov/features/south_pole/

Off-World Simulations
Even the relentless wind that carries and drifts snow across the Antarctic plateau, while a continual obstacle for designers of the new station, is beneficial to scientists. In 2004, the Tumbleweed Rover, a product of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, left South Pole station on a 70-kilometer (40-mile), wind-driven trek across Antarctica. The test was designed to confirm the rover's long-term durability in an extremely cold environment, with an eye toward eventually using the devices to explore the Martian polar caps and other planets in the solar system. Further information about Tumbleweed's trek across the Antarctic plateau is available in NSF press release 04-024 at http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100342&org=NSF&from=news


—by Peter West

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