Viewing the distant universe from the bottom of the world
Jeff McMahon, Kathryn Schaffer, and Tom Crawford are all postdoctoral scientists at the University of Chicago and members of the South Pole Telescope Team. In the Antarctic summer season of 2006/7, the team raced to assemble a 30-foot (10-m) telescope at the South Pole, and in the 2007/8 season they upgraded and installed new equipment before running the telescope through its paces to collect more data about the mysterious cosmological force of dark energy.
The discovery of dark energy in 1999 stunned the scientific community because it suggests that the universe is being thrown apart by a repulsive force rather than drawn together by gravity as previous theories have proposed. By gathering data from large galaxy clusters in deep space, the South Pole Telescope will help astronomers learn more about when dark energy first developed in the universe and how it gained strength to become a dominant force today. Jeff McMahon was the first to arrive at the South Pole; his job was smoothing out the telescope mirror by tightening thousands of screws holding it together. Kathryn arrived in November 2007, and installed a piece of equipment called a Fourier Transform Spectrometer (FTS) that calibrates each of the 1000 detectors on the telescope’s sensitive camera. She also analyzed data gathered by the SPT. Tom was the cleanup man, adding an extra hand to whatever task was necessary at the end of the summer season in late January and early February 2008. Learn more about the team’s work through their dispatches, which are archived on this site.