11 February, 2015

BAS recovers American scientific data in Antarctica

Staff from the British Antarctic Survey have recovered crucial scientific data from a giant helium balloon which came down in west Antarctica. The balloon was launched on New Year’s Day from McMurdo Research Station by a team of American scientists. Equipped with six telescopes, the instrument, dubbed SPIDER, was on a mission to measure the remainder of the thermal afterglow caused by the Big Bang (known as the cosmic microwave background). The telescopes can observe faint microwave radio waves which are believed to be the remnants of that event 13.8 billion years ago.

The balloon was designed by scientists and engineers at the California Institute of Technology and Princeton University. It floated to an altitude of 115,000 feet above Antarctica and landed more than 1,000 miles from McMurdo. It spent sixteen days in the stratosphere taking readings. The balloon came down close to Union Glacier. The majority of its data were stored on hard drives which were recovered from the landing site by the BAS team.

These were taken to BAS’ Rothera Research Station before being flown to Punta Arenas in Chile to be handed over to the Americans. The remainder of the balloon will be removed at a later date.

Jeffrey Filippini, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and senior member of the SPIDER team, said:

“After a successful 17-day flight, SPIDER touched down in a remote part of West Antarctica, about 1500 miles from McMurdo Station. The whole team is extremely grateful to the British Antarctic Survey for their heroic efforts in reaching SPIDER and recovering its flight computers and data discs. These discs are now on their way back to the U.S. where an international team of cosmologists will sift through the data looking for evidence of gravitational waves from the birth of our universe.”