Antarctica remains the most mysterious continent in the world. Its breathtaking views inspire awe and its quick changing weather fuels the fears of even the bravest explorers.
The exploration of this continent started relatively recently. The existence of Antarctica was first logged by captain James Cook in 1773. Throughout the 19th century, the first disembarks occurred leading to more of the continent to be discovered. In the beginning of the 20th century Shackleton and Amundsen aimed at the South pole, which would be reached by the latter on 14 Dec 1911.
Nowadays the Antarctic continent thrives with scientific research. There are a total of 70 permanent bases representing 29 countries. Amongst these two of the most iconic are the McMurdo and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Stations. McMurdo is the largest base in the continent, able to host up to 1200 residents at peak season, and where I will be living for 9 weeks.
Launching GUSTO is the major goal of this expedition. But what is it?
GUSTO stands for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory. It consists of a 0.8 m diameter telescope that will be lifted to a 40 km altitude using a helium balloon. At such altitudes the balloon will occupy the size of a football field. GUSTO is currently being prepared for launch from Antarctica (Dec 2023) with a flight duration of 55-75 days.
GUSTO will use three detector arrays, a.k.a. “cameras” to map the emission of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen in the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud. This will allow us to study the interstellar medium (cosmic material found between stars) and trace the full lifecycle of that matter. With this we are able to better understand the dynamics of start formations, solar systems, and in the end where life comes from.
GUSTO is the first balloon mission to be part of NASA’s Explorer program and besides its astronomical goals, it also intends to demonstrate that long term balloon projects are feasible for use in astronomy.
Antarctica with its very low water vapor content is the perfect place to perform observations of the type of radiation that we are interested in (1.4, 1.9 and 4.7 THz). Additionally, the continent features a polar vortex that allows for high altitude balloons to circle the continent roughly every 7 days, allowing for the balloon to slowly spiral out of the continent
My role and schedule
Ever since I got the confirmation of my participation in the GUSTO launch campaign from Antarctica, I couldn’t help but feel extremely excited. The real journey started almost 8 years ago with my Master Thesis work, followed by one year of research and later my doctorate. This very long journey led me to develop the 3 detector arrays, or in layman terms, cameras, that are used at the heart of the instrument. This represents a very important Dutch contribution to GUSTO with the involvement of many people from SRON and TUDelft. However, our contribution also includes other key optical elements that allow for the highest frequency, and most challenging camera, to operate.
My role on the ICE will be to deal with everything related to the camera’s operation and support the Lead Instrument Engineer, Abram Young, with whatever tasks that come our way.
My original Schedule was the following
24th October: Take a train in Groningen to Amsterdam. Staying in Amsterdam overnight to have a simpler time catching the early flight on the 25tth
25th October: take a 11 h flight from Amsterdam to Los Angeles.
28th October: flight from Los Angeles to Christchurch
2nd November: flight from Christchurch to Antarctica
10-25 December: Expected GUSTO launch window
8th January: return to Christchurch from Antarctica.
8th January until 15 Feb: personal time traveling in New Zealand and Australia.
15 Feb: Fly from Christchurch to Los Angeles.17th Feb: return flight from Los Angeles to Amsterdam after my travels