Engineer Steffen Richter wintered in the South Pole to keep the BICEP2 telescope running
The wind chill is −80° Celsius when Steffen Richter, donning a red parka, hops on a snowmobile and heads to work. Lighting his path are the stars, a sliver of moon and the faint green glow of the aurora australis, the southern lights.
It’s the kind of day that might make him miss home — but Boston is nearly 15,000 kilometers away, and no pilot would dare fly anywhere near Richter’s location for months. Plus, the Harvard engineer has a job to do. Hitched to Richter’s snowmobile is a vat of liquid helium, the lifeblood of a telescope built at the far end of the world to detect and dissect the universe’s oldest light.
On March 17, several scientists sat in a climate-controlled auditorium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to announce that their South Pole telescope, BICEP2, had detected ripples in spacetime dating back to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (