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This winter warrior made the gravitational waves discovery possible

Engineer Steffen Richter wintered in the South Pole to keep the BICEP2 telescope running

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2:30pm, March 28, 2014

FROZEN DELIVERY  As the engineer in charge of maintaining the BICEP2 telescope, Steffen Richter made weekly trips to fill the telescope with helium to cool it to nearly absolute zero.

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 (

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