Exploring the Universe: U of M researcher takes telescope to South Pole

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In an effort to solve some of the universe’s biggest questions, researchers at the University of Minnesota are leading a study to find out how our universe began.

To make that happen, researchers are taking a piece of Minnesota to the South Pole.

“We’re trying to look much further out and much further back in time, all the way back to the beginning of the universe,” Professor Clem Pryke said.

Pryke and his team have built a 30-foot telescope to look at gravitational waves that have been lighting up our sky for billions of years. They are looking at light that has been traveling through our universe for billions of years. They’re hoping information from that light will help them understand what caused the Big Bang and what happened in the billions of years that followed, leading to the creation of the earth.

“It’s the afterglow from the Big Bang, from when the universe was really born,” Pryke explained.

To find these radio waves, the telescope needs to travel thousands of miles away to the South Pole. Professor Pryke said the conditions at the South Pole are perfect because it is so cold.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find yet. It is exciting to be a part of it,” researcher Nathan Precup said.

Precup will travel with the telescope and spend a grueling year at the southern tip of the earth. He will live on a base with other researchers, studying other projects, from November of this year until November of next year.

“As soon as I found out it was a possibility, I jumped on. I’ll be the engineer responsible for this telescope for the winter, and I’ll be the only person there responsible for this telescope during the winter,” he said.

Precup will spend months in freezing cold temperatures with the goal of learning where we all came from. He will be monitoring the special telescope and helping record information it gathers from the sky. He said it will be several years until they collect enough information to publish it or come to any conclusion about the beginning of the universe.

The telescope will leave campus in pieces over the next few weeks. It will travel by truck, boat and train to make it to the South Pole. In November, the team will go down and assemble it.

They’ll head back once it’s up and running, but Nathan will stay there for one year on a base with about 40 other researchers working on other projects.

The project at the U of M was financed mainly through grants from the National Science Foundation. Researchers at the U of M also worked with teams from Harvard and Cal Tech.