The South Pole as Laboratory: NJIT is Plumbing the Mysteries of Space Weather at the Ends of the Earth

An array of telescopes at the South Pole.

For scientists seeking to plumb the mysteries of space weather, there is no better laboratory on Earth than Antarctica, where Earth’s magnetic field lines funnel solar radiation into the atmosphere and elevations of 10,000 feet draw them just a little bit closer to outer space.

NJIT researchers have been journeying to this nearly empty, frozen wilderness at the tip of the globe since 2007 to collect data on fluctuations in the magnetic lines caused by solar wind and to measure light from the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, the luminous collision of charged particles drawn by the South Pole’s magnetic field.

“Our instruments in Antarctica give us continuous data sets of the larger geospace environment, which you can’t do in space because the instruments are continuously orbiting,” says Andrew Gerrard, director of NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, who notes that the university’s work in Antarctica, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, comprises a mix of basic and applied science focusing on the sun and its impacts on Earth.

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“For an increasingly space-based society, it is important to understand how the sun affects spacecraft and satellite technology so that we can design them to avoid harm. In the early days of space launches, satellites were destroyed because we didn’t know how to protect them from radiation,” Gerrard notes. “Now that we’re talking about longer space missions, including to Mars, it becomes even more important to understand the sun’s operations and its effects on us.”

The challenge for Antarctic researchers is the field work, which involves traveling through vast, snow-packed expanses in frigid temperatures that even in summer can reach 100 degrees below zero, to collect data from scientific equipment accessible only by plane in some cases from the small settlements at McMurdo Station on Ross Island and South Pole Station.

Fortunately, the NJIT team has polar enthusiasts who view the region’s extreme climate as an energizing challenge, see the beauty of vast empty spaces without vegetation or even visible rocks for miles, and enjoy bedding down in tents pitched in man-made snow caves.

“Zip it up and the tent absorbs sunlight all day,” Bob Melville, lead engineer for the team, says cheerily of camping out at temperatures well below zero. “I absolutely love it there.”


Research engineer Gil Jeffer preparing to bed down for the night.

Team members have been stranded for days at remote equipment sites because the pilot is unable to fly when atmospheric conditions make it “impossible to distinguish between sky and ground,” notes Melville’s colleague, research engineer Gil Jeffer, adding, however, “Especially during extreme weather, I think about what it would have been like to have been one of the early explorers here. It’s as if we’re living at a 5-star hotel by comparison.”

“You just hope you don’t break a limb,” says Melville, who has also spent a sunless winter in Antarctica and acknowledges the occasional moment of terror.

“I was once out on a moonless night walking from one building to another and my glasses fogged up. I got disoriented and lost sight of the line of poles with flags that marks the path between the buildings. Luckily I was able to locate it pretty quickly and got back. I was about 30 feet off,” he recalls. “It was about 80 below.”

On their most recent trip this past November, Melville and Jeffer spent three weeks in Antarctica upgrading equipment and establishing Internet connectivity to NJIT’s instrumentation for the first time.

“We can now grab data from these stations online in real-time,” Melville notes, although the team will continue to manually collect data stored on its equipment at regular intervals because the real-time data transmitted once a second over the Internet is less valuable than the more precise data recorded thousands of times a second.

Maintaining the unmanned instruments is no small engineering feat in the harsh environment around the South Pole. The remote observatories, approximately the size of a Winnebago, must be jacked up every two years to stay out of reach of rising drifts. Supplying continuous power year around, including the six months of darkness prohibiting solar energy, has led to substantial engineering developments such as robust power delivery, upgrades to wind turbines to operate at low temperatures, and novel methods to service wind turbine systems, Gerrard says. A paper that he, Melville and others authored on the team’s remote power system after the recent trip is being published in the Review of Scientific Instruments.

Because trips to Antarctica are necessarily rare, minute planning takes place well before the NJIT team has flown out of Newark.

From an office at the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research in Tiernan Hall, undergraduate Michelle Salzano ’16 is working on a clone of the data acquisition systems in place at the South Pole and McMurdo stations to determine the accuracy of what they are receiving and how much information can be gathered at one time.

“It’s not realistic in the slightest to go into space or to Antarctica to fix most problems so we pre-emptively troubleshoot by testing clone systems here,” explains Salzano, who has not yet visited the South Pole, but regards the photos she’s seen as “not too alien – a little like Jersey in a snow storm.”

Despite her office perch, Salzano says the project has brought her major – physics– to life in a way that solving equations rarely can. “This reminds me what I like about it – the creativity and the challenge of thinking outside the box to solve problems.”

The team is already preparing for this coming field season’s activities, which will include the installation of a new photometer system that collects light from Aurora Australis and measures energy from outer space; two new magnetometers that measure fluctuations in the magnetic field, and 3 GPS receivers. In addition, the NJIT field team will start to develop the siting of NJIT’s weightiest Antarctic project to date: installing the first solar radio telescope at the South Pole, the South Pole, Antarctica Solar Radio Telescope (SPASRT).

While most of the Antarctic instruments, such as magnetometers, record the impact of solar activity on Earth, the solar radio telescope would focus on the sun itself, measuring, through radio emissions, the waves of energy transferred from the sun to solar wind that eventually reach Earth as light and particles.

“Unless we account for these effects by measuring them, we can’t understand them. We are seeking clear signaling on the sun that relates to what we see in the heliosphere, the region around the sun,” says SPASRT team member Dale Gary, distinguished professor of physics at the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research and the director of NJIT’s solar array at Owens Valley, who has already begun building the telescope that will be deployed in Antarctica.


Transportation to remote scientific equipment sites.

Solar researchers are also still trying to understand some of the sun’s most basic operations.

“We are seeking evidence in solar emissions of the sun’s internal activity. We can detect in visible light at the sun’s surface oscillations with about five-minute periods, but wonder if there are deeper oscillations that are not visible and possibly detectable in radio signals,” said Louis Lanzerotti, distinguished research professor of physics at the Center, who began making trips to Antarctica decades ago as a researcher for Bell Laboratories studying space weather. The 5,000-ft.-high Mount Lanzerotti in Palmer Land, Antarctica commemorates his pioneering efforts.

“We want to know how waves in the sun’s atmosphere heat the corona, which of those waves get into the solar wind, and if and how those waves impact our near-space environment,” Garrard said. “The unique ability of the SPASRT system to observe the sun for 24 hours a day for six months of the year is really going to lend insight to these problems.”

Jeffer, who speaks wistfully of both the “beautiful desolation” of the remote terrain and the fascinating “scientific Disneyland”at McMurdo and South Pole Stations, which are both packed with researchers and adventurers from all over the globe, is already looking forward to his next trip.

“It’s almost like being on another planet,” he says. “There is nothing like it – everything is different there.”

T. Regan