MAE alumnus spending winter in Antarctica

Posted: December 10, 2021
MAE Alumnus, Karsten Look, on the top of observatory hill by McMurdo Station
MAE alumnus Karsten Look on top of observatory hill near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Photo Courtesy of Karsten Look.

Department of mechanical and aerospace engineering alumnus Karsten Look is on top of the world – depending on how you look at it. Since October, Look has been traveling south, making stops in New Zealand and at the McMurdo station on the coast of Antarctica, before arriving at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. It is here that Look will spend 13 months as a winter-over engineer for Harvard University’s BICEP3 Telescope.

Look’s journey south began in the northeast. He spent three months at Harvard working on a replica model of the telescope practicing maintenance procedures and simulating errors.

The BICEP3 Telescope that Look is working with is being used to study the cosmic microwave background, the oldest light in the sky. What BICEP3 is looking at is cosmic inflation, which is what began to happen immediately after the big bang. By studying this, the Harvard researchers hope to learn more about the early universe.

view towards the Dark Sector Lab from the roof of the South Pole Station
View towards the Dark Sector Lab, where the BICEP3 telescope is housed, from the roof of the South Pole Station. Photo Courtesy of Karsten Look.

“The very early universe was opaque, because it was so high energy that no stable atoms were forming,” Look said. “Because of that, there’s not light that we can study from that time. But at some point, the universe cooled down enough that it became transparent because atoms were able to form stably.”

Researchers are still developing an understanding of the early universe. And Look says by studying certain characteristics of this light they can begin to answer why the universe began to expand and what the conditions were like, which can help answer how the universe is developing and where it is going.

Look compares the way he and the research team are studying this light to studying the heat of a physical material.

“What we’re looking at is blackbody radiation. Imagine you have a piece of metal, and you heat it up until it gets red hot, and you can see it glowing. When it cools down it’s still glowing, it’s just not glowing in a visible frequency. Even if it gets colder you can still see it in infrared, and if it goes colder it’s microwave,” Look said.

But what Look’s team is watching is much colder than metal. What they are researching is about three degrees Kelvin, which is roughly negative 454-degrees Fahrenheit. To accomplish this, The BICEP3 telescope has to use cryogenically frozen sensors running at around 250 degrees Millikelvin or negative 459-degrees Fahrenheit. When those sensors look at the cosmic microwave background it heats them up. Researchers can then detect that change in temperature as voltage, which they use to create an image of the sky.

Working with the BICEP3 telescope is what drew Look to the project. His background in mechanical engineering drove him to get involved with the advanced systems of the telescope.

“I’m very interested in building things and how these complex machines work,” Look said. “What really interested me most was working on this telescope system.”

But it wasn’t just the intricate telescope system that brought Look to the South Pole, researching in Antarctica has always been something on his radar. He remembers learning about the continent in elementary school, and during his time as an Ohio State student that memory returned to him.

“In my sophomore year of undergrad, I thought ‘do people work and research in Antarctica?’”  Look said.

A view of the South Pole Station coming back from the dark sector
A view of the South Pole Station coming back from the Dark Sector Lab. Photo Courtesy of Karsten Look.

After some time on Google, he approached MAE professor John Horack who pointed him toward the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center on west campus.

“It was really exciting meeting all these people that were passionate about the continent and about the work. I found the position of research associate, and from that I learned about the telescope,” Look said.

Look applied and was selected as a back-up last year, before being chosen as the BICEP3 winter-over engineer this year. At the South Pole station he joins a small community of researchers, and crews who are keeping the station running. About one-third of the station are scientists, the other two-thirds are focused on keeping things running. From meteorologists, to neutrino researchers, to vehicle crews, galley staff, and units that help clear the constant snowfall, life on the South Pole is a team effort.

“It’s really exciting to be in such a close-knit community in such an unusual place,” Look said.

On the station, Look and the other Antarctic residents work ten or 12-hour days, six days a week. But they still find time to do many of the same things those further north do. They go to the gym and hold parties – at Thanksgiving Look said the galley prepared a large spread of food. Much of this is done in an effort to mark the passage of time.

Fleet ops clearing out snow next to the station at pole
Operations fleet clearing out snow around the South Pole station. Photo courtesy of Karsten Look. 

“There’s not really a sense of time out here, it’s daylight 24/7 during the summer and nighttime 24/7 during the winter. When it feels like there’s no passage of time you rely on each other a lot,” Look said.

On top of the difficulties that come with living in the negative 110-degree weather, Look says there are other sacrifices that come with being part of the Antarctic team.

“There’s definitely sacrifices you have to make. I’m not going to see most people that I know for about a year, and that’s a big emotional cost. I’m not going to see the sun for six months. But if it’s the kind of thing you’re really excited about and really engaged in, you go for it,” Look said.

While living and working on the South Pole is far from easy, Look believes the hardships are worth it.

“I really wanted to do field work. I wanted to go out and explore and see new things,” he said.

He is doing just that. Look says his must-sees are the aurora australis, an aurora similar to the northern lights that can be seen over the South Pole. He also plans to take pictures of the landscape he calls “uniquely unchanging.”

Karsten Look looking out onto the Ross Ice Shelf from Hut Point nearby McMurdo Station.
Look above the Ross Ice Shelf from Hut Point nearby McMurdo Station. Photo Courtesy of Karsten Look.

“The landscape here is incredibly flat. If you look out it is just a line across the horizon in every direction, and there’s no plants or animals – you can’t even see ground because we’re standing on an ice sheet that’s three miles thick,” Look said.

Look acknowledges that while he has adapted to life on the South Pole, it is not for everyone. But for those who are interested in researching and studying in extreme places like Antarctica, Look says it is best to talk to those who have firsthand experience.

“If you want to do it I’d say talk with people, learn about what it’s like. You can only learn so much through googling. You need to talk to people who have experience in the field. It’s really the people you meet and the relationships you build that end up mattering.”


See photos, updates, and follow MAE alum Karsten Look’s winter in the South Pole here


Written by Sam Cejda

Categories: AlumniResearch