College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Astronomy Expedition to Sub-Antarctic Region

Astronomy Expedition to Sub-Antarctic Region

Astronomy Master’s students, Mr Scott Eyono, Mr Nivek Ghazi and Ms Tankiso Moso, recently returned from an astronomy expedition to Marion Island near the Sub-Antarctic region.

The expedition was led by Astronomer, Professor Cynthia Chiang, who, together with her students, upgraded and debugged the Probing Radio Intensity at high-Z from Marion (PRIZM) radio telescope, and deployed the first autonomous antenna station that will form part of the eventual Array of Long Baseline Antennas for Taking Radio Observations from the Sub-Antarctic (ALBATROS). The telescopes that were built by Chiang and her students, are being used to detect traces of the first stars that turned on in the universe.

Marion Island is notorious for high winds, rain and cold temperatures. Because of its extremely remote location, the island has an exceptionally clean radio-frequency environment, with almost no contamination from transmissions such as radio stations.

The expedition lasted approximately a month and a half. The team flew from Durban to Cape Town, where they boarded the SA Agulhas II for the four-day journey to Marion Island. The island is only accessible by ship for a limited time each year. Since there is no harbour infrastructure at Marion Island, the ship floated nearby until the weather permitted the passengers to be transported by helicopter to the island.

This was Eyono’s first sea voyage, first helicopter ride, and also his first visit to the island. While he suffered a short spell of sea sickness, this did not dampen his enthusiasm. ‘I was excited to visit the island and work on the telescopes. A little sea sickness was not going to stop me,’ he said. Eyono assisted with the electronics integration and debugging of the telescopes. A highlight of his trip was climbing to the top of a dormant volcano on a very windy day. While exhilarating, this however, did not compare to the excitement he felt when he and his colleagues plotted the first set of data from the ALBATROS telescope. ‘It was an important milestone for us and celebrating that milestone as a team was amazing,’ he enthused.

This was also Moso’s first sea voyage, first helicopter ride, and first visit to the island. While she did not experience any sea sickness, she twisted her ankle slightly. There is no transportation on the island and this hindered her mobility. Notwithstanding her injury and despite the cold, she said, ‘There is nothing that I would trade for the work, travel experience and adventure I gained from this trip.’ Most of her time was spent integrating the electronics and troubleshooting as well as repairing and testing the telescopes’ system components and modules.

Ghazi updated the PRIZM telescope to make it more robust during the severe winter, and assisted in deploying the first antenna for the ALBATROS telescope. He first visited the island in 2018 to assist with the installation of two additional antennae on the PRIZM telescope. On this latest expedition, he was proud and relieved to see that all the hard work from the previous trip survived the winter. ‘The weather on the island can be extremely harsh and unpredictable at times, which limits the time available to work outdoors. Through perseverance, late nights and hard work, we successfully achieved our goals. There’s no better feeling than seeing all our hard work come together when we switched on the telescope,’ said Ghazi.

In order to make up for time lost due to bad weather, the team had to be ingenious. ‘Working during snowy weather was no child’s play, so while we were charging the system batteries using a generator, we took breaks to warm our hands with hot water since most work needed to be completed with bare hands. We also boiled water in a kettle and took it with us to where the telescopes are installed, just so we wouldn’t need to go back to camp to warm our hands,’ said Moso.

Chiang is very proud of her students who worked tirelessly to achieve their goals. ‘Words are not enough to describe the phenomenal job that the students did. Because of their hard work, we were able to install, successfully integrate, and obtain first light on a brand new antenna system within eight days. That is truly a remarkable achievement for students who are so young and so new to the island,’ she said.

Chiang has also contributed to other telescopes across the world including SPIDER, Planck High-Frequency Instrument, South Pole Telescope and C-BASS. However, of all the locations she has worked in, she describes Marion Island as exceptionally challenging. ‘The work is both mentally and physically exhausting, and you have to operate in high gear non-stop in order to make the most of the precious and limited deployment window,’ she observed.

Words: Malishca Perumal