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Dr Cynthia Chiang and SPIDER in Antarctica.

Astrophysics Lecturer Dr Cynthia Chiang has returned from a two-month visit to Antarctica where she participated in an experiment which studied the earliest moments of our universe’s creation.

Named SPIDER, the experiment involved the use of six telescopes launched into the stratosphere with a giant helium-filled balloon, which swelled to roughly the size of Durban’s Kings Park stadium at its 35km cruising altitude.  From this lofty height, SPIDER observed the faint, leftover heat from the Big Bang: this afterglow, known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB), contains valuable clues that will help unravel the mysteries of our universe’s explosive beginnings. 

The experiment was built by an international collaboration including Princeton University, the University of Toronto, Case Western Reserve University, the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of British Columbia.

Chiang joined the SPIDER collaboration in 2009 as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University. She was responsible for testing and operating SPIDER’s cryostat, a large vessel that houses the six telescopes and cools them to -270 degrees Celsius using 1 000 litres of liquid helium.

SPIDER, launched on January 1 this year, spent 17 days in flight.  The team members are currently planning a recovery mission to the payload’s landing site in west Antarctica, where they will retrieve the hard drives that contain the data.

‘I was absolutely thrilled to finally see SPIDER in the air.  It’s taken many long years of hard work and dedication from people across the globe, and collaborating with such a talented and cohesive team has truly been a blessing for me.  We’re all eager to see the data in full when the telescopes have been retrieved, and we look forward to facing the new challenges of sifting through our observations.  We at UKZN will be actively involved in the analysis, and we plan to continue collaborating on SPIDER for its second flight,’ said Chiang.

For information regarding the SPIDER experiment visit https://spider.princeton.edu