A month on Mars: life on the edge

Science can be a cold, indifferent partner. Oh, your relationship may start out warm and fluffy, but as long as your passion for discovery and truth can continue, science may turn its back on you and say, “Find your own path… I’m busy.”

Team members from MIT’s Haystack Observatory with whom I’ve shared the Houghton-Mars Project (HMP) camp for the past three weeks may need science couple therapy when they return to Boston: John Barrett, a scientist and software engineer at A stack of hay; Riegel Cappallo, PhD Research Fellow; and Jason Su Hu, Haystack IT Manager and Nominated Field Principal Investigator for this deployment. Everyone is working together on the EDGES experiment.

When questioned, they each insist that they are simply helping out on Alan I.E.’s important cosmological project. Rogers EDGES, a joint project between Haystack and Arizona State University, but each of them has organically taken on areas of responsibility that are fully consistent with their skills. EDGES – experiment to detect the global epoch of the reionization signature (will open in a new tab), and as noted earlier in this series, attempts to confirm earlier attempts to measure hydrogen reionization in the early universe using passive radio astronomy to listen for some of the earliest RF signals. They originated from primordial hydrogen about 150 million years after the Big Bang, the period when the first stars began to form.

Related: Month on ‘Mars’: Trekking through the Valley of Ingenuity

Rod Pyle is a space historian and writer who organized and offered leadership and innovation training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Rod received the endorsement and recognition of the outgoing NASA Associate Director, Chief Information Officer of the Johnson Space Center for his work.

Shortly after arriving at HMP and identifying a nice flat area close to the base – but far enough away that it wasn’t affected by any RF interference from the base – John, Rygel and Jason spent a couple of days stretching 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) . ) wires in a grid – running wires back and forth in a north-facing rectangle just a few inches apart. Even placing the grid was a challenge – magnetic compasses didn’t work properly this close to the pole, so they had to match multiple GPS readings and eventually build a rudimentary sundial to determine true geographic north. This grid, or ground plane, serves to ensure that the antenna responds smoothly in frequency and direction and is not influenced by any unknown rock structures below the surface.

Left to right: Riegel Cappallo and John Barratt conduct the EDGES experiment. (Image credit: Jason Su Hu) (will open in a new tab)

To accomplish this task, the experiment needed to be located in an area as close to radio silence as possible, and so they went here, about 15 degrees from the geographic north pole, where ground-based radio interference is minimal and where they will look away from the radio-noisy center of our galaxy. Milky Way. But even here, erroneous emissions can be detected in the FM band, and the team has worked tirelessly to improve their observations as much as possible.

Rigel Cappallo and John Barratt confer near the EDGES backplane and antenna. (Image credit: Jason Su Hu) (will open in a new tab)

They get up early to cover a mile (1.6 km) of cross country before the antenna is installed. It doesn’t sound very far, but in bitter cold, with wind-blown sand in your eyes and mouth, bouncing over uneven, choppy terrain on aging ATVs, it’s not fun at all. And, of course, while one or two of them operate the EDGES antenna array, the other must stand guard, scanning the 360-degree pattern, warning of possible prowl polar bears – an MIT scientist is no worse than food. like printing any day. This routine was repeated every eight hours for several weeks, and on these cloudy days they maintained a constant sunny mood.

The EDGES team is getting ready to go into the field. From L, Riegel Cappallo, John Barratt and Jason Su Hu (Image credit: Jason Su Hu) (will open in a new tab)

In the beginning, John worked tirelessly on the software that controlled the antenna and its heating element, with endless patience. Reigel, who has a razor-sharp mind and quick wits, is the other part of the on-site experiment. Jason, who has worked in the information technology world for many years and has traveled to Antarctica in a similar position, supports these efforts.


Since day one, they have struggled to identify any RF interference, no matter how small. Eliminating FM radio transmissions from distant stations was not difficult – after they were eliminated, the trio walked around the HMP base and surrounding areas with a portable RF meter. There seemed to be a single burst of interference coming from something, but since it never changed from place to place, it was eventually speculated that it might be a malfunction of the detector itself.

The first week was spent getting the EDGES system to work properly. Although earlier versions have been used twice, including in the Australian outback, they have never been tested in such extreme cold conditions. Since the antenna system is located far from the camp, it is powered by batteries, and at such temperatures it is they who take the hit in the first place – they are discharged in 8-10 hours. There was also an issue getting the system’s internal heater to turn on properly – the default settings in the system software were not configured properly for the local environment and programming changes had to be made.

John Barratt connects the EDGES antenna. (Image credit: Jason Su Hu) (will open in a new tab)

When the software issues were fixed, erroneous radio noise was still showing up, and the team had spent the past ten days trying to isolate the possible source. Perhaps the problem is within the system – some kind of interference from the circuit or power supply – or that the problem may be related to the activity of the sun or its interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere or ionosphere; we are close to where the magnetic fields surrounding our planet cross the Earth at its north magnetic pole. It’s slow, but they’re collecting data 24/7, and Reigel will spend the first few weeks after his return to Boston working on analyzing the results. With any luck, they will not only find the culprit of the interference they found, but possibly some useful data from deep space as well.

We won’t know the concrete results of this EDGES deployment for some time to come, but we do know that valuable engineering research has been done, that Devon Island appears to be one of the best radio quiet locations in the northern hemisphere, and that this Haystack team is brilliant. working together under adverse circumstances – and this, after all, may be the most valuable achievement of all.

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