Reported as resembling "the torch for a cubist statue of liberty, a high-concept chandelier and a monster sound system" the ANITA III (short for Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna III) was referred to by one scientist as a "splendidly improbable beast", and was the focus of undoubtedly one of our most interesting field projects to date.
Launched by the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (NASA) based at McMurdo station on 17 December 2014, the ANITA III cruised across Antarctica suspended by a balloon at an altitude of 37 – 38 kms, observing approximately 1.5 million square kilometres of ice in its search for high energy neutrinos.
By their nature, neutrinos interact with very little out there prior to their contact with the earth’s atmosphere and therefore, once detected, enable scientists to "probe the universe", identifying the "highest energy astrophysical accelerators in the universe" which, if detected will "signal the nature of the unknown sources of the highest energy particles and their accelerators known in the universe". This carries significant implications for our understanding of the laws of physics and the nature of such things as black holes.
The interaction of these neutrinos with ice produces electrons and positrons that generate radio bursts reflecting off the ice and out upon the hyper-sensitive instrumentation of the antenna. With its copious amounts of ice, Antarctica has been referred to as the "biggest neutrino-detection laboratory in the world".
But what goes up must come down and in early January, as part of a broader collaborative agreement, Davis station was requested by NASA through intermediaries at McMurdo station to retrieve the structure’s priority instrumentation.
A team was quickly assembled, led by our senior field training officer (FTO) and comprising of two pilots, an electrician and an electrical engineer. Following a detailed briefing from our man at McMurdo, and an aerial recce by twin otter aircraft to locate the antenna and undertake a site inspection, the team accessed the site by helicopter and set about carefully recovering the instrumentation and transferring it back here to Davis.
Undertaken in record time, the success of the recovery project earned the team considerable praise from counterparts and most importantly provided us with more valuable experience in the planning and implementation of remote recovery projects which we are once again putting to good use.
To find out much more about this project well beyond the comprehension of this editor and to see the trajectory of the antenna, visit the NASA Long Duration Balloon (LDB) website.