At bottom of Earth, looking to heavens

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By MICHAEL LAFLEUR Sun Staff

LOWELL Bill Gorveatt spent Thanksgiving on an airplane.

The 28-year-old physicist in the UMass Lowell Submillimeter Wave Technology Lab is en route to the south pole, where he will work with a team of scientists from UMass Amherst to attach a sensitive light detector to a special telescope at the South Pole Station. The telescope is used to monitor intergalactic gases that form stars.

Following a three-day journey that took him from Chicago to Los Angeles to New Zealand and a military flight to the Antarctic, the Nashua resident is now likely at McMurdo Station, built on the bare volcanic rock of the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island, the southernmost solid ground accessible by ship.

The Antarctic summer should be in full swing.

Gorveatt said last Wednesday's temperature was a balmy minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

"From what I've heard, that's a bit low for the summertime," he said. "The temperature can get as high as zero degrees at the pole. At McMurdo, they'll reach around 32 degrees."

But that doesn't bother Gorveatt.

"I do a lot of hiking and mountaineering," he said. "I love being out in the winter. This is sort of a dream vacation for me, to head to a place like that."

Gorveatt will spend only a few weeks in Antarctica and will actually be at the South Pole Station, which sits on a 9,000-foot-thick chunk of ice, for about eight days.

He is working with scientists led by Siegfrid Ingverson, a UMass Amherst electrical engineering professor, who designed and built the laser-driven Hot Electron Belometer that will be attached to a submillimeter telescope at the station.

Submillimeter refers to the size of wavelengths of light, just outside the visible spectrum, radiated by deep-space molecular transitions of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and nitrogen gases.

"There are huge clouds of these gases in the galaxy, and they eventually reach a point where they become dense enough to coalesce into stars," Gorveatt said. "By studying these gases, you can (gather) information about how stars form, how these gases interact just prior to star formation."

The device built by Gorveatt's team is the most sensitive that has been used to date. It was tested in his lab at UMass Lowell.

"We've been able to watch star formation in other galaxies, but with this device, we will be able to study star formation in the center of our own galaxy," Gorveatt said. "We'll be much closer, so we'll get a lot more information."

Researchers choose the south pole for such endeavors because submillimeter radiation can be obscured by atmospheric absorption from water vapor in the air, Gorveatt said. There isn't much moisture in the air on the south pole it's all frozen.

"The atmosphere is about the driest climate you're going to find on the planet," he said.