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A life full of winter: U astrophysicist cares for telescope in Antarctica

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Bright auroras shine above the telescope in Antarctica.
Bright auroras shine above the telescope in Antarctica.
Courtesy Robert Schwarz

Each workday starts with the commute. Robert Schwarz puts on insulated pants, boots, a down parka, two hats and three pairs of gloves. 

He walks outside into the cold and dark of the long Antarctic winter. Schwarz is guided by flags every 30 feet or so. 

"If you get lost, it could be dangerous," Schwarz said, "but, first of all, don't get lost."

Robert Schwarz sits in front of the controls to the Keck Array.
Robert Schwarz sits in front of the controls to the Keck Array.
Courtesy Robert Schwarz

An astrophysicist for the University of Minnesota working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Schwarz has spent 14 winters in almost total darkness at the South Pole, more than anyone else, according to the National Science Foundation.

Schwarz grew up thinking of the South Pole like space; fascinating, but too far away to visit. But by chance he got the opportunity to work there when he was a grad student at the University of Munich in Germany. He thought maybe he'd go for a season or two. 

"I remember stepping off the plane it was like, 'Holy crap, it's really, really cold,'" Schwarz said. "It's just summer. And how is it going to be in winter?"

Since then, he's lived a life of winters, going from the Antarctic winter to winter at home in Germany. His last summer at home was in 2010. 

The five receivers of the Keck Array are shielded from blowing snow.
The five receivers of the Keck Array are shielded from blowing snow by its surrounding ground shield. The elevated station in the background is about half a mile away.
Courtesy Robert Schwarz

South Pole Station, where Schwarz and other workers are based, is a two-story compound built on top of 10,000 feet of ice. It's too dry to snow there, but snow blows in from warmer climates. The whole compound can be jacked up to let snow blow beneath it. 

"Where we are is considered a desert, even though we're standing on and above water," Schwarz said. "It kind of makes this squeaking noise if you walk over the snow, but it's like little ice plates, it's not real fluffy stuff."  

Schwarz is responsible for maintaining a telescope located a half-mile from the compound. Each workday, he treks out into temperatures as low as minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit to check on the telescope. The buildings are the only features on the landscape. When it's light out, it just looks like a big frozen ocean all around you. You might sink in a couple inches when the snow drift is fresh, but within a few days it hardens so you barely leave a footprint. 

The telescope Schwarz maintains scans for 42 hours, then cools for six hours, then starts over again. Schwarz thinks of it like taking care of a child. 

"I know the telescope very well, sometimes even just the sound like something sounds different. I can already tell something is wrong," Schwarz said. "Or if everything is OK, if everything sounds right." 

The problems vary. Sometimes a helium hose that cools the telescope springs a leak. Most often, it's a complication related to how big and heavy the telescope is. The mount was built to carry a telescope that made only 300 revolutions a winter, but is now bearing one that makes 110,000 revolutions. Each year, the mount's rollers shrink slightly under the weight of its movements.

During the brief summer, researchers work to install a receiver
During the brief summer, researchers work to install a receiver on to the Keck array.
Courtesy Robert Schwarz

Scientists use the telescope, and others like it, to learn more about the universe.  

"We're studying this radioactive glow from the Big Bang, and we're trying to investigate the origin, and the content, and the fate of the entire universe," said University of Minnesota physics professor Clement Pryke. "So, it's pretty grandiose research in terms of the objective."  

The National Science Foundation considers the South Pole, with its clear, dry air, perfectly suited to astronomy and other explorations. The station is home to innumerable experiments and up to 200 residents during the summer, said Peter West, a spokesperson for the NSF's Office of Polar Programs. But during the winter, when it's dark all day long, the population drops down to a skeleton crew.

"Most of the experiments there are very sophisticated and they're very important to science, but they won't necessarily turn into a new product or a new way of doing things," West said. "That people are willing to give up so much of their lives to be sure that science goes on says a lot about all of them, including Robert." 

Robert Schwarz gives the thumbs up under bright auroras.
Robert Schwarz gives the thumbs up under bright auroras, with the South Pole telescope in the background.
Courtesy of Robert Schwarz

The crews stay busy in the warmth and light of the station. They grow very close over time, with  game nights and volleyball matches in the gym. Schwarz even teaches an astronomy class. 

There's no 911 and no flights in or out between February and October. The station has its own emergency teams and even physicists are trained to assist with surgeries. 

Some workers have trouble sleeping because it's either dark all winter or daylight all summer. While many of the three dozen or so other people at South Pole Station during the winter have daily routines, Schwarz's schedule is dictated by the needs of the telescope. He may stay awake for 36 hours, or sleep every eight hours.

"Robert is a remarkable individual in that he seems to be able to stay happy, positive, completely professional with his work through the long night," the University of Minnesota's Pryke said, "And not only to do it once, but to do it repeatedly."

When he doesn't have urgent problems to solve, Schwarz heads out to the cold and dark to watch and photograph auroras. 

  "Suddenly the ground starts to shimmer greenish." Then he looks at the sky. "You see these rays, long rays meeting in one point, and from all colors — green, red to bluish-purplish — when the sun hits the upper atmosphere, it's absolutely amazing."

Schwarz works at the station for nine and half months a year. The winter crew finishing their shifts make a stop in New Zealand's summer before Schwarz flies home to Germany's winter. 

"One of the most memorable things when you step off the plane are smells, because it's so cold down here, outside there's no smells at all," Robert says. "Just coming back to the green world, smelling grass or the smell of rain, it's fantastic."

A new telescope and mount are being built at the University of Minnesota to replace the one Schwarz takes care of. He has committed to staying through the replacement process starting in November, but has no plans to return after that, although he doesn't rule it out.

"We have a saying in German, it's like, 'with a laughing and a crying eye.' So, yeah some aspects will be sad, I mean, it was nine years of my life I spent on it," Schwarz said. "But on the other side, it's also a good time to take a break and catch up with some summer."