Johanna Nagy, an assistant professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, arrived in Antarctica a few weeks ago to help her team prepare for their upcoming launch. Balloon-borne experiments like hers have helped scientists answer important questions about the universe, Earth’s atmosphere, the sun and the space environment.
Scientific ballooning operations were put on hold during the height of COVID-19, but scientists are now almost ready to make their first post-pandemic launch from Antarctica to the cusp of space.
The instrument Nagy plans to fly, called SPIDER and led by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will allow her team to look for a pattern, or polarization, in the earliest light we can measure. This statistically unique fingerprint would be produced by interactions with gravitational waves that could be traced back to the beginning of the universe.
By searching for a particular polarization pattern in the cosmic microwave background — one that flips in a mirror — SPIDER will tell us about the universe when it was much less than one second old.Johanna Nagy