Saturday, 30 April 2016

Strange moments in science: The theft of the EBEX telescope

In early 2013, a balloon-born telescope, EBEX, was launched from Antarctica and circled the South Pole over the course of two weeks, attempting to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background and its polarization. A number of things went wrong with this mission, but it almost didn't happen because  the truck containing the telescope was stolen from a motel in Texas.

EBEX before and during launch. Images from the Ebex in Flight blog via and NewScientist.

The EBEX (E and B EXperiment) telescope was assembled in Minnesota with input from an international team of collaborators. One group was at McGill where I was doing my PhD, and I played on a hockey team with a few people involved in the mission, including my friend Kevin who was the one of the main McGill guys on the collaboration. The telescope had a large number of bolometers (measuring incident radiation through a change in temperature) which, when floated above the lower atmosphere with a balloon would attempt to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background and look for B modes as a signature either of cosmic dust or primordial gravitational waves, something that was later somewhat controversially discovered by the BICEP2 telescope, also in Antarctica.

In May 2012, it was on its way from Minnesota to NASA's balloon centre in Palestine, Texas, being transported in the back of a truck. However, the truck failed to arrive, so the trucking company looked into it. According to its GPS, it was last seen at a truck stop Hutchins, Texas, and the trucking company attempted to contact the driver, but could not reach him. Several days later, he was found sleeping in the cab of his truck, but the trailer and the 8 million dollar cargo were still missing. The driver claimed the truck was stolen from the motel he was staying at. Eventually the trailer was found at a carwash in Dallas, with the telescope still inside and undamaged.
Artist's rendition.
According to a 2012 article, the driver had been fired, and the head of the trucking company commented "Why didn't he decide to do this on a load of potato chips?"

After it was recovered, the telescope was configured to the balloon and shipped to Antarctica, where it was launched. A number of things went wrong with EBEX: one of the orientation controllers overheated in the sun, causing the telescope to lose control of where it was pointing (I recall Kevin calling it "a dance party in space"), meaning it only imaged a donut-shaped swath of sky. It eventually landed out on the ice, and without sufficient time and resources to launch an immediate recovery the scientists had to wait until the next season to go access it. Not much has been heard from the collaboration since, although there may be plans to build and launch a new and improved version, hopefully one that will maintain orientation. To read more about EBEX and its launch and recovery (including the truck disappearance), I recommend this blog.

The flight of EBEX, from the EBEX in Flight blog.

As an experimental scientist I'm accustomed to things going wrong, but I can't imagine showing up to work one day to find my microscope missing.

1 comment:

  1. Good times! What happier ending can you have than a dance party in space ?