Archive for Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Shawnee student tackles Antarctic mission

January 5, 2011

There was plenty of activity on the North Pole just two weeks ago, but starting this week, a group of researchers will be making strides on the South Pole.

Shawnee native and Kansas University junior Andrew Wendorff, along with other researchers, departed Sunday for the South Pole to begin the implementation of an autonomous wind-powered neutrino detection system for the Askaryan Radio Array.

Wendorff, an aerospace engineering major, has worked for almost two years at developing a source to power the research team’s high-energy particle physics system.

Wendorff’s job on the trip is to assist in the installation of three wind turbines.

“Since we’re working on the South Pole, power is a premium,” he said. “We are installing three turbines, they will be tested to see if they produce the power needed to operate the system.”

The program being implemented on the South Pole is meant to study particles that cause large cosmic events, such as the Big Bang or the creation of stars, Wendorff said.

He became involved in the project after deciding to stay at KU during the summer two years ago.

“I made the determination I wanted to stay at KU over the summer and look for a job,” he said. “I had a professor from a physics class that was asking for research assistants. I told him I wasn’t a physics student but still wanted to do research for him.”

The professor, Dave Besson, found a project suited for Wendorff’s interests and his growing expertise. The program was sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant to develop the Askaryan Radio Array, or ARA, a large-scale neutrino detector at the South Pole.

Wendorff was given a power requirement; he then had to find the most viable way to produce power between solar wind and diesel generators.

“After looking at the costs of things we determined that wind power was the best option,” he said. “We found the turbines, then had to make sure they could withstand the extreme cold of the South Pole.”

Wendorff said neutrinos can only be detected in ice of the Arctic.

“They either flash white or a flash of a radio signal will be emitted,” he said. “You can use radiation to determine the speed and where the neutrino came from. That will help physicist determine where events occurred.”

Wendorff said the entire ARA system will take years to implement, but once it’s finished signals will transfer information to different universities working on the program.

“I didn’t know (initially) that I was going to go to the South Pole,” Wendorff said of the research. “I learned about that in May. I’ll be there for approximately two weeks.”

The workload for the research, along with aerospace engineering studies would be daunting for some, but Wendorff takes everything in stride.

“I just take things one day at a time and make sure that I get everything done that I want to get done,” he said. “People ask me how I do this — you have time, you just have to be efficient with what you are doing.”

Wendorff said while the project was focused on physics, his duties related well with his area of study.

“The way wind turbines generate power is using aerodynamic blades,” he said. “That’s the same way that an airplane flies through the air. One big thing with aerodynamics is the wind turbine industry.”

To prepare for the trip Wendorff had to complete a series of medical tests to make sure he was physically fit to handle the extreme conditions.

“I’m hoping that when I’m down there, there will be a decent number of programs developing at the same time,” he said. “I want to learn about all of them. There aren’t a lot of people that have been to the South Pole, so I’m looking forward to do doing that.”

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