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College of Science and Mathematics

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Physics Professor, Students Ready Antennas for Antarctic Mission


The Baker Center roof and lawn, the site of antenna calibrations over the summer. 

When NASA’s large particle-hunting balloon takes flight over the vast expanse of the Antarctic later this year, a Cal Poly professor and a team of undergraduate and graduate students will be able to say they had a hand in the mission.

Stephanie Wissel, a physics professor, and two students spent the summer prepping for the December launch of the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) IV, a scientific balloon equipped with an array of antennas that scans for neutrinos — a high-energy subatomic particle — and cosmic rays. Part of that preparation included the calibration of two antennas using the Baker Center roof and lawn.

Image of a man tightening a bolt on antenna while woman holds the opposite end
An antenna is calibrated on the Baker Center lawn.

“We calibrate the antennas so that we can monitor the electric fields that are producing cosmic radio showers,” said Wissel, who specializes in astroparticle physics. 

The calibrations took place in June, and the antennas were shipped to NASA’s Texas facility shortly after.

Junior physics major Caroline Paciaroni was one of two Cal Poly students who traveled with Wissel to the NASA facility for six weeks of hands-on, real-world research.

“I got to see what it’s like to be doing physics at that level on a daily basis.” Paciaroni said.

Paciaroni’s hands-on experience included unpacking, construction and testing of instrumentation. And when ANITA IV takes off for its one- to two-month flight, she’ll be monitoring the data it transmits right here at Cal Poly.

She’ll be scanning that data for evidence of something scientists have never detected: neutrinos generated by the highest energy cosmic rays in the universe. Finding these neutrinos would help scientists determine where these cosmic rays come from and how they are created.

Image of four people placing antenna on rooftop
An antenna is planted on the roof of the Baker Center
for calibration tests.

“What we want to understand ultimately is what the universe is capable of,” Wissel said. “How energetic can it get and how does it work?”

The ANITA mission, which is an international collaboration led by Peter Gorham at the University of Hawaii, could help answer these questions. During its flight, ANITA will be listening for radio waves produced by neutrinos interacting with the Antarctic ice, which serves as a large detector

“We hope to find a neutrino and give a pretty precise estimate of its energy. That would tell us what’s possible,” said Paciaroni. “If ANITA detected a neutrino, it would be the highest energy neutrino discovered so far,” she said.

If the ANITA experiment is successful in its latest go-round, Cal Poly will be at the forefront of astrophysical discovery.

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