SPIDER-2 Returns to Earth

SPIDER is on the ground! The flight was terminated a little over an hour ago, with touchdown circa 0418 UTC on 07 Jan 2023 (1018 CST on 06 Jan), just over 16 days after its launch. SPIDER took a somewhat meandering path around the continent, as the usual orderly circumpolar pattern of stratospheric winds just never quite got established this season. In consultation between CSBF, NSF, and the science team, the decision was made to terminate over favorable terrain for recovery. The payload has come to rest near the Hercules Dome field camp, about 430km from the South Pole.

SPIDER-2’s complete flight path, from McMurdo at lower right to Hercules Dome near center. Image courtesy of Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (link)

CSBF and ASC personnel have already arrived at South Pole Station to prepare for SPIDER’s recovery. We anticipate recovering our data storage in the coming weeks, with hardware recovery in a future season. The whole team looks forward to seeing what SPIDER’s new data hold in store.

Farewell to SPIDER

And I want to bid a very fond farewell to SPIDER itself, the product of many years of hard work, creativity, and care by so many excellent teammates. It’s hard for me to imagine, but it’s been just about 14 years since I arrived at Caltech as a newly-minted Ph.D., looking for an exciting new project to work on. The late Andrew Lange, along with Marcus Runyan, Bill Jones, and others, convinced me to join the effort to build a crazy new instrument to hunt evidence of primordial gravitational waves from a balloon. And then I met a fantastic (and growing) team of scientists who I am happy to call both colleagues and friends.

The two-flight plan has taken a little longer than we might have guessed. Through two homes and major career changes, from new postdoc through tenure. Through three heartbreaking canceled seasons, first from a government shutdown and later from a multi-year pandemic. As the newly-arrived students of yesteryear matured into senior scientists in their own right, making their own impacts in academia and industry. And through the entire lives of my two children, now 7 and 10, who have always known that their dad worked on some kind of balloon-thing called (for some inexplicable reason) “spider”.

And now SPIDER has done its job, made its journeys, and gathered what news it can about our universe. Its disk drives wait in the snow for retrieval and return to the northern hemisphere. There our team will begin the hard work of translating SPIDER’s record from its journey into a view of the universe’s first moments. All that lies in the future. But tonight, a toast to our good ship, and to the team that built her.

SPIDER and most of the 2022 ice team, with Mt. Erebus in the background. Taken in the early hours of December 22nd, not long before SPIDER headed to the launch pad. Photo by Scott Battaion.

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