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Maryland Today | Defense at the South Pole

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“I’m up when the satellites are on, even when it’s running from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m.,” said Leps, who even handled the satellite connections during his own virtual thesis defense in the early hours of the 20th. October..

Leps and the station team believe this is the first doctorate. never defended from the South Pole. He said he could not have balanced his studies and his professional duties without the support of this team, which he says has a strong sense of community. “When I needed to perform additional simulations, the South Pole Telescope team let me use their servers, and when the time came to defend, more than a third of the station came to support me. , even though it lasted more than 3:00 a.m.! “

Before coming to Maryland, Leps received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Fort Lewis College to study thermal dynamics of black holes and went to work as a laboratory director for the college’s physics and engineering department. There, he helped develop a new accredited engineering degree – which became popular with non-traditional and indigenous students – and worked as a professional advisor for the school’s Engineers Without Borders program.

“I came to see how engineering can affect people’s lives, so I decided to move from cosmology and astrophysics to engineering when I was ready to look for study programs. higher education, ”said Leps. “I have always had a passion for space exploration and its ability to bring together and inspire people from all over the world.”

In Maryland, Leps was one of the first graduate students of Associate Professor Christine Hartzell’s Planetary Surfaces and Spacecraft Laboratory, which enabled him to design new experiments and develop proof of concept research.

He also worked on a collaborative project exploring the application of Magneto-Rheological Fluid (MRF) – a mixture of tiny particles of iron suspended in a fluid that can turn from liquid to solid in the presence of a magnetic field – to a robotic gripper. Leps developed numerical simulations for MRF reactions, which eventually had applications in analyzing the behavior of any magnetic dust or grain, useful for understanding the behavior and shape of planetary bodies such as asteroids.

Leps’ journey to Antarctica began when he applied as a “winter” scientist for the station’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a massive astrophysical experiment designed to observe cosmic neutrinos colliding with molecules of Earth. water deep in the South Pole ice cap.

When the pandemic struck, Leps was first named as a replacement for the job, training from a distance while still hoping to land a spot on the team – the smallest wintering team in over a decade, with only 39 members.

He accepted the position of Satellite Communications Engineer for the 2021 winter season and quickly discovered that life on Earth’s southern end is surprisingly normal. Staff are spending a month in isolation to make sure the station remains COVID-free, so goodbye to masks and social distancing.

During all their free time, Leps and the crew enjoy astrophotography and auroraphotography, because due to the low light pollution and 24-hour darkness, the Aurora Australis is on display almost every day. Extreme weather conditions – including temperatures between -60 and -100 degrees Fahrenheit (colder than Mars) and wind chills dropping to -130 degrees – are causing some would-be photographers to get creative by setting up “camera boxes. photo “made from foam insulation and filled with hot water bottles to prevent freezing during time lapse shots.

Leps will return to Antarctica for at least one more visit to the South Pole station before seeking space exploration work in the private or public sector. He will be the winter scientist for the Bicep Array Telescope next season, as well as the South Pole Scientist for the National Science Foundation. “The telescope looks for polarization in the diffuse cosmic background (CMB), a signature of the primordial gravitational waves and the gravitational lens of the CMB. They’re even looking for evidence of the primordial black holes that I did my undergraduate research on.

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