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They’re building an ‘ice penetrator’ on a hillside in Westford

‘We are overexcited. This is really, really cool.’

From left, Chet Ruszczyk, Parker Steen, John Glover, Pedro Elosegui, Dhiman Mondal, and Chris Eckert. The teammates at the MIT Haystack Observatory posed with an early prototype of their ice penetrator and parts of the current ice penetrator that's on its way to Alaska.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

WESTFORD — They are serious scientists with advanced degrees and a depth of knowledge few people possess — engineers and physicists who work in the shadow of an enormous space-age radio telescope perched here on a wooded hillside.

But when I sat with them earlier this month, they seemed, for some fleeting unguarded moments, like little kids on Christmas morning.

They were nearly giddy about the adventure they are now undertaking — an adventure that is one part super cool, space-age science and one part a feat of complex engineering derring-do.

“I am totally excited,’’ Chester A. Ruszczyk, the project leader, said. “Do we get to do this every day? No. We don’t always get to go up to the ice fields of Antarctica.’'


What Ruszczyk and his teammates at the MIT Haystack Observatory are doing now at the edge of the Earth is worthy of the imagination of Hollywood’s most creative science fiction scriptwriters.

They have built an “ice penetrator” that has been dropped from a helicopter over Juneau ice fields and embedded itself in the ice.

It will monitor conditions and send back data via satellite on ice measurements to help scientists study how the ice is changing and how it is behaving in current conditions.

“We are overexcited,’’ said Pedro Elosegui, a department head and research scientist at Haystack. “This is really, really cool.’’

Cool is one word for it.

Frozen. Arctic. Bone-chilling are others.

It is happening in Juneau, Alaska.

Test drops were done this month in the Juneau ice fields. They’ll make any necessary adjustments before final deployment in Antarctica early next year.

“We’re going to sling it underneath a helicopter in Juneau,’’ Ruszczyk told me before the adventure began. “Fly it up to 5,000 feet. Prep it. Lift it another 5,000 feet and the helicopter is going to release it. Then it is going to drop, embed in the snow. The data we collect will be sent back here to Haystack who will verify the integrity.’’


There is a healthy dose of nail-biting preceding all that science. There are countless variables that can keep any time-tested scientist staring at the ceiling at night.

“There are so many things that could go wrong,’’ Ruszczyk said. “The wind conditions. The snow. We are up in an ice field. The weather conditions can change.’’

Elosegui said the scientific clock is ticking.

“The global sea level is going up a few millimeters per year and accelerating faster and faster,’’ he said. “But depending on which models one looks at into the future, by the end of this century one part of Antarctica collapses and flows into the ocean.

“And the global sea level would go up — in the extreme case — by the end of this century by about 2 meters.’’

In other words, there is no time to waste.

So there is an urgency behind the work being done on the tree-studded hillside here.

“Global warming is a real thing and we need a new class of instrumentation and measurements to truly understand it,’’ said Chris Eckert, the project’s lead engineer. “This test is one step in the process to enable the development of these next generation of instruments that we really need to put into the field.

“And the end goal is not to drop one or two of these instruments into the ice pack. It’s to get a large cargo plane and to drop hundreds of them onto the ice. And so, it’s a true network of sensors that can help you predict what’s going to happen in the future.’’


In other words: It’s important to keep our composure — and our eyes on the ice, said Dhiman Mondal, a geophysicist on the project.

“Those are huge platforms that are floating around Antarctica on the ocean,’’ he told me. “They are very critical and important to study because if they break up, if they collapse, if they disappear, depending on which model one looks at, by the end of the century if you’re sitting down at our campus at MIT in Cambridge you are underwater.’’

Talk about scientific motivation.

“We are very motivated,’’ he said. “We’re not scared. But we are concerned. We are engineers. We are totally excited. Let’s go do it.’’

There is a collective kind of synergy with the group that is palpable. They feed off each other. And root for each other’s scientific success.

“Dropping something from a helicopter is not a joke when it’s full of sensors that are not supposed to be dropped,’’ Elosegui said. “So these guys are doing the tough work of making a geophysicists’ dream of placing this very sensitive instrument, a seismometer, a delicate sensor used for detecting earthquakes.

“And we’re learning something about the climate.’’

And we will all be the beneficiaries of that work. Work that is examining with great precision the world in which we live and how we continue to change and shape it.


“Eventually, we would like to have a better understanding about what’s happening in Antarctica in real-time,’’ Elosegui said. “There is a constellation of satellites looking at the ice in Antarctica in various ways. We are filling the gap continuously, every second.

“The instruments that we eventually want to bring here — and this is thinking 10 years into the future — is something that is more than the penetrator that we’re dropping now — that is taking the pulse of what’s happening in real-time with something that is very sensitive.’’

Very sensitive. Like the work being conducted on the hillside here with that giant radio telescope.

(The MIT part of the ice penetrator team was led by Professor Jeffrey Hoffman, and included graduate students Alex Miller, Mike Brown, Aaron Makikalli, Daniel Poe, and Charlotte Lowey, as well as undergraduates Cesar Meza and Yatin Chandar)

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at