Wind, stars, seals, and mires: A radio astronomer’s journey to Marion Island

A research assistant from McGill's Radio Lab describes what life is like in one of the most isolated places on the planet
The Astro team on Marion Island
The Astro team on Marion Island. From left to right: Austin Gumba (UKZN, overwinterer), Mohan Agrawal (McGill), Tristan Ménard (McGill), Ronniy Joseph (McGill), and Veruschka Simes (UKZN). Phillip Mawire

It’s 3 degrees above freezing, the wind is gusting strongly, and the cold rain is coming down nearly horizontally. Welcome to Marion Island, an isolated subantarctic island situated 2,000 km beyond the southernmost tip of Africa and nearly halfway to the icy shores of Antarctica. Other than the research base staff, the island’s only residents are the penguins, seabirds, and seals that breed here. Without a doubt, this is one of the most remote places on the planet. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons why our team of radio astronomers have come all this way.

Our goal is to measure incredibly faint radio signals from the early universe. Before the universe’s first stars were born, the early universe was mostly filled with hydrogen atoms which naturally absorb and emit radiation at a wavelength of 21 cm. This 21-cm radiation is very important for cosmologists seeking to understand how the early universe developed.

Radio signals from beyond

As the universe expanded, the 21-cm radiation from the early universe was stretched to longer and longer wavelengths so that it can today be observed using radio antennas. To accomplish this measurement, we must get as far away as possible from man-made radio interference. In isolated, radio-quiet places like Marion Island, we can deploy antennas that capture and record radio signals from the cosmos.

On Marion Island, we run two unique experiments. The first, called PRIZM, aims to detect a disruption in the 21-cm signal due to the appearance of the universe’s very first stars, while the second, ALBATROS, focuses on a range of very low radio frequencies corresponding to a window in time before the birth of the first stars. Both projects make use of specialized radio instrumentation that was developed and purpose-built by students at McGill University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in South Africa.

Extreme isolation

This year, our dream-team headed to Marion Island included four researchers from McGill and UKZN. Only one ship goes to Marion Island every year, bringing resupplies of food and fuel for the research base. To catch it, the team first flew to Cape Town, where we boarded the S.A. Agulhas II, a South African research vessel.

The ship journeyed south-east from Cape Town, into infamously rough seas, until finally on the fifth day at sea, we were relieved to get our first glimpse of the island and research base. From the ship, we were ferried to land by helicopter, where we met up with the overwinterer who stayed behind to care for the instruments on the island over the previous year. With the team fully assembled, we began our work.

Working on Marion Island is challenging. Communication with the outside world can be tricky. The conditions on the island are often extremely windy and wet. The only reliable way to get around the island is on foot, but the terrain is difficult to traverse. The interior of the island is mountainous while the coastal area is wetlands peppered with sharp volcanic rocks. It is not uncommon for hikers to get “mired” on Marion, where one or both legs get stuck in an unstable boggy mire.

Farewell, Marion Island

During our three-week stay on the island, we are busy repairing instruments, updating old equipment with the latest upgrades, and most importantly, carefully collecting the hard drives that contain all the data from the previous year.

Sadly, this year marked the end of our projects on Marion Island. In the end, we came here to dismantle and pack up many years of hard work. Yet, not all is lost. We collected large quantities of useful data that will be analyzed in the coming years and we learned many valuable lessons. The next phase of ALBATROS will focus on the Canadian Arctic, where four antenna stations are already operational, with more to come in the next few years.

As we leave Marion Island for the final time, we take solace. “There were once astronomers here, looking for the first stars.”

Tristan Ménard is a research assistant in the McGill Radio Lab. He has deployed and worked on state-of-the-art radio astronomy instrumentation in highly remote field sites in the Arctic and sub-Antarctic.


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Austine Gumba
10 months ago

Thanks so much for the nice article, it brings great memories of the Marion Island.

Ram Lakhan Agarwal
10 months ago

Thank you for nice article on the trip of researchers of McGill University and UKZN to a most adverse and hard place, like Marion Island.
I really thrilled to know more about the climate, the einds, the cold waves like freezing point, the cold rain,the inhibits, the mires on your way and many other obstacles on the Marion.
I salute to the courage of young scientists, you all. I congratulate you all for your successful completion of tasks and would like to thank God for the safe return of all.
Big achievement.