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If you’re a radio astronomer, it’s hard to get away from it all. The signals from many astronomical objects are faint. And interference from our own technology — from TV stations to cellphones — can drown them out.

But astronomers from South Africa have found a quiet spot in the South Atlantic: Marion Island. It’s 1200 miles from Cape Town, the nearest land, so there’s no radio interference at all.

In 2017, the team set up a small telescope there to study the early universe.

It’s known as PRIzM. And it’s studying an era that began about a hundred million years after the Big Bang. That’s when the first stars and galaxies were being born. Their light caused clouds of hydrogen gas to glow at particular wavelengths. Those wavelengths have been stretched out by the expansion of the universe. So today, they’re around the FM radio band.

Studying that energy can help astronomers understand when the early stars and galaxies were born. It also can tell them how long it took for their energy to fully “charge” the hydrogen left over from the Big Bang.

Keeping the experiment going isn’t easy. A small team lives on the island for shifts of 13 months. A ship drops by just once a year. The island is cold and windy, and about two-thirds of the days are rainy. And there are mice everywhere. So the astronomers protect their gear with steel mesh, scouring pads, and mouse traps — just one more challenge for radio astronomy.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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