SPIDER is a spacecraft that in December will begin a 20-day orbit in Earth’s stratosphere at an altitude of roughly 110,000 feet above Antarctica. During that period, SPIDER’s six large cameras will look for the pattern, or polarization, of gravitational waves produced by the fluctuation of energy and density that resulted from the Big Bang. These waves are a statistically unique fingerprint that can be traced back to the beginning of the universe.

SPIDER — which used to be an acronym, but now is the project’s formal name — is a multi-institutional project funded largely by a grant from NASA (no. NNX12AE95G), as well as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In addition to Princeton, the primary institutions involved are the University of Toronto; Case Western Reserve University; the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA-funded research center managed by Caltech; and the University of British Columbia. Other partner institutions include Cardiff University in the United Kingdom; the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics; Imperial College London; the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado; and the University of Cambridge.