Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Way Home

 In the end, I spent three extra days at the South Pole. The receiver started to cool down early in the week and I continued to work on preparing the readout electronics.  But in the evenings, the entire team took the time for a little recreation.  On Wednesday, the weather was beautiful.  The temperature was around -26 C (-15 F) with no wind.  It was time for a sauna to pole run.   The name is pretty self-explanatory.  You go sit in the sauna (yes, there is a sauna at the south pole) and then run outside to the geographic pole.  When the winterovers make this run, they join the legendary 300 club (i.e. its 300 degrees temperature difference between the sauna and the pole).   We didn't come anywhere near the 300 club, but did get near the 200 mark.  The weather was so nice out we were just strolling around enjoying ourselves.  Several people in the group ended up sprinting to the ceremonial pole as well. 

The next day, the traverse had an open house.  Originally, they had planned on moving on by then, but needed to spend some time making repairs.  We took a tour through the housing and generator modules and looked at the tractors.  It was all very impressive.  There are only 10 people total on the traverse.  Eight drive the big tractors, and two drive a smaller machine that goes in front with the ground penetrating radar. 
 It turns out that they actually drive up a glacier to cross the Transantarctic mountains! 
 On the way back from visiting the traverse, I took a picture of this switch.  I've walked by it many times, and I always find it a little funny.  I wonder how much of the station would actually lose power if it were flipped. 
Over the course of the week, the rest of the structure for the new ground shield was put in place on the telescope.  That crew still has a lot of welding to do in the coming weeks, but this first step is done!
I ended up leaving the South Pole on a late flight Friday night.  The whole gang came out to say goodbye.
 The Transantarctic mountains were just as beautiful the second time around.  The day wasn't quite as clear, but this time I was able to go back and forth between both side windows on the plane to see both views. 
 The Herc was a lot more empty this time, just us passengers and a few bags!

 I did get a special treat at the end of the flight. Two of us got invited up into the cockpit for landing at the Pegasus airfield in McMurdo.   We even got to wear headphones and listen to the pilots.  It was amazing to see the plane banking and turning with respect to the ground from the front (as opposed to just feeling it while riding in the back).  The Pegasus airfield is about an hour away from McMurdo and is now in use because the Sea Ice Runway is too thin.  Pegasus is surrounded by mountains, and the view from the cockpit was breathtaking as we were coming in.  The first thing I noticed coming from the South Pole is how much there is to look at around McMurdo.  At the pole, you get used to the vast nothing and flatness to the horizon.  Here there are mountains, different colors of rocks, dirt, pressure ridges in the ice, many more buildings, animals, and tons of people.   The second thing I noticed is how warm it is!  The temperature has been around 1 degree C (34 F).   We got into town a little before 3 am, so I've spent the past day just relaxing and catching up on sleep. 

I did manage to catch a ride out to the Long Duration Balloon Facility yesterday to see the EBEX experiment.  EBEX is another telescope that is trying to observe the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background.  They are flying their telescope on a long duration balloon (it will last about 2 weeks) to get above the atmosphere.    If you're interested in reading more about EBEX and seeing some pictures check out the EBEX blog:

My flight to Christchurch is scheduled for tomorrow at 10 am.  If all goes as planned, I'll be home in a couple days.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Last Day #2

 So I'm here at the pole for at least another day.  Some fairly severe weather blew into McMurdo last night and has stayed there all day today.  Two SPTers that flew out in the morning ended up landing in 40 knot winds!  The plane that came into the pole after them ended up spending the night (and will stay tonight too).  This is basically unheard of.  Usually the LC-130s don't  off their propellers when they land, otherwise they risk not starting back up due to cold.   Hopefully, since it has been warmer out it won't be a problem for this plane.  It is very odd to see it sitting quietly out on the runway.
Because the weather stayed bad all day, my flight to McMurdo was cancelled.  I'm scheduled to be in McMurdo tomorrow, and then Christchurch on Monday.  But who knows what the weather will bring.  An extra day at the pole has been great.  I had time to get a bit more electronics work done, and will get to relax again this evening with the rest of the SPT people.

Last Day

Today is my last full day at the South Pole.  It's been like every other day, except that I had to bag drag (turn in my checked bags to be palletized) and I took the time to get a tour of the nearby Keck telescope.   Everything I've talked about so far has revolved around SPT or the infrastructure of the South Pole.  But there are quite a few other scientific experiments currently at pole.  Keck is another millimeter wavelength experiment that is observing the CMB.  They're also looking for the same inflationary polarization pattern that SPT is.   The picture shows the Keck ground shield from the outside (used to prevent the receivers from seeing the buildings and ground). 

In addition to all the work on the receiver and electronics on the inside of the telescope, the outside structure is also being upgraded this year.  Today the first supports for a new shield were put in place.  When complete, the whole thing will look like a big scoop along the boom.

Sunday, 2 December 2012


The South Pole Overland Traverse (SPOT) arrived a few days ago.  It's more efficient in terms of gallons of fuel spent to drive fuel to the South Pole than it is to fly it in.  The station needs to have enough fuel by the end of the summer to sustain it through the winter (and usually has at least twice as much for safety).   So several times during the Antarctic summer, a convoy of tractor/trucks leaves McMurdo for the pole.    If you've ever watched the American TV show "Ice Road Truckers", this trip really puts it to shame.  Each tractor/truck pulls a enormous bladder of fuel.   One truck pulls a housing unit for the drivers.  The trucks are equipped with geological equipment so that they can safely avoid crevasses.  Along they way they cross the Trans-Antarctic mountains, and endure major snowstorms.  Imagine digging your car out of a 10 foot drift that completely covers it!  On average the traverse makes it about 30 miles a day and the whole trip (one-way) takes around a month.   The progress of the traverse is shown on the monitors in the galley, so we knew when they were getting close.  There was an announcement over the loudspeaker when they were about a 1/2 hour away and cleared to come down the landing strip.  Shortly after, we were able to see small, very slowly moving on the horizon. 

 We said goodbye to the second of our winter-overs last week.  While waiting for his plane to be ready,  I snapped a group photo of all the SPT people currently at pole.
 The receiver team has spent the last two days pulling apart the cryostat and focal plane (detectors) inside.  After a quick swap out of some detectors, they put it back together and back inside the receiver.  In the first picture, you can see the feedhorns that couples the light into the detectors that are directly underneath.  The second picture shows the back side of the entire assembly.  The nine silver and red towers sticking up above the gold ring are part of the readout electronics that we use to measure the signals on the detectors.   Working with the focal plane is a delicate task, and there was definitely a feeling of relief once it was back safely in the cryostat.  The plan is to close up the cryostat in the next day, and cool it back down to begin checking out the new detectors.  If all goes well, in a couple weeks it will be hoisted back up into the telescope cabin to begin new calibration measurements.

 As we were walking back from the telescope today for dinner, there was an amazing sun dog.  The idea is that the light refracts off  of ice crystals in the atmosphere, creating a halo effect.  There are always ice crystals in the atmosphere here, but a sun dog requires a vertical alignment.    Today's was particularly special because it was a double sun dog!


Thursday, 29 November 2012

An End to Calibration

 Yesterday was our last day for calibration measurements.  First thing in the morning we went out and unplugged the calibration source.  Everything was packed up onto the back of our snowmobile and we brought it back to SPT.   There will be a second round of calibration measurements made in late January, but we can't leave the source outside for that long.  The source is about 3 km away from the telescope.  To get an idea of the scale, that's me in front of SPT (10 meter dish).  Looking out at the source from the top of the telescope, you can only see a tiny black dot at the end of the road.   Zooming in,  it resolves into a wooden fence (that we use
for shielding) and a big metallic square reflector.  The reflector itself is 25 feet high, and in the middle is actual calibration source.  Once we took the calibration box out, it was an opportune spot to take a picture!

 As soon as we finished calibrations, the telescope was docked to lower the receiver!  Basically, the telescope slews around and down until the boom (the long straight white structure that extends from the dish) is facing the building and is right above it.  There is a sliding door in the roof to the building that opens and the entire boom lowers down onto the hole.  There are two more doors into the telescope boom that open onto the receiver cabin.  
 If you look straight up into the receiver cabin, this is what you'd see.  On the left is all of the readout electronics (all the grey cables and racks).  The large white round cryostat on the right contains all of the secondary optics, and the red and black one in the middle contains the focal plane and detectors.  The optics cryostat is about the size of a smart car.
 In order to take out the detectors for upgrading, the whole thing has to come down into the laboratory space below.  It took about three hours total, during which we lowered both cryostats on the four chain hosts you can see in the picture.  It's a tricky job, because you want to keep it level, and there are places that it can scrape against three of the cabin walls. 
Eventually it was down, with no problems!  Now it's just a matter of time until the receiver team can take out the focal plane.  The coldest part detectors inside was around 300 millikelvin when we stopped observations and both cryostats are under vacuum.  We have to wait until it is around room temperature to open the cryostat, or else risk condensing any residual atmospheric water vapor that is inside on the detectors and ruining them.  Sometime on Friday, the focal plane will come out!

Now that the calibration is over, I'm moving on to my last task here for SPT, upgrading part of the readout electronics.  

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Hero Shots

We've been continuously taking calibration data now for over a week.  We've been back out to the calibration source a couple times, and I finally took a turn at driving the snow mobile.  It's pretty fun!  We'll be shutting down shortly so that the receiver team can lower the instrument out of the telescope and get to work.   Data taking mode means that I've had more time to take pictures, both at the telescope, the source and around the station.   So I went back out to the pole marker with a couple of fellow SPTers and played in the snow for a bit.  

This first picture is of a fellow SPTer walking through the snow out at the source.
The pole marker is a thing of beauty.  Each year a new one is made for when the pole is moved, and all of the old ones are kept in a case inside the station.  2012 was the 100 year anniversary of Scott reaching the pole, so the marker is in honor of that.  The machine work to make it is exceptional.   In early January this marker will be retired and the new installed.


The weather the last few days has been exceptionally clear.  Without blowing snow, you can see out for several kilometers.   Here, you can see me, with the vast nothing in the background. 
After pictures at the geographic pole, we took the quick walk over the ceremonial pole to take a few 'hero shots'.  The ceremonial pole  looks just like something out of a movie, red and white stripped with a shiny metal ball on top.  Several times now I've seen daytrippers (people that fly in and out the same day) run out quickly to the ceremonial pole, take their pictures, look around for about five minutes and then go back inside without going by the geographic pole.   The ceremonial pole is shiny, so I was able to take a picture of myself in it.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

 We celebrated Thanksgiving here yesterday.   That meant time for relaxation, an amazing dinner, and a dance party afterwards.  

South Pole Thanksgiving Menu


Baked Brie
Assorted Cheese and Crackers


Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Mashed Potatoes with Candied Pecans
Green Bean Casserole
Cranberry Sauce


Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie
Apple Pie
Fresh New Zealand Whipped Cream