Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A Merry McMurdo Christmas

Although I didn't get to spend Christmas at the pole (I'm now at McMurdo on my way back home), I did get to have a bit of Christmas fun before leaving.   There is a Christmas tree made out of broken machinery that gets put outside the station, and we had mall Santa.

 Now I'm at McMurdo, and I took the time to walk down to Discovery Hut.  It was lucky, because there were lots of seals, and one lone penguin.  I ended up sitting there for the better part of an hour, watching the penguin jump in and out of a hole in the ice, while a seal just yawned.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stormy Weather

There isn't a whole lot to say about the past couple weeks.  We had a very nice Thanksgiving dinner and then some really stormy weather for several days.   A storm at the South Pole means lots of clouds, high winds (we hit 26 knots), and really poor visibility.  Normally, you can see the horizon past SPT.  During the storm, there was a time when I couldn't even see SPT from the station.  At the end of it, when the wind settled, the air was full of ice crystals, and we've had some magnificent sundogs. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014


 Earlier this week we had some excitement in the way of a practice airdrop.  In an airdrop, a C-17 flies to the South Pole (normally we only get LC-130s and smaller ski equipped planes that can land on the snow runway).  When it gets there the plane flies much closer to the ground, and without landing, opens the back hatch and drops cargo out the back (with parachutes).  The need for an airdrop can happen in either the summer or the winter, and there is a different drop zone for each.  The winter drop zone is much closer to the station so that people don't have to go as far to retrieve the cargo.  Sometimes an airdrop is a planned exercise and sometimes it is a response to an emergency (for example, needed medical equipment).    The crew has to be trained and ready to go, so they practice in the summer. 

This time, the plane made three passes over the normal runway, circling between IceCube and SPT to the winter drop zone.  Then they changed directions and did three more passes over the summer drop zone (on the far side of the berms).  On one of those passes, they actually dropped two test bundles, each of which had a little parachute.   You can just barely see them in the picture below with the plane on the right (the bundles are on far left of the frame), and then clearly in the following picture.

After the first pass, the sky became hazy, and we could only tell when the plane was on its way back by the roaring of its engines.  Then it would pop out of the haze, and be right over our heads (watching from the observation deck of the station).

Sunday, 16 November 2014

South Pole Telescope Boot Camp

This past week has been boot camp on the operations and summer maintenance of the South Pole telescope.  We've done everything from docking the telescope for work inside the receiver cabin, to greasing the bearings, responding to fake power outages, taking care of the computers and data transfers, gathering water from the rodwell, and of course continuing observations.   It's been a bit of a blur, but we're ready to take over from the winterover (who leaves tomorrow).   Over the course of the past week, I've steadily acclimatised to the altitude, as the walk to the telescope has become enjoyable.  

This is me ready to head outside to grease the elevation gears.  Note the lovely jacket and gloves that are reserved solely for this purpose.  This type of jacket washes a little better that the Big Red.  The grease tends to get everywhere because you have to get right up next to the gear to do the job properly.   Another job we'll be tackling this summer is to clean up all the globs of grease that fall off the gear all year long onto the telescope base.

Beyond taking care of the telescope, we also managed to fit in some fun time this week.   Today we were lucky enough to go on an inspection of the ice tunnels that run from the station out to the rodwell.  These tunnels have the pipes that provide our fresh water and take away the waste.  Beyond their primary function, they are also used by wintering polies to create shrines that stay well preserved because the temperature is around -55 degrees F.   The first thing you notice when you go in is that air is a bit on the sewery side.   The tunnels are tall enough to stand in comfortably, and since there is no wind, they didn't feel too much colder than outside.  Because the ice below is constantly shifting and snow above is moving around, the tunnels are constantly changing their shape and require new walls to be cut (using chainsaws).

At several points through out the tunnels there are ladders that go up to the surface.  These emergency exit hatches allow people to get out in case of cave-in.   The closer we got to the rodwell (the source of our fresh water), the cleaner the air got, and the increased humidity created  fantastic ice crystals on every surface.  At about this point, the retractable lens cap on my camera froze open, and frost formed over the lens, so the rest of my pictures turned blurry.

Random items we saw in the ice tunnels included a couple of well-preserved fish, a pig head from a pig roast,  a tub of ice cream, and the ice sculpture of Amundsen from the 100 year celebration in 2011. 

Speaking of things from past years, we did a minor excavation ourselves at the telescope.  The SPT  winterovers often kept some food out at the telescope.  It is saved in a  box outside of the building, where the food stays frozen and hopefully edible.  Inside the box were items from the winter of 2012, including a this banana and some leftover chicken (apparently of possible unsafe age).  But there was also a perfect kiwi, some grapes, and guacamole.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sunday Brunch at the South Pole

 Luck was on our side, and our flights made it through to McMurdo on Friday and then to Pole on Saturday morning.   McMurdo was a balmy 16 F when we stepped off the plane, with clear skies and a great view of Mount Erebus.  We had just enough time to find our rooms and get some dinner before checking our bags in again and heading to bed.  The next morning, it was back in the delta transport, and off to the airfield for the LC-130 flight to pole.

The transantarctic mountains were just as breathtaking as I remembered.  Tall rocky peaks with glaciers running in between, all covered in pristine snow.  Eventually the landscape went flat with just the small bumps created by the blowing snow.  Coming off the plane and taking that first breath of -40F air is still exciting for me at pole.  Walking down the stairs of the plane onto the snow, we were directed away from the still running propellers and around the nose of the plane and off the airstrip.  We were greeted by the two intrepid SPT winterovers, Nicholas and Robert.  After quick hellos, we headed into the station.  That first walk up the stairs into the door really reminds me that the south pole is on a high plateau (~9000 ft) as I find myself gasping a bit.  But overall, the altitude hasn’t been a problem beyond that.  

We had a whirlwind first day after that.  Nicholas and Robert are planning on leaving after a few days of overlap, so there is a lot to learn about the daily operation of the telescope and the different problems that might come up.   Last time, all my time was spent taking the polarization calibration observations and then reworking electronics, so I missed these aspects of operations.  We plan to keep up normal observations for a few weeks before switching into some maintenance.  So there are daily checks on the telescope and all of its systems, setting up the observations, and checking the data that comes out.   After lunch, we hopped onto a snowmobile and rode out to the telescope to get started.  Normally we walk, but the fast change in altitude can really hit you hard, so it’s better to take it easy for a couple days.  We had a full afternoon overview of the telescope and it’s systems before calling it a day, or so we thought.  

Later in the evening I got my first practice at responding to a very real outage in the station power.  As we were sitting in the SPT work area in the station, the power went out for several seconds.  SPT takes the power supplied from the station through a load leveler, which acts in as a big battery in this kind of situation.  Assuming everything is working normally, when the power comes back on, everything in the telescope should still be running as if the outage never happened.  But we still have to check, in case everything isn’t working normally.  With the load leveler, we have about 12 -15 minutes of power.  So that means getting to the telescope, and fast!  Before I could blink Nicholas and Robert were in their ECW gear, and I was on my way to do the same.   I didn’t make it to the telescope in the 12 minute window (which is a really fast walk of ~1km with all of the extra weight from the gear), but I did pretty good for not being acclimated.  After repeating the checks that Nicholas and Robert had already performed, we headed back to the station to relax for the rest of the evening.

  For our second day, we learned more about the computer systems, and then had the fabulous south pole sunday brunch.  Made to order omelets, pastries, breakfast meat, french toast, potatoes, fruit and cheese were all on the menu.  Sunday brunch is probably my favorite meal here.  Then it was back out to the telescope to check on things.   We ended up docking the telescope (where we move the boom so that it connects with the building and we can get into the cabin where the camera is), to do some work on the calibration system.  A few more instructions on taking care of the telescope (part of which included going up on the outside right next to the dish), and then back to the station for dinner. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Southward bound!

It's been almost two years since I left the South pole, and now I'm about two days (with a little luck) from being there again!   I arrived in Christchurch late last night, went to orientation and ECW issue this morning, and am scheduled for my ice flight in the morning.  Right now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly.  As much as I like New Zealand, I'd rather not boomerang (when the flight turns around midway due to poor conditions at McMurdo).  I took a lot of pictures of the ECW issue last time, except for this one that shows the warehouse of clothing.

Due to an 9 hour layover in Sydney I was actually able to leave the airport and see a bit of the city with a fellow SPTer.  We had a great afternoon of walking around the wharf, the opera house and then through the botanical gardens.  We made it back to the train station just in time to beat a major thunderstorm, which we then had front row seats for from the airport.

 After ECW issue this morning, we went into downtown Christchurch.   When I was here two years ago, the entire downtown was off-limits (the red zone) due to the 2011 earthquake.  Large fences with screens prevented us from even looking at much of the devastated area.   But Cathedral square and downtown reopened in July of last year, so we were able to go look around a bit.  Many of the impacted building have now been torn down, although a few still remained.  I saw some signs of  rebuilding, but it has obviously been a slow process to bring back the necessary infrastructure.

We  also took a long walk through the Christchurch botanical gardens.   I'll refrain from comparing and contrasting them with those in  Sydney, because both were really great.    Instead, I'll just post some pictures of my favorite parts.

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.