Monday, February 8, 2010

A Quick Tour Around the South Pole Station Before Leaving

It looks like this will probably be my last entry, since I'm scheduled to leave tomorrow. It's been really interesting and I'm really glad I got the chance to come to Antarctica.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the station interior before I sign off. It's where I spend the bulk of my time. While it's not as scenic as Antarctica, it's still pretty interesting. As I mentioned previously, the station is shaped like an "M" with an extra leg. The legs are full of rooms which are used mostly for sleeping because they're so tiny. The bar of the "M" is where most of the living and working happens. It's a two-story structure. In addition to laboratories, there are also many rooms just for living and passing the time. There's a reading room:

An Arts & Crafts room:

Lots of coat rooms (for obvious reasons):

Everywhere you look there's evidence that people have a lot of free time and a lot of creativity:

Four meals a day are served in the galley: breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight rations (or mid rats). They always have nice vegetarian options at every meal.

The galley is also the main congregating point. While I was here there were movie showings, bingo games, and trivia contests in the galley. Tonight we're going to have a Super Bowl viewing party, so please no one tell me the score.

Here's where I do the bulk of my work, at the IceCube Science Lab.

The station is also home to innumerable bizarre objects and characters. Here's a shrine in one of the labs:

And this horrifying creature is actually the IceTop mascot:

It almost makes me happy I live out in the Jamesways because it can't get to me at night all the way out there.

There's also a maze of tunnels running under the station that pump out sewage and bring in fresh water from the wells (they're called rod wells because the water comes from big holes drilled into the ice).

It is almost always about -60F in the tunnels which is very cold.

Thanks for following my blog and for all the e-mails. I'm very happy and honored that I've been given the chance to come to the South Pole. It's been fabulous.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I should say a bit about the reason I'm here. I'm here to work on the IceCube experiment which is under construction here at the South Pole. It's made up of a bunch of light detectors strung together like pearls on a string and buried 1.5 km (~1 mile) under the surface of the ice. Each string is about 1 km long and has 60 sensors on it. The final plan for IceCube is to have 86 strings filling a cubic kilometer of volume. IceCube uses these light detectors to watch for light in the ice made by exotic particles from outside this galaxy (and also in the atmosphere, which is the only thing we've seen so far). There's also two surface detectors placed above each string which look for cosmic rays. The surface array is called IceTop. I mentioned it in a previous entry when I talked about helping to fold up the sunshades.
But enough physics, let's get to the pictures. Yesterday a group of us walked around on top of IceCube. The array stretches nearly a kilometer on each side. Here's a shot from the station to try and give you a little perspective.

The blue building on the right with the two silver columns is the IceCube Lab (or ICL). It sits roughly in the middle of the IceCube array. The multicolored boxes to the left are the IceCube drill camp. This is where the equipment they use to drill the IceCube holes is packed away for the winter. The black flags you can see are not IceCube holes, they denote the edge of the runway. For obvious reasons, people don't want you to blunder across the runway accidentally.
Although most of the equipment is buried under the ice (even the surface tanks are buried under the snow), each string is marked by three clumps of flags and a little numerical marker. Here's what the surface above a string looks like (along with a better shot of the ICL):

The two surface tanks are directly in front of the the two people (perhaps the one on the right looks a bit familiar?). The site of the in-ice string is the four flags on the left side of the photo.
From the ICL we walked about a half a kilometer to the edge of detector. Then we walked out to the "Line of Death" which marks an unsafe region where the old station used to be.

There could be caverns under the snow which could collapse if you walked on them. There's basically nothing beyond that except for one clump of flags. I don't know how far we walked, the snow was quite fluffy and ankle deep which made it quite a slog, but this is what the ICL looked like from there:

And here's what I looked like at that point:

Yes, that is an icicle hanging from my mask, and that's ice in the middle of my goggles. Kind of annoying, since the main reason I went out there was to see stuff, but at least my face was warm. Oh and here's what the view out from the edge of the array looked like:

Pretty cool, huh?

The Neighborhood

A few days ago I got the chance to take a tour of BICEP, one of the nearby telescopes. It's located a relatively short walk out onto the ice.

On the way there we were passed by a bull dozer moving an integral piece of equipment around.

There are actually two buildings, the one on the left is where BICEP and the South Pole Telescope are located. The one on the right is the MAPO building, which used to be the control center for AMANDA, the predecessor to IceCube. AMANDA is the experiment that I did my thesis on, and now that I've finished, I have fond memories of the detector. Last year it was switched off and the cables coming out of the ice were sawed off, rendering AMANDA silent forever. Here's a shot of the MAPO building from a little closer:

At this distance, you can tell the cone is actually made of wood. Please don't ask me what it's for, as far as I can tell its main purpose now is to make the building really distinctive.

We visited BICEP for a while and one of the scientists was nice enough to spend a few minutes telling about the telescope. It's looking at the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (basically residual radiation left over from shortly after the Big Bang) and they like the South Pole because the atmosphere doesn't change very much. Normally the characteristics of the atmosphere change from day to night as it's heated by the Sun. The long Antarctic winter provides a very uniform atmosphere.

After learning about BICEP we went up on the roof of the building and took some pictures of the South Pole Telescope.

The telescope was pointed right at us up until the moment I got out my camera. Then it started to rotate away, so the best shot I could get was this profile. I think it's because some of us IceCube people have been teasing the South Pole Telescope people a bit. Instant photographic karma. The South Pole Telescope is actually gracing this year's pole marker.

The South Pole Telescope is the tiny white cone far in the distance. I was trying to go for one of those artistic shots with both the marker and the building together. However, my crappy camera and the fact that I have to take my glove off to take photos (it was -50F with in the wind that day) conspired to deliver this shot.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

South Pole Metropolis

The weirdest thing about being at the South Pole is all the stuff that's here. For instance, as I type this I'm sitting in a wheeled, ergonomic office chair in a heated laboratory in a busy and bustling station. I have hot meals and warm water and a heated place to sleep and it's all because of the South Pole Station.
The South Pole Station was finished in 2005. It's sort of "M" shaped, except with an extra leg in the "M". Here's a picture I took during my daily commute:

The leftmost leg is a gymnasium and the other three legs are sleeping quarters. The station can sleep 155 people total. Right now the South Pole population is 220 so about 70 people are sleeping in the Summer Camps. It's nice to know I'm not alone.
The science labs are located in the (err..) non-leg parts. My lab is located in B2 which is behind the second to the left leg in the photo. I usually enter the station through Destination Zulu:

It's named that because it's sort of on the opposite side from Destination Alpha, which is the side of the station closest to the airplane runway.

Oh and for completeness, here's what the station looks like from the "front."

The white thing in the middle behind the intrepid polar explorer is an awning they use to keep the snow from piling up. The grey round thing on the left is called the beer can, for obvious reasons. It's the entrance to the tunnels under the station. Hopefully I'll get to visit those later.

The biggest problem with buildings at the South Pole is avoiding getting them covered in snow. It doesn't snow very much at the pole (actually not really at all), but the wind will blow snow over everything. If a building gets covered in snow, the weight will eventually be enough to crush it. That why the new station is built on stilts. It should be high enough that it will be okay for about 15-20 years. The design is such that the wind is not particularly inclined to dump snow on any particular spot on the station. If you look closely you can see that the beer can structure is vertically corregated, also to keep snow deposition down.

Because the South Pole is so cold (-20F today, -44F with wind chill), almost everything can be stored outside as long as it's heavy enough to not be blow away. This gives the environs immediately around the station a really cluttered look.

Of course, in addition to necessary supplies, you can find random cool things outside. Like this random thirty-foot high pipe sculpture

And my favorite:


Next post I'll talk about the station interior.

Friday, January 29, 2010

South Pole Summer Camping

I made it to the pole at about noon on the 27th. The flight was really smooth, and I spent about 5 minutes total outside that day (long enough to come to this shocking conclusion -- it's cold). After attending some briefings for people who've never been the SP before, I had lunch (veggie sloppy joes and cole slaw) and met all the IceCube people who are all being really nice.

The altitude has a really strong effect on you at first. All you want to do is sit like a lump on a log (my blood oxygen level was 80%, normal is around 90%). Walking around (especially with 20 lbs. of cold weather gear on) is really hard. The elevation here is only about 9,000 ft, but the effective elevation is above 10,000 ft because the Earth's rotation squeezes the air away from the poles. In addition to making you feel lumpish, the altitude also causes sleep apnea. The thing that controls when you body wants to take another breath is actually the CO2 level in your body. The doctor said the CO2 level in your body can be low enough that your body will stop breathing while you're sleeping. Of course then your oxygen levels drop down and you wake up gasping for air. They give you altitude medication that is supposed to help prevent the waking up gasping part. I think this is just because it makes you wake up all the time to pee.

On my first day I hung out with the IceCube people. One of my collaborators was even nice enough to give us newbies a ride out the Jamesways, so we didn't have to carry all our crap out there on the first day.

Since there's been some curiosity about my lodgings, I'll devote most of the picture-age to it. I'm staying in something call a Jamesway. It's also know as Summer Camp (a mis-nomer if ever I heard one, there's nothing summery about it). It's a fifteen minute walk from the main station building where I do most of my work. Here's a shot of the Jamesways from just outside the main building. They're the round blue things above the boxes. They are basically silo-like half circle buildings which are subdivided into rooms, so the roof and outside walls are curved. My outside wall is made of heavy green canvas. Yes, the only thing between me and the South Pole is a canvas wall. Here's some shots of the one I'm staying in (mine is the one in the middle).

I believe as many as 10 people can sleep inside them. Here's the hallway.

It's so dark because people have all different sleep shifts and I didn't want to use the flash in case anyone was sleeping. The Jamesway rooms are very small. There's only a single bed and a wooden cabinet. Here's my enclosure.

The green canvas on the left is the outside wall. Behind me there's a hanging curtain which you can pull for privacy. There's a heating unit in the center of each Jamesway, so it's warmer than outside. Basically everything that's under the blankets is okay, though I spread Big Red over my bed for a little additional warmth. I'm told that if you leave a glass of water on the floor, it will freeze by morning. I'll have to try that at some point. The canvas is mostly light-tight. There are a few leaks, but I avoid them by sleeping with a shirt over my eyes, which also has the benefit of keeping my head warm.

The best part about the Jamesways is that the bathrooms are closed because of a sewer pipe leak, so we have to use external, unheated port-a-potties instead of the heated, lit bathrooms with nice showers and washing machines. While I understand the importance of not leaking raw sewage into the Antarctic ice, I still wish I had a heated bathroom to use. Especially since the altitude medicine makes you pee a lot. My first night I got up to use the bathroom five times. I am now intimately familiar with exactly how little cold weather gear you need for the dash to the bathroom. Shaded goggles are the most important item, so the sunlight doesn't wake you up.

It's now the fourth day and I'm feeling a lot better. Still not much energy but that's because I got to go outside all day yesterday and visit IceCube. The weather was a little bad and it was pretty white outside. Here's a picture looking back at the main station from the IceCube Drill Camp.

The station is the dark blot in the middle. It looks worse on camera then it was. I walked around the surface above IceCube for a bit, then looked inside the big computer lab

where all the IceCube signals from the strings are brought together and processed. There were bundles and bundles of cables three inches thick coming into the computers. There were banks and banks of computers. There were so many computers that the building doesn't have to be heated, it has to be cooled. Then I helped pack up the IceTop camp for the winter (IceTop is the surface array above IceCube, it detects cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are a background for most IceCube analyses, except for mine where it is the signal). The shades that cover the IceTop tanks while they freeze had to be folded up nicely and put away in the right order so people next season can grab them and go. We were able to work inside something called the "Purple Palace" which was heated. Here's a picture of my collaborator mending a rip in the shade.
The shades that still need to be folded are against the far "wall" and the folded shades are to the left. Here's what it looked like after we finished, man, there were a lot of them, but it only took a few hours.

After that a bunch of other bits and ends had to be sorted (into those that can be left out to freeze and those which cannot).

All-in-all it was pretty awesome.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To New Zealand and Beyond!

I'm writing this entry on the flight from Christchurch to McMurdo. More on that later, first let's catch up.
My flights went well. I watched Julie and Julia and The Hurt Locker. Both were good films, altough I was a little confused about why The Hurt Locker had gotten so many raves. Maybe because it's about soldiers, it automatically becomes extra high quality. Other than that, nothing really significant to report, except that I was actually able to get some sleep (yay!). My arrival into Sydney was delayed by 10 minutes, eating into the already plentiful *40* minutes I had to get through security and onto my next flight to Christchurch. The margin was close enough that there was an agent waiting for me at the ramp when I got off the plane. He led me through one of the those doors covered in red warnings to what appeared to be a secret security gate, where I was promptly singled out for extra screening. It seemed like a totally reasonable thing for the security personnel to do, especially considering that I'm already so late for my next flight that I had an escort. Fortunately I was able to make it onto my flight to Christchurch (they were also waiting for another few people from a different flight from LA). The whole thing made me really glad I only had carry-on luggage. I doubt checked luggage could have gotten on that plane.
Once I got to the airport, I headed for the Antarctic Program building. Fortunately, since I was probably not at my best after 16 continuous hours of plane flight, the path to the USAP building is marked by painted blue footprints. On the way there I spotted the plane that I am currently on.

Beyond saying it's a military plane I don't know much about it. Only that it's big.

It's about a five minute walk to the center, which apparently also markets trips to Antarctica for tourists as well (their slogan is "Antarctica: Visit For the Day"). The Antarctic Program building is actually quite nice looking. The front part is a museum and it's all rounded and blue with lots of glass windows (and penguins). Scientist don't go in that part, though. We go around the back, through a parking lot (and through a shrub wall, but only if you get a little lost, not that I know anyone like that) to some smaller more business-like buildings. My goal was the Clothing Distribution Center (or CDC as everyone calls it. Personally I always think of the Center for Disease Control, and it makes me want to steer clear of the whole place). The CDC is where you get all of your clothes that you will need for the extreme cold. It's referred to as ECW (for extreme cold weather, I guess gear is left off because ECWG is just one letter too many). When you first enter the locker room, the gear is in two innocent looking orange duffel bags (shown below with my valiantly overstuffed carry-on luggage for scale)..

Here's what's inside the bags, every piece of which has to be tried on.
It consists of (this list is even more impressive if you say it all in one breath):
Pair of Goggles
Hat (with earflaps and a drawstring, so styling)
Neck Warmer
Parka (the red jacket in the center, affectionately known as "Big Red")
Fleece Jacket
Another Fleece Jacket
Insulated shirt
Ski Pants (lying to the right of Big Red)
Fleece Pants (the gray things)
Medium Weight Pants
Light Pants
Two Pairs of Wool Socks
Air-Insulated White Boots (called "Fluffy Bunny Boots")
Two Pairs of Insulated Leather Gloves
A Pair of Woolen Mittens
A Pair of Leather Mittens (which go over the wool ones)

Here is what it looks like when it is all on:

Let me tell you, it is really hot! In the time it took me to walk over to the mirror and (successfully) take this picture, I was covered in sweat. They keep the locker room at a reasonable temperature, but I think they should crank it down to freezing temperatures so you actually want to try on all that gear.

Thinking about where I'm heading makes me glad I'll have all this stuff.

I want to pack all of my gear into these orange duffels (including the ECW). The weight allowance has been increased to 150 lb., so I wasn't concerned about that. However, I feel like bringing too much stuff to Antarctica would be sort of vulgar, so I plan to go through my luggage that night and filter out some stuff.
Fortunately there was still a few hours of sun after I finished everything, so I had a chance to walk around Christchurch a little bit. My flight left the next day at 9 am, but I had to be at the center at 6 am, so I headed to bed early.

Now I'm in-flight over the Southern Ocean, headed towards McMurdo. The plane is really cavernous and only about 1/2 filled with seats. The rest is usually taken up with cargo, though it only appears to be about 1/2 full as well. There are 55 people on my flight, which is enough room that we aren't crammed in like sardines. Most of the people I've talked to are planning to winter-over (they stay the whole winter in Antarctica, crazy as that sounds). The usual training for winter-overs is to send them to Antarctica at the beginning of the season (early November), get them trained up and then send them back to Christchurch for some R&R before their long, dark season begins. Many of them are returning on this flight, which is why there's such a large number of people flying so late in the season. I'm super excited about going to Antarctica, but I think it takes a special kind of person to stay there for the whole winter.

I'm going to go eat my sandwich now (they give you a brown bag lunch for the flight). Antarctica ahead!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why (and When) Am I Going To the South Pole?

Because it will be awesome!

I'm lucky to be going to the South Pole to work on the IceCube Detector. Deployment of the IceCube Detector has been going on since 2004. When it's finished it will be a kilometer array of 80 strings, each with 60 sensors looking for light in the ice from neutrinos. Every year during the austral summer (i.e. now) large numbers of people head down to the South Pole to install new strings, do detector maintenance, and get their picture taken by the South Pole marker. This year we're planning to add another 18 strings and we should reach our goal of 80 strings next year. My job is to help figure out the exact position of every sensor on these new strings. Each sensor has a series of LEDs which I will be turning on for brief data runs. By looking at the arrival times of the light from the LEDs in the newly deployed sensors we can calculate their position.

Also I will be taking lots of pictures and posting them here, but I'm pretty sure that's not in my official job description.

I leave Saturday January 23rd at 10:50 PM. After a quick 40 minute stop in Sydney, I (and hopefully my luggage too) arrive in Christchurch at 2:05 PM Monday January 25th. Upon arrival I'm scheduled to get my extreme cold weather gear (pdf) so I probably won't be at the hotel until a few hours later.

The next flight to McMurdo Station (webcam) is January 26th. I'm assuming I'll be on it since I'm scheduled to be at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (webcam) on the 27th, but I won't know for sure until I get there.

Flights to McMurdo are on C-17s. Flights to the South Pole use LC-130 Hercules.

The South Pole station uses New Zealand time which is 21 hours ahead of PST (so effectively three hours earlier).

My return flight is tentatively scheduled to arrive at 8:55 PM on Sunday February 14th.