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.