Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas in McMurdo

The guest post seems to have fallen through, so I’ll write a bit about Christmas here. It’s a big deal here - a 2-day weekend (the normal RPSC (Raytheon Polar Services Corp.) workweek is 6 days – 54 hours). It started on Dec. 24th, with a big party in the VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility), with food and drinks, a slideshow of contributed family photos, some dancing and lots of talking. Plus a chance to visit with Santa, on his sleigh (below; it's very rare to see a Santas sleigh that is actually designed for the North Pole). All in a cavernous building usually used to repair heavy machinery. Or course, there was plenty of snow outside.

On Christmas Day, the main event was dinner, served in 3 shifts (3 pm, 5 pm and 7 pm). The dining crew pulled out all the stops – roast duck, prime rib with horseradish sauce, and lobster tails in herbed butter. Thorsten and I were invited to eat in the BFC (“Berg Field Camp,” also known by residents as “Building Full of Chicks”, for the gender of the people who work there). It was nice to eat with a smaller crowd (~ 25 people, again from helicopter pilots to mountaineers, even if it did mean require carrying our plates of food through the sub-freezing outdoors.
After dinner, we all walked over to MAAG (McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery), which I discussed in the last post. It was a nice evening, even for someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Waiting for Godot (the C-17)

The past few days in McMurdo have been largely a waiting period, waiting for the next flight out, on Dec. 29th. The 6-day gap between flights is partly because of Christmas, which is a big holiday here, with a party, a festive dinner and two days off work. The days were Friday and Saturday (the 25th and 26th), with Sunday a normal work day. But, Sunday isn't a normal work day for the Air Force. Ergo, a long gap between flights.

Anyway, I'm working on a special guest post on "Christmas in McMurdo" from a long-time resident. In the meantime, here is a picture from "MAAG," McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, which was also on the 25th. The name is actually a pretty good description of the event; there was a wide variety of art on display, plus some music and a juggler. Longtime IceCubers will recognize P. J. Charpentier on the violin, above. The picture below shows one local organization; more details are available here

Another interesting exhibit was a room sized camera obscura (pinhole camera) a darkened room with a single hole; the outside was bright enough to project an upside down image of most of McMurdo.

Otherwise, we have been collecting data with the station, filling out various forms, including a detailed environmental survey and starting to work on a journal article about the station.

It has been interesting to see how my body has adapted to the cold. Right now, it is 27 degrees (Fahrenheit), and very lightly snowing, and I'm comfortably walking around in a long sleeve shirt and fleece jacket, jeans and sneakers and wool socks. Three weeks ago, I would have been wearing way more clothes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

McMurdo Station

I should probably say a little about McMurdo station, especially since I will be here for several days, waiting for the next flight out. It is a very interesting place, with a summer population currently about 1100, and about 200+ people who winter over.

As you can see from the picture (taken from "Ob Hill") McMurdo is mostly a logistics base, supporting scientific expeditions elswhere in Antarctica. Nearby sites include the dry valleys (one place I'd love to visit is "Blood Falls"), glaciers, the Antarctic mountains and the edge of the ice shelf (including penguin research). McMurdo also support expeditions further afield, including the South Pole Station. The WAIS (West Antarctic Ice Sheet) Divide drilling project is a multi-year effort to drill 3400 meter deep ice cores to study the climate over the past 100,00 years. This is a key effort in learning how climate has evolved over time. And, of course, McMurdo supports the South Pole, including IceCube, which is a major effort there, and probably the biggest project on the continent.

So, most of what goes on here involves logistics - shipping supplies to these camps via a variety of helicopters and aircraft, and providing temporary storage facilities. There are also some scientific laboratories which are mostly used for "local" studies around McMurdo, including studies of sea life under the ice.

Since "supplies" includes everything from various types of fuel to mountaineering equipment to camping gear and scientific equipment, there is a pretty wide range of activities here.

One neat thing about the place is being able to meet people from a huge range of backgrounds. Today (Friday), I ate brunch in the galley (below) with some people from the Army Corps of Engineers, studying drainage issues around McMurdo, and a Catholic priest from New Zealand (here as a chaplain). I've also talked with heavy equipment repairman, helicopter and Twin Otter pilots and mechanics, a handful of carpenters in the New Zealand Army, and a woman studying penguins. There are also groups from the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guards, flying the LC-130s and C-17s.

Most of Mcmurdo consists of various types of storage yards and motor pools, and dormitory buildings (many of the buildings that look like barracks). There is also a kitchen and galley (this accounts for about 100 of the people here), a hospital, library, gym, bowling alley (apparently non-functional), small store, post office, chapel, coffee house and bar. Most of the 'recreational' activities operate very limited hours. Since many people work the night shift, some recreational activities are scheduled for the early morning, to accommodate them.

Our Stuff Returns

Thursday. Our sling load came home today, on (todays) schedule. The top photo shows the sling load being deposited on the helipad.

Unloading was quick; the bottom photo shows it caught in a traffic jam on the way to BFC, where we will unpack it and send the scientific stuff North. Our stuff is the wooden box on the frontloader, plus the load in the stake truck behind it.

I should probably also mention that the station continues to communicate, and we are taking data continuously. The next step is to get a more serious data analysis effort going.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

We go

Wednesday morning. The third time is a charm. At our 8 am call to Helo Ops, we learn that, even though we are scheduled for the afternoon, they are launching in an hour (9 am), and we should be ready. Although they don't say this, they are making a special effort to get us out today.

This is very welcome news on many fronts, especially as we contemplate our dwindling food supply. Most of what we have left is quasi-emergency rations - a variety of freeze-dried foods that are definitely not like Mom used to make.

That said, here's no way that we can take down camp in an hour, much less build a sling load. Fortunately, they realize this, and the helo will wait while the Josh (the helo tech) leads us through building the slings. This is much appreciated, on many fronts.

By around 9:45, as we are still frantically trying to unbury the "deadman" anchors, break the ice away from the sides of the tens, and pack everything, neatly divided for the helicopter and the sling load), the helo is on the radio

They are approaching, but warn us that weather conditions are not great - it is cloudy, so surface definition is not great and a landing is not assured. This instantly brings work to a standstill - it would not be fun to set up camp again.

It makes one approach, decides the weather is OK, and comes back to land. This time, it spends what seems like a considerable time (at least many seconds) hovering just a few feet off the ground, while we lie on our bags, to keep things from blowing away. Finally, it settles down. Although the photo above is from when the sling load was delivered, it's a pretty good representation of things.

From there, it's all uphill. It takes another hour and a quarter to pack up our gear and make the sling load. Because of the weather, they will not pick up the sling load today.

Then, we climbed aboard and take off and watch the station recede into the distance, obscured by clouds of snow blown up by the helicopter rotors.

On our arrival, we were met by a truck which ferried us and our gear up to Berg Field Camp. At this point, it was noon, and the galley was serving lunch for another hour. Since there were some things that absolutely had to be done, this left us with a dilemma: showers first, and risk missing lunch, or lunch? My apologies to anyone who sat near us during lunch.

Coming back to McMurdo has required some adjustments. Besides the masses of people, there are the conveniences - flush toilets, sinks with running water, rooms that can be dark, etc. It's nice to be able to be indoors again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

We stay ... and stay

It's Tuesday afternoon, and we're still here. Shortly after my last posting, Helo Ops threw in the towel for the day - the weather wasn't getting any better.

Today was the same story - calls every few hours, before finally calling things off. The weather was better than yesterday, but not enough better. The photo above, taken around 6 pm, shows the pass that the helicopter would have to fly over, with lots of clouds. This is worse than it was during the day, but not a lot worse.

So, we spend the day taking it easy, waiting for the call to action to disassemble camp. All of our science gear is well buried; we're collecting data, but can't do any more fiddling.

Tomorrow for sure. We hope.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do we stay or do we go?

Monday. Today we are scheduled to return to McMurdo. We got up early to have time to take down camp and pack the sling load. However, although the weather here is pretty good - around freezing and windless, with high clouds, Minna Bluff appears socked in, so we wait a while and call Helo Ops, to ask about the prospects for getting out. They say that it is snowing in McMurdo, and we should call back at 10:00. At 10:00, they suggest calling back at noon, and at noon, it becomes 2:00. Even though the helicopters aren't flying, the schedule has freed up, so it might still be possible to get out. So, we're waiting for the 2:00 call now.

Even though we have plenty of food and fuel, and the weather is comfortable, it would be very nice to get back today. Stay tuned.

Finishing Up

Sunday. Today is our last full day here - the helos are supposed to arrive tomorrow afternoon to pull both us and our stuff out. We will leave on the Kiwi (Scott Base - New Zealand) helicopter.

We spent most of today doing last-minute things with the station - placing the temperature sensors, burying the station box and antenna cables, etc. We decided to deploy the '5th' antenna about 15 feet from the station, connected to the 'heartbeat' transmitter. This transmitter will send out signals at the beginning of a run, showing us that the antennae, etc. are working, and providing a reasonably stable (we hope) calibration beacon.

We also packed up all of our 'science' cargo - our tools and other returnables. Tomorrow, after breakfast, we will take down the tent and pack up camp before the helos arrive. One interesting part of this will be assembling the sling loads. There are tricks that we need to know - the bottom load should be heavier, with the heavier stuff goes in the bottom center of the sling - yet another thing I didn't learn in grad school. Although we took pictures of the load as-delivered, none of us have any experience with this - it should be interesting. Fortunately, the helo tech will check it before picking it up.

Dinner was Pad Thai. For dessert, we had vanilla 'pudding pops' - the good kind of yellow snow. You make a depression in the snow and pour in pudding, with a stick (we used our titanium sporks for this), and wait for the pudding to freeze. The pudding also diffused into the snow, making the edges more like a snow cone than frozen pudding. They were good, but they would have been a lot better if it were 60 degrees warmer outside.

Oh yes. Today's vocabulary word is "hockling" - when a rope gets twisted forming a knob. - from the instructions that came with our 1/4" rope.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Camp Life

I haven’t posted much in the past few days because camp life has settled into a routine, and there is less of interest to report. We get up in the morning, have breakfast, work on the station or make physics measurements, eat lunch, work more, eat dinner, and then usually work more.

Breakfast is usually eggs and hash browns or cereal. Lunch has been soup and sandwiches or gardenburgers, and dinner has varied a lot. Martha has been doing most of the cooking (and the food has been excellent), in addition to melting snow into water. Although our propane stove puts out a lot of heat, it takes a lot of energy to melt snow and this chore takes an hour or two each day.

Martha and Thorsten are both vegetarians (including some fish), and it is easier if we all eat the same thing, so I’ve been eating vegetarian. However, we did bring two ‘steaks’ (I use that term loosely), and Martha made one for me on Thursday evening. Unfortunately, it badly smoked up the tent – I don’t think that we’ll do that again.

The weather continues to be good. On Friday, it was very cloudy, but only about 10 degrees colder than previously. In the morning, it was windy for a while - we saw gusts up to about 15 miles/hour, but they slowed down quickly.

We are beginning to think about the ‘end game’ – making sure that everything critical is done before we leave. We don’t have time to do everything in the detail that we’d like; we are trying to look at everything at least a little bit. As part of finishing up, we buried the antennae yesterday, and also made measurements of the antennae locations.

Work on the station has progressed. It is now fully operational, and we are doing discriminator scans to measure the ambient noise levels. One significant question is how much the radio emission from the wireless internet is seen by the station. To answer this, we took measurements with the internet on and off.

We are also using a small transmitter to bounce radio signals off the ice-water interface below us, returning about 6.5 microseconds (millionths of a second) after we send out the pulse. The return pulse is not large, and the measurement proved slightly tricky - we had some equipment issues, and went through several experimental setups before getting one that worked well. The bottom photo shows the setup in our antenna laboratory building

We are also comparing the antenna properties in air and in ice. Many of these measurements are mutually exclusive, in that they require some of the same pieces of equipment, or in that they will interfere with each other. So, we need to be a little careful about scheduling and setting priorities.

Another Visitor

As you can see, we had another visitor on Friday evening - a skua. He flew around the camp for a while, then made him(? - we didn't check)self comfortable. He stayed for an hour or so, mostly sitting on the ground watching, but with some periods of flying around

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We rejoin the world

On Wednesday morning, the wind kicks up a bit – we measure a bit over 10 miles/hour with a hand held anemometer. The Forgen wind generator turns around a few times. So, it’s time for …. kite flying

For better or worse, the wind died down pretty quickly, and the Forgen stopped turning. It is still somewhat cloudy, and we see an ice halo around the sun.

The weather on Mt. Discovery is better, and the IT crew land successfully. By prior agreement, we attempt to make VHF radio contact, without success. This is not encouraging news, since the 2.4 GHz internet link requires a better line-of-sight than the VHF radios. In desperation, we call MacOps in McMurdo, and ask them to act as a relay. We learn that the tower is up, but that work is required in McMurdo to make the link operational. Later, we get a text message (via Iridium phone) that the link is up, but have no success at connecting. When we call them, they suggest that we align the antenna to point at Mt. Discovery. We adjust the antenna, with no success. Then, they suggest setting the RF power on the link to zero, and then gradually raising it. This does not sound encouraging, but they talk Thorsten through the procedure and, to our surprise, it works – Internet! The photo below shows Martha and Thorsten working.

We have visitors

Tuesday is internet day. The IT folk are supposed to arrive around noon, to put up our tower. They plan to fly out in the Bell 212, dropping off two people and a repeater tower on Mt. Discovery; the other two will continue on to visit us, and set up the tower here. The noon-ish arrival breaks up the day, since we need to put everything away before the helicopter arrives - both they and we don’t want anything blowing around.

Radio contact is made, and the helicopter comes into sight and lands. However, four people pile out, more than doubling the population of our burb. Unfortunately, Mt. Discovery was foggy, so the pilot couldn’t land. They bring a fair bit of gear, including a package for us containing a few essentials: a strap wrench, 200 feet of rope, vanilla pudding, some carrots and limes, and a cookbook. Everything that we asked for (plus the carrots and limes, which are a still a mystery).

It takes a little while to get used to the crowds. Lunch raises an etiquette question. How will we feed everyone, with only four forks, four spoons, and four knives. Plus a spork or two. Fortunately, they brought their own lunches – the easiest kind of guests.

With four people, the internet tower rises quickly, and there is lots of time to talk, compare antennae (unlike us, they usually install their antennae above ground), discuss frequencies, etc.

Because of the helicopter-winds, we do not return to the transmit-receive measurements. Instead, we dig two more antenna holes, assemble antennae, and make measurements of radio noise. The holes are starting to get a bit easier to dig, and ending up a bit deeper.

Before dinner, there was finally time to celebrate Channukah – I lit the shamash, recited the blessing, and then lit 5 candles, for the 5th night. Although the wind was pretty low, it wasn't so easy to keep the candles lit. Dinner was salmon with pesto and garlic, wild rice, and broccoli. After dinner, we finish a few anchors, and plan for tomorrow.

Maudy Monday

Monday is antenna day. After breakfast, Thorsten dug a test hole for our first antenna, so about 50 feet from the station. This was partly to see how the digging goes; it will also be a site to transmit signals to the other antennae. He ended up with a roughly foot wide slot, about 6 feet deep, and 7 feet wide at the top. He needed to cut steps into one end to get to the bottom. It does the job; as you can see above, the top of the antenna is a few inches below the snow surface. We had initially wanted to dig the antennae in deeper, but this is close to the limit of our digging technology. Going deeper would require larger holes in all 3 dimensions, and far more effort.

I spent some time figuring out exactly where to put the station antennae and stomping down the ground to firm up the snow. This is more complex than we realized - between the equipment boxes that must be buried (later), the guy ropes for the station (we certainly don’t want to compromise these), within the length of the antenna cables, the choices are limited. Eventually, we decided that the East-West antenna pair must be offset – not ideal, but the best that we can do.

After lunch, I took a turn digging an antenna hole – the first for the station antennae. I do finish it, but it’s the bulk of my afternoon.

We also take measurements of antennae properties, with an antenna a few feet in the air, sitting on the snow surface, and in the hole. The simplest parameter to measure is something called the standing wave ratio; a measurement of it’s impedance (complex resistance) at different frequencies. The goal is to understand how the antenna behavior changes in ice, compared to air. We do this with a nifty gadget, an Agilent FieldFox network analyzer. Twenty years ago, a measurement like this required a decent laboratory; now we can lift the analyzer with one hand. Judging from the brochure pictures, the FieldFox is designed for use servicing cell phone towers, but it works well for us also. It is a real kick resting it on a wood plank laid on the snow to make measurements. Between that and our oscilloscope (also made by Agilent), power supply, etc, we have a reasonably well equipped lab.

Toward evening, Thorsten started working on the transmit-receive measurements, whereby we send a signal from one antenna to a second one; we expect to observe an initial ‘direct’ pulse, followed by a 2nd pulse when the signal reflects off the ice-water interface. Of course, the 2nd pulse should be much later, and also much smaller. The photo below shows our receiver laboratory, with low-noise RF preamp and oscilloscope.

Finally, this is Martha sitting at our dining room table. As in most new high-end housing, our kitchen opens to a breakfast nook, which in our case also serves as our formal dining room. If you look closely at the floor, you'll see why it's not always a good idea to choose the low bidder to install hardwood floors.

Let the Science Begin

Sunday dawned warm and sunny; the clouds disappeared during the night, and the mountain tents got hot – probably in the 70’s, enough that I opened the door while dressing. Visibility is excellent; we can clearly see Minna Bluff to the South (above), and the Antarctic Coastline to the East (below), stretching away to the South (if these directions seem strange, remember that we’re about 15 miles out to sea, sitting on the ice shelf), and, with the direct sunlight, there is way more contrast than yesterday.

Breakfast was Muesli with milk, plus hot tea. We did a last few housekeeping functions – unpacking the solar chargers for the VHF radio(like you see used in war movies) and the Iridium (satellite) phone. Then, it was time to get started on science – unpacking and assembling the station ‘tower’, a 6 ‘ high metal-pipe assembly that will hold 4 solar panels, a wind turbine, and 3 GPS and 1 Iridium antennae. It should be robust enough to do this throughout the Antarctic winter.

The four tower legs sit on foot-square pieces of plywood, anchored via good sized wood screws. These go in easier with a power drill, so we needed to charge its batteries. Which meant setting up a generator. Which required opening one of the 5-gallon Jerry cans of “Mogas.” Unfortunately, someone did an extremely good job of tightening their caps; they defeated the best efforts of our hands, plus two improvised strap wrenches, one using Martha’s belt. Finally, we were able to open one can; this should be enough to hold us until Monday.

Lunch was gardenburgers with provolone cheese (the Swiss cheese preferred by some residents is still frozen) on bagels, plus curried lentil soup (from a package). The soup was OK (Martha and Thorsten would call it good), but the gardenburgers are great.

We used the Iridium phone for our 1 pm daily check-in with MacOpps. It is quick and easy, but the VHF radio might be cooler – we need to find time to set it up.

After lunch, the station tower came together, with its complement of equipment. It seems ricketier than it did back in Berkeley, but most of the strength should come from the guy ropes.

A word about snow, since we heard a variety of predictions. The snow here is quite fluffy, with a bit of a crust. Usually, boot sink in 4-6 inches. However, sometimes the crust holds, and you don’t sink in. This does not make walking easy. So, generally, putting the "deadman" anchors in was fairly easy. However, we have compacted the snow around the tower (by trampling on it), and so the digging is a bit harder. We also want these to be deeper –18 inches to 2 feet. So, they take some time.

Also after lunch, I called Ruth (my wife). The first try was one-way only; the 2nd worked well. For a guy who doesn’t even own a cell phone, it was strange standing on the ice in the middle of nowhere, talking to someone 2 continents away. They are celebrating Channukah. I brought a menorah and candles, and will celebrate once we’re a bit better established. Being away from my family is definitely the worst thing about this trip.

In the afternoon, we continued with the station setup. By dinner (rice and bean burritos, with cheese, green chili and salsa), most of the station was set up, but not yet connected:

We also worked on assembling the five dipole antennae. These are essentially TV antennae, with "some assembly required." Assembly is a bit painful. They have many screws, and not every box has everything that we need. There is considerable play in some of the joints, so there will be some antenna-to-antenna variation.

It's a good start.

We make it to Moore's Bay

Saturday, 9 am. The weather doesn’t look too promising, with a good layer of high clouds, but the pilot is game to try again, so we reboard our Bell 212, facing the now-familiar luggage wall. The 50 minute flight is relatively uneventful, and the site is free of fog or low clouds. But, with the high clouds, the light is very diffuse, and, from 3000 feet up, there is no surface definition – there are no visible features on the ground, so the pilot can’t tell how high we are; this makes landing difficult. We fly around a bit, chasing a patch of sunlight that is an indeterminate distance from the desired landing zone. After 5 miles, it doesn’t look much closer, and we don’t want to go too much farther, so we turn around, and descend to 2500 feet. Now, the pilot and helo tech in front can begin to make out ground features, so we continue down, past 300 feet when the ground approach warning blares. In the back, we passengers can see features in the ice, but can’t tell how high we are. I was quite surprised when the pilot said that we had landed – it was a very soft touchdown, and, from the side windows, we still appeared airborne.

Once down, Brian hopped out with his avalanche pole, and quickly checked the area for crevasses. He found none, and we unloaded our gear – most of our priority one stuff. Martha checked in with MacOpps on the satellite phone – contact is required before the helicopter can leave.

The remainder of our gear – including our two large tents - was scheduled for a 3:30 supply flight, along with our science cargo. We would certainly survive without this gear, but wouldn’t be particularly comfortable. And, we would have relatively little to do.

We began setting up the tents we had – two “Mountain Tents” for Martha and I, plus a ‘Kiva” for our toilet tent. Until the 2nd load arrives, the Kiva will serve as our cooking tent. Brian sets out to check a 1 km line; we walk out along this line, and test transmission/reception over significant surface distances – 300 m and 1 km. Brian pushed a snow anchor into the snow, connected a 50 m climbing rope to it, and walked off, connected by a prussic (a knot around the rope that will hold if he falls), probing the snow every 20-30 feet with a ~ 4 m long aluminum avalanche pole. He is searching for voids that would signal a large crevasse. I follow; my job is to pull out the snow anchor when he reaches the end of the rope, and bring it to him.

He commented that, with the snow this flat, it did not appear that the site was subject to high winds. The “no high winds” contrasted with what we heard from other people, but his logic makes sense. It also meshes nicely with the almost still conditions since we got here – if this persists, the wind generator will not be useful.

By the time we get back, the tents were set up, and Martha and Thorsten have the stove going, and ‘lunch’ is ready – hot water, to which one can add a variety of dried soups, tea, etc. There is no ‘inside’ place, and it feels very ‘outdoorsy.’ After lunch, we’re out of things to do so we sit on our sleep kits and talk.

Around 2:30, we call in on the satellite phone, and learn that the helos are running about 40 minutes late. Brian would really like to get back tonight. Around 4:10, we try to reach the helo on VHF radio, with no result. We call again, and hear that 36J is about 15 minutes out, and we ‘should’ be able to see it. About 10 minutes later, we hear 36J reporting in to McMurdo that he’s 12 minutes out, and make radio contact. A little while later, he reports that he thinks he can see us; the reverse is not yet true. Thorsten is the first to spot him, 3 dots in the sky.

A few minutes later, it’s almost overhead. As he flies overhead, he kicks up a big wind; surprisingly, the wind area is only a few times larger than the radius of the rotor blades. Thorsten and Martha are (as requested), sitting on the supplies to ensure that nothing light gets blown away. He lowers the two sling loads about 10 feet apart, then moves about 50 feet away to land and pick up Brian. We unload 6 4 foot by 4 foot plywood squares – our helicopter-friendly tent floor. Of course, between the loose snow and rotor wash, dragging the plywood is not a ball of fun.
The photo below shows the helo and sling load, and the plywood unloading operation.

A few minutes later, we waved goodbye, and they flew off. It is 5 pm, and we have two tents to set up before dinner and bed. Fortunately, it doesn’t get dark here. The big tent is an “Artic Oven, 10 feet by 20 feet, with a 5 poles on each side, connecting at the top in 3 ‘spiders.’ It goes up easily enough, but then there are the guy ropes to attach. For each rope (or group), we need to dig a 2 foot deep hole, bury a 1 ½ to 3 foot long bamboo stake, wrap a rope around it, tighten it, tie the rope taut,, and then refill the hole with snow. These are called “Deadman” anchors - a fair bit of work. Thorsten’s ‘Scott Tent” also requires setup. While Thorsten and I do this, Martha makes dinner – tricolor tortellini and green beans. Yummy. By this point ( 8 pm), I’m zonked out and go to bed; I believe that the others follow my example pretty quickly.

The top photo shows most of our camp - the largest and finest in Moore's Bay.

All in all, a pretty successful day.

The end of the hiatus


It is now Wednesday (Dec. 16) here (one day later than in the States), and the internet is hooked up and working. Camp is set up, station installation and measurements are underway, and we're all happy and healthy. And even warm.
I have been writing blog entries, and will now post them, but it will take a few days to catch up.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Mt. Discovery

The one good thing about the Moore's Bay 'boomerang' was that it let me come along on the recce expedition to look for a site for the internet repeater. We got back to the heliport around 1:30, just in time to be on time for the 2:10 flight to Mt. Discovery. Lunch was two small packages of pretzels - nothing but the best for us.

This time, we went in an AS350 "Astar" Eurocopter. This is a smaller, single engine copter that seats 5(?), including the pilot, in a single cabin. This time, I got to sit up front; there are windows all around, and it definitely felt 'airy.' There was even a window right by my foot:

The switch by my toe controlled the intercom.

We flew for about 30 minutes, following our earlier route (we had passed Mt. Discovery going to/from Moore's Bay.

The top picture shows 8796 foot high Mt. Discovery, taken partway up the side. The photo below, taken looking in the other direction, shows Minna Bluff:

McMurdo station is off the the left, while Moore's Bay is to the right. We were looking for a site with good line-of-sight in both directions. We quickly spotted several possible sites. The first possible site was on top of this rocky point:

To me, it didn't look big enough to land a helicopter on. Pablo (our pilot) made a pass, then decided that, although he could land there now, this feat would not be repeatable if the wind were higher. So, we moved higher up the mountain, and found a larger flat area for a helicopter, with several reasonable points to put a repeater on:

Bill and I got out, and, although intervening clouds prevented us seeing McMurdo, he was able to contact them with a line-of-site VHF repeater. At the same time, we had a view of Moore's Bay. It was quite a bit colder than in McMurdo, and it was surprised how quickly I got out of breath walking around. Still, I was astonished when Bill told me that we were at an altitude of over 5,000 feet. I really hadn't felt us climbing. And, going back, we didn't seem to lose altitude.

A good site found, there was no need for plan B, an alternate possibility on Minna Bluff. The photo below, from our return flight, shows Hut Point, with McMurdo station in the middle, between the two peaks:

And finally, a view of McMurdo, as we came in to land:

We're scheduled to try again for Moore's Bay tomorrow at 9:00 am, so I'll sign off now.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

To Moore's Bay .... and back

We arose Friday to reasonably promising weather, and an 11:40 departure. The photo above shows us heading to the helicopter. The helicopter was a Bell 212, with the pilot and helo tech sitting in front, and the four passengers squeezed in back, along with our priority 1 luggage (e.g. food, extra ECW gear, etc.), where additional passengers would otherwise go. We took off, heading South, across the Ross Ice Shelf. Even though the windows were not designed with sightseeing in mind, the view was spectacular:

It was amazing to see so many different forms of snow and ice, complementing the black, stony mountains:

It was also interesting to see places where the snow/ice had clearly melted and refroze (the blue areas in the panoramic photo above). We also flew over Pegasis airfield.

Unfortunately, after we cleared Minna Bluff, we saw that Moore's Bay was covered in low clouds. We couldn't land, so had to turn around and head back to McMurdo.

Unfortunately, these photos don't do justice to the views (although you can click on them to blow them up).

The plan is to try again tomorrow, weather permitting. I'm not so optimistic; a low pressure front has been anchored around here for a while, creating the slightly unusual weather.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


We will not have internet access for the first few days in camp; if we go tomorrow (i.e. the weather cooperates), it will be a few days before my next post. It is also possible that we will never get internet, in which case it will be longer.

Why are we doing this?

Since I have a few quiet moments now, I thought it would be a good idea to explain what we are trying to do with ARIANNA.

In the 19th century, scientists observed that the earths surface was permeated with a mysterious radiation which did things like discharge electrometers and cause certain materials (scintillators) to occasionally give off flashes of light. Noone knew where this radiation came from, but the prevailing assumption was that it came from the Earth. To test this, in 1911-1913, physicist Victor Hess made a series of balloon flights, eventually reaching 5300 m (about 17,000 feet). To his surprise, he found that the radiation increased as he ascended: the mysterious radiation came from space.

By the 1930's, scientist had learned that the radiation could cause Geiger Counters (simple electronic radiation detectors) to occasionally fire simultaneously, even if they are separated by distances of many miles; these simultaneous hits are called cosmic-ray air showers. We now know that these showers occur when an ultra-high energy cosmic-ray particle (a proton (hydrogen ion) or heavier nucleus, like iron) hits the top of the atmosphere and interacts with an oxygen or nitrogen atom. It converts it's kinetic energy into a large number of particles (remember E=mc^2); showers containing trillions of particles have been observed; This corresponds to an initial energy of about 3*10^20 electron Volts, roughly the energy of a well-hit tennis ball, or a boxers punch. The Auger collaboration has produced a nice animation of a shower being created, here. To put things in perspective, the highest energy cosmic rays have about 40 million times the energy of the protons accelerated at the LHC (and more if the cosmic rays are heavy ions), and it would require an accelerator 40 million times as large as the LHC to accelerate them. With current technology, one would need to build an accelerator around the sun to produce these particles. We would very much like to know where these cosmic accelerators are, and how they work.

However, despite decades of study, we do not know where these particles come from. They are electrically charged, so are bent in interstellar magnetic fields; even when we record their arrival direction, they do not point back to their sources. We don't even know if they are protons or heavier ions. Furthermore, the most energetic cosmic rays lose energy in transit, so the ones that we observe must come from the 'local' universe, within about 75 million parsecs (225 million light years) of Earth. This sounds like a long distance, but, on cosmic scales, it isn't very far.

Because of the bending and limited range, to learn more, we need another probe. Neutrinos are attractive, for several reasons. First, being electrically neutral, they are not deflected in-flight. Second, they interact weakly, so can easily escape from dense sources that would contain other cosmic rays.

The flip side of the weak interactions is a huge detector is needed to observe cosmic neutrinos. IceCube, shown below, now being built at the South Pole will be 1 cubic kilometer (about 0.6 miles on a side) in volume. This should be (but no guarantees) big enough for moderate energy neutrinos (from 10^8 to 10^17 electron volts). At higher energies, we do not expect many neutrinos, and need a larger detector. Probably, a volume of 100 cubic kilometers is required; this requires a new technology. Our goal for this winter/summer is to demonstrate this technology: radio detection of neutrinos.

In 1962, the Soviet-Armenian physicist Gurgan Askaryan pointed out that the particle showers produced by neutrino interactions will contain more electrons (which are negatively charged) than positrons (positively charged). These particles are all moving in a almost the same direction, producing an electrical current; in a dense medium, this current will emit radio waves in a cone. The strength of the radio waves scales as the square of the neutrino energy (the process is coherent, for physics experts), so we expect good signals for neutrinos with energies above about 10^17 electron volts.

A number of groups have worked on detecting neutrinos via the Askaryan effect. Collaborations have looked for neutrino interactions in the moon (using radio telescopes), the Greenland ice cap (looking down from a satellite), at the South Pole, and in underground "Salt Domes." Groups are also looking for acoustic radiation produced by neutrino interactions; the shower deposits energy in the target medium, producing a sound wave. These diverse methods have their plusses and minuses. The big advantage of ARIANNA (shared with the South Pole effort) is that it can detect neutrinos that are less energetic than the other approaches. Also, the ice-water interface below the 650 meter thick Ross Ice Shelf reflects radio waves. Because of this ARIANNA will be able to detect downward going neutrinos.

If our prototype works well, this will give us the basis to propose a larger detector, composed of many stations, which would be big enough to detect a good sample (maybe 100 events) of cosmic neutrinos, thereby solving at least some of the mysteries of ultra-high energy cosmic rays.

Yet still more packing

Wednesday morning,we picked up our communications gear - 1 55 pound HF (High-Frequency) radio, two ~ 1 lb VHF radios, and one iridium satellite phone.

After that, most of the day was focused on repacking our scientific equipment. Of course, we figured out the one (so far) thing that was left in California, and spent some time figuring out how to work around it. Most of our stuff goes in a 1 meter^3 box, weighing 500 pounds. The station box weighed 110 pounds, and the other boxes were lighter. The main confusion was over the sealed lead-acid gel batteries (essentially car batteries, but adapted for colder temperatures). After some confusion, we learned that they are not considered hazardous.

We again ate dinner with the IceCube folk - both the northbound and southbound planes were canceled due to weather. The weather was actually bad - just a bit windy - but there was some concern that, when the wind stopped, it would get foggy. That actually happened (see photo below), but it wasn't that bad.

The one significant remaining open issue is internet access. The plan on Thursday is to send a helicopter recce on Friday to Mount Discovery, to look for a place to put a solar powered repeater station. We will bring the ~ 250 lbs of gear required for our side of the link with us.

The tent floor issue is resolved. The regular "Artic Oven" tent floor weighs 300 lbs, and is awkward for the helicopter to carry. We will bring plywood sheets instead, which should cover most of the floor.

On Friday morning, we took everything over to helicopter operations, and categorized it by priority: 1 = cooking and camping gear, and 2 = scientific gear. The heavy gear will be carried underneath the helicopter in a sling. This will be a second flight, both because of weight restrictions (not counting the passengers + worn ECW gear, we have 2900 lbs of stuff), and because safety regulations don't allow passengers on a flight carrying a sling. The current plan is to have Brian come in with us, and then have the 2nd flight about 4 hours later; he will leave on that flight, after the sling is removed. That should give him enough time to check the ground for crevasses.

On Friday afternoon, the scheduled helicopter recce flight was cancelled because of the fog. With our gear packed, we spent the afternoon taking it easy, relaxing, etc. We're not alone - the Pole flight got out, but Mike Z. is still stuck here, bemoaning the Hawaiian vacation that he is missing.

We leave tomorrow, so this will be my last 'travelog' post for a while. The current plan is to try to get the internet link running early next week (Monday or Tuesday); once that is in I will be able to resume posting.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Packing, Packing and more Packing

Preparations for the trip are moving into high gear. On Saturday, after field school, we met with Jessy Jenkins, our Point of Contact (POC) for the trip. Jessy works in Berg Field Camp (BFC), which provides food and equipment for field camps. She arranged for a BFC person to accompany us, in addition to the mountaineer who will be with us the first 1-2 days. We also learned that the mountaineer will be Brian Hasebe, who taught our "Happy Camper" class.

On Monday, we met Martha Story, who will accompany us. Both Martha and Jessy were extremely helpful, and I finally feel that I have a good picture of most of what needs to happen. We also met with the helo ops supervisor, Julie Grundberg, about flight planning. We have to request our flight(s) three days in advance; to do so, we need an accurate estimate of what everything weighs; this, in turn, requires that we know what we are bringing, bringing renewed emphasis to packing. We will need two flights to get in and out: one for us and some personal gear (sleep kits, etc.), and another for hazardous cargo (mostly fuel) and scientific gear; the big pieces will go in a sling under the helicopter.

On-site internet access remains an open question. The current site does not have the required line-of-site to any of the existing internet repeaters. The options are to move the camp, or to install an additional repeater. It is not clear how large a camp move would be required, and the IT folks here are suggesting putting in a repeater on the side of Mt. Discovery. There will be a helicopter recce to look at this possibility, probably on Thursday.

Martha will cook dinners in camp, and, with her help, we quickly mapped out menus, and ingredients from the 15 page list of BFC stock. She will also bake bread out there (her idea). There was a rather wide variety, with a reasonable selection of frozen meats, vegetables, breads, etc. plus a fair selection of canned goods, and pre-prepared dishes. There is also a wide selection of dried soups, freeze-dried meals and snack foods, for quick eating. Menus planned, we then went to "Food Pull," and picked up everything on our list. This photo shows us with our selections (except the frozen foods, which were picked up outside). We ended up with

This killed most of the afternoon. Thorsten found some time to work on the box, and I spent some time fighting ROOT (a physics analysis software package) and Windows XP - they do not play nicely together, in order to be able to analyze the data on my laptop.

Tuesday brought more briefings, and more packing. First up was training to use our generators and chainsaw. The generators seem pretty straightforward; the chainsaw less so. The hardware isn't complicated, but it seems like something where one would want some actual experience. Fortunately, Thorsten used a chainsaw during his time as an IceCube driller.

Next was a briefing on communications protocols. We need to report in at a specified time every day. Otherwise, they will send out the search and rescue team. We will have VHF and HF radios (just like in "Happy Camper"). The VHF radios are line-of-sight, so are only useful for talking among ourselves, or maybe with a passing aircraft. We will also have an Irridium satellite phone. We will get these at another briefing, on Wednesday.

The rest of the day was devoted to packing our gear, which took far longer than I expected. This photos shows most of our camping gear; our sleeping kits (sleeping bag, foam pads, etc.) are elsewhere, and the largest tent is also elsewhere. Fuel (propane for cooking and heating, "Mogas" for the generator, and "premix" (a gas/oil mixture) for the chainsaw were already filed as hazardous cargo.

The camping gear weighs about 831 lbs. 300 lbs of that is a floor for our "Artic Oven" tent, not shown here. Without the floor, the heat of everyday activities (cooking, using the oscilloscope and network analyzer, etc.) will gradually melt a hole in the snow, and we will have to move the tent.

We had dinner tonight with a number of IceCube folk. Mike Zernick is on his way home from the Pole, and Jim Yeck and Andrew Laundrie are on their way there. The IceCube construction season is off to a great start; they have already finished their first hole.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Science and Seals

It may be hard to believe, but there is science beyond neutrino astronomy. Sunday is the day off for most people here, and this Sunday was a good opportunity to explore some of the other things that are going on here.

One opportunity is the weekly tour of Crary Lab, where we heard about a diverse range of topics. We started out at their collection of biological and geological specimens. One feature was a fossilized tree stump from the Permian era (220 to 270 million years ago). It is a clear reminder that Antarctica wasn't always so cold.

We also heard from several scientists. One gentleman told us about his work measuring environmental contamination in and around McMurdo; the main issue is from fuel spills. We also heard a bit about monitoring of the Mt. Erebus volcano - it spits out lava bombs quite frequently. I briefly explained what we are doing on ARIANNA. But, the highlight of the tour was a visit to the 'aquarium' where biologists study local flora and fauna. It was pretty quiet when we were there, but there were some interesting specimens (all invertebrates):

The black shell is a scallop, and the white flowery creature is an anemone. I think that the 7-legged thing is a starfish of some sort (there were several similar ones with 7 legs, so it's not an anomaly).

After this, I went to the SCINI (Submersible Capable of Under Ice Navigation and Imaging) open house. They have developed a torpedo-shaped robot that can swim around under water, controlled from the surface. They were set up in a small hut sitting on the ice; they drill a hole through the ice and lower the torpedo down it.

We got a chance to actually 'drive' the torpedo around. It was pretty cool, and surprisingly easy - four buttons for direction, plus another toggle for up/down. The ocean floor was surprisingly prolific - lots of sponges of various types. We also saw one or two fish swim past. The tether is about 1 km long, and provides power and control. To go further, they load everything up on a piston bully:

and drive to another spot.

But, the highlight of the day was outside the SCINI hut: four black Weddell Seals. Three were adults, 8-10 feet long, and weighing up to 1,000 pounds; the top photo is an example. The last was much smaller and lighter colored, a pup maybe 3-4 feet long. They apparently came up through a hole in the ice, and were enjoying the sun.

After this, the Sunday science lecture, where Drs. Peter Doran and Bill Stone discussed the Endurance project. The group has built an autonomous (untethered) underwater robot. They are exploring Lake Bonney, an ice covered lake in a nearby dry valley. Te long-term view is toward developing a vehicle that could explore the seas of Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter).