Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Around the Station

    Our first of three Keck telescopes is currently cooling down. Everything in it seems to be working well, although the real tests will come once we get cold. The optics should reach 4K right around Christmas. The focal plane itself will hopefully reach 0.25K a few days later. Here is a picture of it.

   I've taken some other pictures of interesting things around the station. The first is a picture of the traverse tractors. This are the vehicles they drive in from the coast, bringing fuel. I think most of the fuel and supplies still comes by LC-130, and these are more experimental than anything. 
   I snapped a shot of an LC-130 at the loading area. These planes fly in as often as 5 times a day when the weather is good, but never turn off there engines while they are here. They just load up and take off again. I've heard they are concerned about the engines freezing, but I'm not sure how true that is.
   The third picture is of sastrugi, which are grooves in the ice formed by the wind. It always is cold enough here that the snow on the surface stays as a fine powder, and gets blown around, making these formations. (The tracks in the foreground are made by snowmobiles, not wind)
   Finally, I found a map of Antarctica that shows a lot of the features I've been mentioning. You can find McMurdo, the Transantarctic Mtns, and the South Pole.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

South Pole!

   The flight from McMurdo to the South Pole was on a smaller plane, a LC-130. We left from the same runway that we had come in on the previous day, out on the sea ice right in front of McMurdo.
When I got in the plane I found myself conveniently seated near one of the small round windows. This meant I wouldn't have to get up to look out the window, although I did have to lean over a big tough looking guy’s shoulder to see. I hope he didn't mind too much.
   The plane headed inland, up the large ice sheet that I had seen from the top of Ob hill the day before. For a while the scenery out the window was featureless; just white snow as far as the eye could see.
Eventually, we turned west and crossed the Transantarctic Mountains (TAM). That’s when things got interesting! The plane was flying lower than the C-17 had, so the glaciers and mountains looked bigger than the day before. As the ice from the polar cap pushes out towards the sea it creates immense glaciers, which pour over the mountains. There were numerous ice falls and seracs, making the movement of the ice apparent.
   After the mountains we began crossing the polar cap. Its elevation is about 9000 feet but almost all of that is ice. The weight of the ice pushes down the earth below. Flying over the cap was less interesting than the mountains, but in only three hours we were at the Pole. The landing was so smooth you could have missed it if you weren't paying attention. I'm impressed that the landing was smoother than most commercial flights, even though we were on skis at the South Pole.
   We were greeted outside by all of our collaborators that were already at the pole. It was really blowing though, so we quickly went inside. The main station is elevated to keep the snow from piling up in the winter. Even so, it seems like most of the summer is spent plowing snow away from the windward side.
   The station itself is really nice: warm, three meals a day, and it almost has a futuristic feel. There is a store, a post office, a game room, a green house, a galley, a sick bay, a tv room, a full sized basketball court, an arts and crafts room, a reading room, and a sauna
   The building where Keck is going to be located is across the runway, in what is called the 'Dark Sector' since radio communications are limited there to prevent interference. The Dark Sector contains three main structures: a building called DSL (which contains BICEP2 and the South Pole Telescope), the Ice Cube drilling camp (an experiment looking for neutrinos), and a building called MAPO (which wil soon contain KECK).  After we dropped off our stuff we went over to get a look at MAPO and DSL. It is amazing how well stocked these labs are, even though we are at the South Pole!

   I've been down here for over a week, and life has been good. Walking back and forth from MAPO takes about 10 minutes and is actually pretty enjoyable. Besides when I go for a run, it is pretty much the only outside time I get. As I walk back and forth I am sometimes struck by the fact that I am walking on 2500 meters of ice. The horizon is perfectly flat, so it gives one the impression that he or she is on the ocean, only the ocean is frozen and the buildings are ships that have gotten stuck in the ice. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Flight to McMurdo

  Our flight to McMurdo left early in the morning. In order to check all of our bags and get on our ECW gear (Extreme Cold weather gear…ie the big red jacket) we had to leave our hotels at 5:45am. Once we made it to the CDC (clothing distribution center) we managed to grab some breakfast at the antarctic center. Here at the center you can pay $65 dollars to get a 'antarctic' experience, complete with a room at -15 degrees. I'm sure it is very educational, but I felt pretty lucky that I actually got to go there! And didn't have to pay $65. Lucky indeed.
    The CDC is also the terminal for flights going to McMurdo. We sorted our gear into four categories: that which was to be stored in McMurdo, our checked luggage, a carry on and a 'boomerang' bag. The 'boomerang' bag is that which you get back if the plane can't land in McMurdo and instead has to boomerang back to Christchurch. The rest of your checked luggage gets packed away on a pallet and not returned to you until you get to McMurdo, no matter how long that takes. The record number of boomerangs is 7. Its a 10hour round trip flight. Chao-Lin said he has waited 2 weeks in Christchurch waiting to get to McMurdo, although he didn't even have to get into the plane because they knew the weather was bad ahead of time. 

    Fortunately for us, the weather was supposed to be good. We were to fly on a C-17, an Air Force jet with the largest tail stabilizer I had ever seen. Inside we found two enormous liquid He dewars (10,000 gallons) destined for use in BICEP2. These took up most of the space in the center of the plane. The passengers sat on the outs edges of the plane, craning our necks to look through tiny round portholes.
   Which was OK, because most of the flight was over open ocean. It was not until 3-4 hours later that when I looked out the window I saw ICE. And lots of it. There were sharp black peaks that stuck there tips out above the flat featureless white. It was quite a sight.
    Eventually we crossed over the piece of the continent that separates New Zealand from the Ross Bay and I saw an ocean cluttered with icebergs. They cam in a meriad of sizes,  of but I couldn't really get any grasp on the absolute size of any of them. I knew we were high up though, so the must have been large. 
    The pilot announced that the temperature at McMurdo was 40 degrees F! Much warmer than I was expecting. Unfortunately, he also announced that the plane was overweight and the warm temperatures were causing the ice on the runway to melt, making landing an overweight plane dangerous. So, we were going to circle around for an hour and half to burn off some fuel and lose some weight. I remember wondering if this meant that we wouldn't have a enough fuel to return to Christchurch if we could land, but I am sure they had plenty. 
    Fortunately in this extra time, I got to go up into the cockpit and look out the front windows. This was much better than the same portholes down below. IN the cockpit I also saw Mount Erebus for the first time. A magnificent volcano. For some reason I hand't envisioned the area around MCmUrdo to have so many mountains and volcanoes. Nearest to the station and at 12000 feet, Mt Erebus was the most impressive, but there were other volcanoes around as well. Across the bay is the Royal Society Range, which is a section of the Transantarcitc range. 
    The landing was super smooth, before I knew it we were on the ground and out on the ice. The ice itself was actually sea ice, we have landed on a frozen Ross bay . Apparently it was one of the last days the runway we had landed on would be open, before it melted too much. In the next few days the runway would be moved from right in front of McMurdo to 'Pegusus', which is ~30km from the station back on solid ice sheet that never melts.

  McMurdo itself wasn't as bad as the rumors make it out to be. Yes, it looked a little like a freeway offramp, but what do you expect with no trees, howling winds and large trucks driving around all the time. We got an orientation and dropped off our carry on luggage in our rooms, then went to dinner. We didn't even bother picking up our checked bags or boomerang bags because we were leave on a flight to the south pole at 8am the next morning and luggage was to be checked at 7pm the night before. 
   After dinner, Sarah, Chao-Lin and I walked up to 'Ob' hill, which looks like a bit of a hike from the station, but really isn't that bad. I was still feeling pretty disoriented, not being able to tell which way was north. I knew the sun wouldn't provide any hints, instead just circling around over head. 
  From the top of Ob hill we could see a glimmer off in the distance of blue water, so we figured that must be roughly north. In the other direction was a vast ice sheet which lead to the interior of the continent. Across the bay were the Royal Soceties, truly a magnificent mountain range. And of course, Mt Erebus was nearest to us, rising up with smooth snow slopes to a puff of smoke at the top, as it is an active volcano.
   I would find out the next day that part of the reason I had been so confused about what part of the bay we were on and which direction was north was because we were on an island. And Mt Erebus was another island to the north of us! A 12000' volcano on an island. But otherwise our intuition on Ob hill was roughly correct.

   After our walk up Ob hill, we went over to Scott's hut. It was amazingly well preserved. Outside was a dead seal, perfectly preserved from when the had killed it almost 100years before. Inside the windows you could see boxes of biscuits and other canned food which had made polar exploration possible. 
   I went to bed at about 11:30pm, with the sun still as high as ever.


Monday, December 6, 2010

The Beginning / The Commercial flights

This blog is designed to have interesting tidbits about my trip . I imagine if I were reading it (as someone else) I would read some random sections that caught my eye, but not all of everything. As with most blogs, it's probably more of a record for me. Do what you will with it. Disclaimer over.

My flight from SFO left at 7:00pm on Sunday night. I knew this would be plenty of time to get stuff together on Sunday, but I didn't realize how many odds and ends I had to take care of.
    I had arrived back in Palo Alto Saturday afternoon after visting Andrea in Seattle, which was wonderful, as always. This was just in time to see my brother and my mom who happened to be in Palo Alto. They gave me a kindle for christmas!
    Any way, Saturday night Tomas, Matt and Alex threw Sarah and I a going away party, which I believe to have been a resounding success. Not getting a whole lot of sleep the night before a long flight worried me, but in the end worked out fine. On Sunday I packed, turned off the watering at my garden plot, bought food, and picked up a bunch of stuff from the lab that I am hand carrying down. This means I had to check two bags instead of one.

   Alex drove Sarah and I to the airport. It was a dark and stormy night, which seemed fitting. Of course the plane was over an hour late..
    In at LAX we ran into Chin-Lin and a bunch of other grad students headed to Antarctica. We boarded the flight around midnight, had dinner, and I fell asleep....until 9 the next morning! Way better than I usually sleep in. This only left 4 hours of the flight left, which was very manageable.
    Going through Customs in Aukland, I was intimidated by the hundreds of large colorful signs warning about importing food, so I threw out most of the food I had brought. We also ran into Chao-Lin, who coincidently had arrived at nearly the same time from Hong Kong.

    We nearly missed our flight to Christchurch, as the Domestic terminal is a considerable walk from the international. Fortunately, airport security is much faster / less intense than the US.
   Christchurch is colder than Aukland, but so far very nice. I'm headed out to buy some food, hopefully I'll have pictures later.