Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A day in the life at the South Pole (feat. Buzz Aldrin)

The summer is a very busy time at the South Pole.  There are many things going on and many things that have to get done while you have the extra support during the summer.  I know I have mentioned this in another blog post, but I will clarify for those who aren't quite caught up.  The summer season here lasts around three and a half months.  During this time, we get planes and cargo and additional personnel to work on the station.  This is our busiest time. Right now there are a little over 130 people living and working here at the South Pole.  When the winter starts, which actually lasts about eight and half months, there are no flights in our out and only around 45 to 50 people are on station.  We are effectively stuck here until the end of winter!

So the point is that we have to take advantage of the summer while we can.  For me in particular, this means that I am involved in some extra training to prepare for the winter, and we are upgrading and fixing a ton of equipment.  The problem is that when things go wrong, then you have a limited amount of time to get things fixed before planes stop coming in and all the summer people leave.  Unfortunately, we are actually dealing with some of that right now.  We had a shipment come in from the north for our experiment, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, but the crate it was shipped in was damaged.  The side was cracked and water had leaked in soaking a ton of boxes with replacement UPS batteries.  Right now we are trying to assess the damage, but that is a difficult process.  Some of the batteries look fine, but a few were completely ruined.  Do we now risk using the batteries that look ok?  What if it turns out there is more damage than we can really test for?  If the batteries decide to die in the middle of the winter, we won't have any replacements!  It is a difficult situation, and one of the things we have to deal with living and working in such a remote and difficult environment.

Things are not all bad here, though.  Today for instance was an amazing day.  We had a visit from none other than Buzz Aldrin.  I didn't get a chance to talk to him personally, but I did hang out with him and a few other people for a while after he got on station.  He seems like a very interesting man, and I was very happy to be able to interact with him at all!  I feel like living and working at the South Pole for the next year is a big life experience.  More people have summited Mt. Everest than spent the winter at the South Pole, but even fewer have walked on the Moon!  Suffice it to say that today was an amazing day, but that is life down here.  You really never know what is going to happen or who will show up.  It could be a day when equipment is sparking in your face (also happened today) or you could have Buzz Aldrin fly in for a visit... and I am loving all of it!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Getting Settled In at the South Pole!

I have spent the past couple of weeks getting settled in here.  Mostly things have been fairly good.  The one problem I have had to deal with was a small cold.  Finally, even that seems to be pretty much gone.  Since I have only been here for a couple of weeks, there is still a ton of training and acclimation going on.  Mostly, I am getting pretty comfortable with the altitude.  The dry air isn't too bad, thanks to lotion.  The people here are great.  I feel very fortunate to be able to be here doing what I am doing.

As for training, I am getting a bit of a refresher on the work I will be doing for the next year. I haven't talked to much about the experiment I am working on, but that is mostly because it will take several posts to do it justice.  For now, I will give a brief overview and describe some of my role in it right now. I am basically making sure the IceCube Neutrino Observatory continues to run and collect data and performing any routine calibration tasks.  The experiment is designed to detect tiny particles called neutrinos that every so often interact with the molecules in the ice around the South Pole. Many people don't realize that the area here is covered with roughly 3km of ice.  We have over 5000 very sensitive light detectors running from 1.5km to 2.5km deep that have been placed on 86 cables lowered into small holes that were melted into the ice.  Of course the holes are all frozen back over now, so we have these detectors connected to wires that run into the IceCube Lab (or ICL).  In the ICL are several servers that process all the information from these light detectors.  It is my responsibility, along with my colleague Martin, to keep all of the servers running and fix any problems that arise. This could be anything from the network infrastructure including switches, cables, and firewalls to the custom hardware that collects the data from the light detectors in the ice.  It is a big responsibility!  Thankfully, most of the training we have been doing has been fairly thorough.  We also have some support up North if things get really wonky, but most of the problems we should be able to deal with on our own without too much help from others.

The training the past few days has mostly been on the networking side of things.  This includes the layout of the servers, how the switches are configured, and the firewalls. Next week, we will be going through some of the custom scientific hardware that actually collects the data on the surface (as opposed to the hardware frozen in the ice).  Suffice it to say that there is a lot to learn on a project as big and complex as IceCube.

As promised, I would also like to show some pictures!  I am putting a few here, but check out the link on the sidebar to see the full album.

 I put together a couple videos for my undergraduate university UAH.  So I took a pic at the ceremonial South Pole in my UAH sweat shirt.

Snow mobile training!

A pic from inside our library.  There are tons of books on station.  There are more books on the other side of that wall and then a large wall of books in one of the lounges.

Our workout room.

 The basketball court

 This is where we do most of our work.

 This is one of our lounges.

There are lots of movies here.  This is only one small section for the VHS tapes.  There are also tons of DVDs

 The galley.  This is where we eat.

Just out for a casual stroll at the bottom of the Earth.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

My Birthday at the South Pole!

I am excited to say that I am now celebrating the first of my two birthdays I will be having at the South Pole.  This marks the beginning of my year here.  One interesting thing about this is that due to the timezone here, my birthday is almost an entire day earlier than it would be if I was back in the US. So I may be cheating a little and celebrating earlier. At the South Pole, we mostly use New Zealand time.  This has to do with the fact that most of the flights into McMurdo are from New Zealand, so I think it makes things a little easier to coordinate if everyone is using the same timezone.  That being said it is about 18 hours ahead of Central time.  I suppose that by the time I get this posted, my birthday will just be starting in the States!

So far, today has been fairly uneventful. I had a wonderful brunch with an nice big omelet and salmon and some great pastries. I have been told that the chefs who come here can vary in skill, but everyone seems to agree that we have one of the best for the next year! It turns out that he is from North Carolina, if I remember correctly, so I am looking forward to some good southern cooking this year!  After that, I spent some time  monitoring our detector (the IceCube Neutrino Observatory) with the other IceCube winterovers (my colleague for the next year and the two who will be departing in a week).  We also had a small gathering to watch some aurora videos that were made by a winterover here last winter.  He has actually spent more time here at the South Pole than almost anyone else. I am sure there will be more to say about him in the future as I have heard that he is going to be leaving for the summer, but returning to spend yet another winter here. After that I did some more checks on the detector and a small little task for another growing experiment that I watch called ARA.

Normally, today would be a little more relaxing, but due to some issues with our power plant here, there has been maintenance going on the past couple of days. The station here at the South Pole is very isolated.  This means that we have to generate all the power we use here. We have two large generators that power the station, and over the past few months there have been some problems with the system that switches between them.  I don't know all of the details, but I know that now they are trying to fix it so we don't have to worry about it during the next winter.  Since our experiment draws its power from the power plant on station, this can cause us some small issues during this maintenance time.  Our experiment is very sensitive to power changes, so we have to be ready to fix any problems that show up. Unfortunately, there were a few problems during the work they were doing yesterday and we had to spend some time fixing problems in the detector. Hopefully, they will get the kinks all worked out soon so we won't have to deal with power issues for a while.

If some of my terminology seems a little complicated or I seem to be glossing over details, I apologize. I am happy to answer questions in the comments.  Your questions may even eventually turn into a post in and of themselves! I am still trying to get settled and balance work life and science with station life.  I hope to be able to spend more time in the future focusing on the details of the experiments here, but for now, the Antarctic summer is about to be very exciting for us with all the people coming into the station to work on the experiments. During the Antarctic winter season, which actually lasts around 8 months, there will be about 45 of us on station.  During the summer, there can be over 150 people living and working here! We are all still getting adapted to the altitude, the cold, and each other. Many of us are still learning the details of the work we are going to spend the next year doing. So I am trying to express a balance of work and station life in general. That being said, I can't think of a better place to be celebrating my birthday!

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

South Pole At Last!

I finally made it to the South Pole! McMurdo can be a fun place, but I was very
ready to get down to pole. The travel through McMurdo can be kind of tricky.
There are many things that can delay you once you get there.  Weather is one of
the biggest factors you have to deal with, and it is not just the weather at
McMurdo or Pole, but at many other places in Antarctica as well. McMurdo
supports many field camps in Antarctica, and many of those camps have worse
weather than the South Pole.  So there are times that a South Pole flight will
be delayed if they find out the weather in one of the camps is good enough to
get people in or out.  Right now, it is so early in the season we didn't have
much of a problem with that.  In fact, I was actually on the first LC-130 to
get to Pole this season! There were a couple of Baslers (a DC-3 with skis) that
went in before us, but I think our flight marks the opening of the station for
summer. That being said, our delays were due to weather at Pole and maintenance issues.  Thankfully, it was all cleared up today and we finally made it in!

As I have stated before, this is my second trip, and while I was really looking
forward to getting here, it felt like I was losing some of the excitement I had
when I first decided to try to come back.  Mostly, I think I just got stuck in
a routine at McMurdo, so I was starting to feel like it wasn't really going to
be that big a deal any more, almost like it the "new" was starting to wear off.
The reality, however, has been very different. When we arrived it was almost
like coming home. I had a little time this afternoon to run around and
re-explore the station all over again, and it reignited some of that sense of
adventure and excitement that I felt when I first started the process to spend
the year here. Really, I almost felt as excited as I did the first time I came
down here.

Right now, I still feel like this isn't "our" station yet.  That is, the
station is still being run by many of last year's winterovers. But I feel that
as they are starting to head back north and those of us who are taking over for
the next year step into our positions, the station will become OUR home until
the next crew comes in a year from now. This is an exciting time of transition,
and I am so happy to be a part of it.  I am really looking forward to what the
year ahead holds!

As time goes on, I hope to be able to give more detail about the station and
the people and science here. If anyone has any questions about life down here,
please feel free to leave a comment, and I will try to either respond directly
to the comment, or I may even try to write blog post in response.