Friday, January 27, 2017

Breaking IceCube and Fixing ARA!

The past couple of weeks have been far busier than expected.  We had a new group of IceCube and ARA people come in to do work on the detector, and it turns out there was a ton to get done.  I recently started working on a more science post about IceCube and ARA, but I haven't had the time to get it cleaned up.  I hope I can get it posted in the next few days so that people have a better idea of the work and science being done down here.  Until then, I will try my best to explain some of what we were working on.

ARA is another neutrino detector that is in the process of being constructed down here.  It has many connections with IceCube, which means that it is also an experiment that I am also responsible for.  The big difference is that it looks for much higher energy particles than IceCube, so it is much more spread out.  One of the things I did last week was to pull around 3-5km of fiber optical cable from a couple of the existing ARA stations to the new station sites to be built next season.  At first, it was kind of fun getting out and working.   The weather was reasonably nice and warm, around -15F to -20F.  The sun was shining, and it was an opportunity to hang out with some fun and interesting people.  I will admit, though, by the time we were done, I was worn out!  We had to unroll this huge cable of wire as it is being pulled behind a forklift.  It doesn't sound quite so bad, but the spool was heavy and we had to spin out so the fiber didn't get damaged.  The other big problem is that we are at an altitude of almost 10,000ft walking through snow.  Thankfully, the snow wasn't too loose and was a least a little packed down.  But lets be honest, no matter how used to the cold I seem to have gotten over the past few months here, after spending a few hours at -20F.... I was feeling cold!  Actually, it was only my fingers, toes, and face.  That being said, I did get an epic ice beard going.  That might have made it all worth it!

In addition to that, we actually got a request to BREAK the IceCube detector!?!  Well, not really.  In reality we performed a stress test of the new software that was recently installed on site.  And how did we do this fun little experiment?  Back when the detector was being constructed, several of the sensors were built with LEDs, called flashers, that we use for calibration work.  Normally, we can turn on these flashers and use them to get a better idea of how the detector is functioning or even changing over time.  In fact we performed over 28 hours of flasher work this season to be used for calibration.  This time, however, we used them to crash everything!  We started by turning on one set of flashers at a time.  After a minute or so, another set of flashers was turned on... then another... and another.  Until finally, there were so many flashers running that the detector couldn't keep up with all the data and everything stopped working!  The sensors in our detector are so sensitive to light, that just flashing a few hundred LEDs can cause the system to crash.  Thankfully, this doesn't do permanent damage to the detector.  In fact, the entire plan was to get so many flashers running that the detector was forced to crash to get a better idea of the performance of the detector under some extreme conditions.  Overall, it actually turned out to be a bit of fun.  Many IceCubers up north got onto the chat and monitoring systems to watch how everything went down.  We had a small group in the lab here at the pole, and the only thing missing was the popcorn!

Overall, things are going well here.  Obviously, I am a little behind on posts.  I have a few nice blog posts planned for the near future, if I can ever get them all typed up.   I am going to give some background on the science here, and I even want to talk about some of the "difficulties" of living at the South Pole.  On a little bit of a side note, I have also been playing on the ham radio down here.   I am going try to get some information about that in a post here soon as well.  It is really fun being able to communicate to the North using nothing be radio waves from the South Pole all way up to the United States!  If there is anything else that people are interested in, I am hoping I can try to cover it soon.  After the station closes in a few weeks,  things should actually really finally slow down here!

 At some point over the past couple of weeks, I actually made it out to another experiment, the South Pole Telescope, for a tour.

We took turns unrolling the fiber as we walked a few km behind a forklift.  It was actually way more work than it looks!

In the process of pulling cable, I actually developed this epic ice beard!  Yay science!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A time of transition at the South Pole

The past week and half or so has been a bit of a time of transition.  Some of that is more internal, while much of it has been external. Internally, I feel myself getting more excited about the coming winter.  In particular, there have been a few times when I have been traveling between the station and the IceCube Lab where I work, and I will look around and see the vast snowy landscape and get so excited about the sunset.  Keep in mind that it is currently summer here, and the sun doesn't set in the summer.  But at the beginning of winter, there will be a long sunset.  It will actually last one to two weeks.  I can't even fathom how amazing that will be...  over a week long sunset in one of the most remote locations in the world.  Previous winterovers have talked to me about how they start to get ready for everyone to leave so they can get on with the winter.  Just as a reminder, there will be 40 to 50 of us here, alone, throughout the winter. I am not quite to the point where I want to kick all the summer people off the station and get on with the winter, but I can definitely see some of the appeal of it at this point.

Externally, there have been many changes as well.  While I have gotten somewhat used to the temperatures down here, it is starting to get a little chillier.  Today, it is -15F (-26C) with a windchill of -44F (-42C).  It is also a very windy day.  I have noticed that at -15F or so, I can get around outside with only a sweat shirt if there is no wind.  If the wind kicks in, I definitely need a few extra layers.  Additionally, we have had some personnel changes. My supervisor, Ralf, left a few days go.  Martin my colleague who will be wintering with me, has been gone for the past week on R&R.  This leaves me alone watching the detector.  Things haven't been bad so far.  There are a bunch of small things that have to be done, though.  I have had to do some routine work on our data archival system.  There was some work on the ARA experiment that I helped out on. Next week, I have to do some calibration and test runs, but hopefully Martin will be back for most of that. Additionally, we have had a bunch of new people on station to help out with IceCube and ARA.  I have been helping them get acclimated and get their projects started.

The last big thing we had this week was an open house out at the ICL (IceCube Lab).  We invited the members of the station to come out and hear about the science we do and to tour our facilities.  I really had a great time doing it.  I love science outreach, and I really enjoy talking about all the amazing science that IceCube is doing down here at the South Pole.  We are exploring the universe in a new way.  Just like Galileo first looked up to the heavens with the first telescope a few centuries ago, we are looking into the universe in a way that has never been done before.  We are trying to understand the most energetic astrophysical events ever seen by searching for the tiniest of particles we have ever detected.  Just like Galileo had no idea where his discoveries would lead, we are likewise just at the beginning of new form of exploration with no idea where our work will take us.  It is an exhilarating time and I am so thrilled to be one small part of it here down at the South Pole.

Monday, January 02, 2017

A New Year At The South Pole!

Happy New Year!  The past week has been very busy and interesting.  Unlike Christmas, we actually had to work over the New Years weekend.  On most holidays, we are generally not very busy, but over the New Year, we have to update hardware in the detector to take account of the leap second.  That's right.  I am sure many of you have heard of the leap seconds added at the end of some years and wondered why we actually have it and who really cares.  Well, as it turns out, we care! This shouldn't be a problem, but the GPS clocks we use have a bug in the firmware that causes extra leap seconds to be added at the wrong time.  Our responsibility is then to reset the clocks so they are running with the correct time.  The up side to all of this is that it all happens at midnight UTC, which is about 1pm NZDT which is the time we use here on the station.  That being said, we started the correction work a day early.  In the process of discussing the plans, it was suggested that we fix some of our backup power on one of our clocks, which required re-cabling things and moving a UPS around.  No problem, just flip off the system, and move the UPS and re-cable. Easy.  Except... someone had already tried to re-cable things, but the wrong way.  When we pulled the plug, it was to the wrong system.  Long story short, we ended up taking the detector down for a couple hours while we waited for the GPS clocks to re-sync themselves.  So we spent our New Years Eve afternoon moving around hardware and re-cabling and trying to get the detector back up and running.  After that, though, things calmed down quite a bit.  We even had a New Years Eve party in our gym! As bad as it was trying to deal with the GPS clocks, it was still pretty awesome to celebrate the new year at the South Pole... Though I am pretty sure they didn't take the leap second into account during the countdown at midnight!  On New Years Day, things went much smoother.  The final leap second procedure didn't give us a problem, and everything kept running just like we hoped.

On the evening on New Years Day, we had a special ceremony where the geographical South Pole marker was updated.  There are actually two South Pole markers here.  One is ceremonial, which is used more for ceremonies and some fun pictures.  The other actually marks where the current location of the geographic South Pole is.  Because we are on a big sheet of ice that is moving, albeit slowly at 10 meters a year, every year the marker is relocated to reflect the new location of the South Pole relative to the station. The marker is relocated during a small ceremony on January 1st. A ton of people came out to watch and even participate.  The new marker was designed by last years winterovers and built here on station.  Ever year there is a competition for the next design, and we as winterovers can submit designs for the next marker. After the wining design is chosen, the marker is made and then concealed until it takes it's place for the next year.  During the ceremony they touched the new marker, still covered, to the old one and then passed the marker around for everyone to hold until it reached the new marker location at the very bottom of the earth.  It was a simple ceremony, but lots of fun.

The other interesting thing going on right now is with our airplanes.  We are very isolated here.  Almost everything we have here comes in by airplane.  Specifically, there are large Herc's flown by the New York Air Guard.  The problem is that they are way behind on flights. Right now, we have had roughly 29 flights or so.  The number of flights we should have had is around double that.  It isn't a huge deal,  except they are supposed to be bringing in fuel to keep us supplied throughout the winter.  We also haven't really received much mail in about 2 or 3 weeks, and I am really looking forward to getting some of the things I have ordered online for the winter.  It also makes it difficult for Martin, my IceCube winterover colleague, to take his R&R week off in McMurdo. (I opted out of R&R because it is too much of a hassle to deal with McMurdo.  Though, he is optimistic that he will see penguins, and I think that would make it worth it to some degree. ) The funny thing is that because we are so behind on flights, they scheduled 19 for this week...  That's right, we have had 29 in the past two months, and they said they would have 19 this week alone!  So, you may think, "wow, you guys are going to be so busy with all of those flights!"  Well, it is now Tuesday evening, and of those 19 flights we have a received a grand total of.... wait for it.... ZERO. We have also been told that there will be no flights tomorrow because the planes are all stuck in New Zealand due to weather.  I guess when they scheduled the 19 flights, they didn't think the planes would actually have to be on the same continent to fly them.  It is also surprising how many times the planes seem to have mechanical problems on days when there is a big football game going on... I'm sure that is just a coincidence, though.

All that being said, I can't really complain that much.  I am still really enjoying my time here.  Things were slow today so I went and tried to play my trumpet.  It turns out that I am going to have to spend some time working on easy stuff until my embouchure is built up enough again to do anything really complex.  That is what I get for not playing much over the past few years!  I am also hoping to get on the violin soon.  I have all these hobbies that I am super excited about being able to get back into over the next year.  Everything from music to books to electronics and even to some physics I want to study.  Now that things are slowing down here, I am really looking forward to getting started!

 New Years Eve party at the South Pole!

 Wayne, our winter site manager, is getting ready to place the new South Pole marker.

 Everyone worked together to move the flag and the sign for the marker. This amazing pic was taken by Martin who happens to be a far better photographer than I am!

The marker was passed from person to person starting at the old marker and ending at the very bottom of the world at the geographic South Pole!  This was also taken by Martin.
 Two other Georgia Tech Alumns (Nicole and Adam) and I pose at the geographic South Pole in front of the new South Pole marker.

 Adam, Nicole, and I also got a pic in front of the ceremonial South Pole!

 Here is Martin wishing everyone a happy New Year from the geographic South Pole!

The is a close up of the marker.  This was also taken by Martin!