Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sunset at the South Pole

The ICL at sunset - James Casey IceCube/NSF

The past couple of week have had some amazing moments here at the South Pole.  The sun has finally set, and it was beautiful. Unfortunately, the weather hasn't been very cooperative, and the visibility was low, so we weren't able to see much of the sunset, but thankfully, the weather did clear up enough a few times to get some amazing views as the sun dropped below the horizon. One early morning in particular, the clouds and fog cleared up and we were able to get out and take some great pictures... well, mostly Martin.  I am truly impressed with his photography skills, but I did get a couple pictures myself that I really liked.  You can see way more of Martin's pictures on his flickr site (https://www.flickr.com/photos/135762220@N06) or in a small album I have created with a handful of his pictures on Google Photos (https://goo.gl/photos/G2rSrre2hVAQsAtE9).  One thing that I kind of thought that was funny is that we were actually out from 2:30am to 4:30am taking pictures of the sunset. It seemed funny to me to be out at such a time for sunset, but that is one of the unique aspects of being down at the South Pole.  Another interesting effect is the famous green flash actually lasts much longer here.  Martin also got an amazing shot of that, but unfortunately by time I found out it was happening, the flash had ended.

As can be expected, we have special celebrations down here for all the major American holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas and such, but we also have a few other special events that we do here.  In particular, we actually have a special Sunset Dinner where everyone gathers together and the galley staff goes all out and makes a special meal for everyone. We celebrated our Sunset Dinner this past Sunday evening.  It was an amazing meal.  We had salad using greens and tomatoes from our small greenhouse.  There was bison steak and duck for the main course and a desert of fruit, a truffle, and some creme brulet. Our food is generally pretty good here, albeit not always as fresh as we would like, but during these special dinners, the galley staff goes above and beyond, and they prepare some amazing food. During the event many people on the station volunteer to help set up and clean up during the day so the galley folks can focus on the meal prep.  Martin and I and many others volunteered to help out this time.  I spent a couple hours helping in the dishpit and setting up tables and such.  Martin helped with the table setup and decorations.  After the dinner was finished, there was a small gathering where people got together and just hung out for a while.  It was a great evening.

The galley for the Sunset Dinner - Martin Wolf IceCub/NSF

The main course for the Sunset Dinner: Bison steak, duck, and fresh greens from the local greenhouse - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Desert for the Sunset Dinner: Fruit, a truffle, and some creme brulet! - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

On the science side of things, the detector has been running very smoothly.  This past week, Martin and I helped with some calibration work that was mostly handled by individuals in the North. On Monday, there was a Dark Sector open house.  The Dark Sector is a region off of the station where we try to minimize radio and other electrical noise for the experiments running out there.  Martin and I gave a tour of the ICL. Given all the activity on station the past few days, not very many people showed up, but it was still fun. We talked about the detector and the science we do, and then we showed everyone around the lab.  Afterwards Martin and I did some winter prep by putting up covers on the windows.  During winter we try to limit the light pollution from the station and the experiments around the station for some of the experiments running here that need it dark.  This means all the windows on station are covered to block any light from getting out.  Only red light is allowed outside, except of course in cases of emergency. This also means that to see the aurora and stars we will have to actually go outside where it is going to be very cold. That should be interesting...

Me standing in front of SPT/Bicep and the Keck telescopes on the roof of the ICL around sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

On a more frustrating note, we have been having some issues with our Internet on site. Since we are so isolated from the rest of the world, we rely on satellites to provide Internet and phone communication.  For those curious, no we don't have satellite tv, and definitely no normal cell phone coverage. Our primary means of communication is through these satellites.  There are four satellite systems we access.  One is dedicated to emergency types of communications.  The other three provide access to general phone usage and Internet.  Unfortunately, even at the best of times, these satellites can be a little slow.  Even the fastest is too slow for any serious streaming, and it only lasts for about three hours a day... or it did until it went down a couple weeks ago.  Since then, we have only had the other two of our satellite systems working. One of these lasts for about six hours, but is incredibly slow.  You can load most web pages and use email, but it can take several minutes to do anything.  The last one comes on late at night and lasts for about three hours.  It has speeds somewhere in the middle, but with 46 or so people fighting for bandwidth, even it can get really slow at times, not to mention that it comes up late enough that it makes it hard to use it communicate directly with anyone back home as they are all in bed! I will freely admit that this is a bit of a first world problem, but keep in mind this is our only way to communicate in real time with friends and family, and it can be quite frustrating.  Hopefully, they will fix the problem soon, which as I understand is actually with the satellite dish in Christchurch, NZ.

Besides the Internet issues, things are going fairly well. Now that the sun has set, I am waiting for things to get dark here. We have already seen one bright star, but it will still take a few weeks before it gets dark enough to really see the night sky in all its glory. In the mean time, I am trying to keep focused on work and  my personal projects and enjoy my time here. While I have had a little problem focusing on the projects lately, I can definitely say that work is going well, and I am very happy here. I have been thinking about my time here and talking with others, and I think by the time winter ends and I head home, I will definitely be ready to go, but I know that I am going to miss this amazing and beautiful place with all the amazing people that I am living and working with over this year here. In the mean time, I am going to enjoy the experience while it lasts!

Many of the photos below were relatively recently taken by Martin.  Several were posted to Facebook, and I am reposting them here for those of you who are not friends of Martin or I on Facebook and haven't seen them yet.  He is an amazing photographer!

The green flash during sunset at the South Pole - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Sunset in the Dark Sector from the station - James Casey IceCube/NSF

Another picture of sunset in the Dark Sector from the station - James Casey IceCube/NSF

The ceremonial South Pole marker at sunset - James Casey IceCube/NSF

Doug and I walking back during the IceTop Measurements - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The ICL with the moon above - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The sun behind the South Pole station - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The ICL in the fog - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Sastrugi in the sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

A winterover walking out during sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Another amazing pic of the ICL - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The ceremonial South Pole during sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Sastrugi and the ceremonial South Pole marker at sunset - Martin Wolf/NSF

Sunset at the South Pole - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Sastrugi and the ICL around sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

The South Pole Telescope (SPT) in the sunset - Martin Wolf IceCube/NSF

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Working outside at the South Pole

The past couple of weeks have been somewhat active on station, and there will be more updates about some of that activity in the near future, but I wanted to give an update about some work we did last week first. Four times a year, the IceCube winterovers go outside and measure the snow accumulation on the detector.  The reason for this is that the IceCube Neutrino Observatory has a surface component called IceTop which is primarily used for cosmic ray studies.  IceTop was originally very close to the surface, but over time, snow has built up on the tanks that hold the detector equipment, and in order to better understand the IceTop detector, we have to go out to each pair of tanks and measure the height of the snow build up. There are just over 80 tank pairs. So two days last week, we went out and took IceTop measurements.

Overall, it isn't too bad a gig, but the problem is that it is getting colder outside now that we are getting closer to winter.  This is the second time Martin and I have done it since we got here in November; the first time we did it was in December, when it was much warmer.  This time around we actually had a little help from the RAs on site, Doug and Adam.  On Wednesday we went out and it was around -60F with a wind chill of -100F. This time around, since there were four of us, we did things a little different.  We split up into two groups.  Doug and I went out on foot, and Adam and Martin took the LMC (basically think of a very slow snow tractor).  Doug and I would do a handful of tanks then meet up with Adam and Martin to warm up in the LMC and then we would split up again. Now, keep in mind, our detector is huge!  The entire detector is a cubic kilometer with the detectors being spaced around 125m on the surface which means there was quite a bit of walking between tanks... at temperatures that feel like -100F.  Thankfully, on Wednesday, we were able to finish a little over half the detector by lunch.  After some discussion, we decided to do the second half of the detector on Thursday morning.

The weather conditions on Wednesday, our first day out.

As it turns out, walking around outside for a few hours with a wind chill of nearly -100F really does wear you out... especially if you stayed up too late the night before working on other projects.  So, I spent most of the rest of the afternoon napping. I did wake up for dinner for a bit, but after that I was still a little drained, and napped some more.  Finally, sometime during the evening, I woke up in time to get some late night Internet'ing in.  A little after midnight, things got interesting.  A fire alarm went off in one of the external buildings and all the emergency response teams, which is basically everyone on station at this point, jumped into action.  Thankfully it turned out to be a false alarm, but it was definitely an exciting end to the day. Thankfully, I was already awake, so it didn't bother me too much, and shortly afterwards I was able to go to bed and get a little more sleep before our next outdoor adventure on Thursday.

On Thursday, things were a little colder, but there was a little less wind so it didn't feel quite as bad.  This time, Doug and I got to ride around in the LMC while Martin and Adam walked from station to station.  Trust me when I say that the LMC is much warmer and far more comfortable than walking! However, splitting up the work like we did made the measurements go much faster, of course at the expense of having to walk around in some pretty extreme temperatures!  But, honestly, our ECW (extreme cold weather gear) works fairly well.  Really, only my hands felt cold while we were out.  I really didn't feel that cold otherwise, until we got inside.  For some reason being back inside made me realize how cold I was starting to get!  Overall, it wasn't that bad.  We were able to get out and do some walking in a beautiful and albeit extremely harsh, cold, and isolated part of the world.

The weather conditions on Thursday, our second day out

Beyond that, things have been going well. I have spent some time working on my personal winter projects.  I have been reading a ton, and I am still working on Spanish and French studies.  I have also been practicing the violin. I am not so disciplined that I get to everything I want to every day... hence, the delayed blog post, but overall, I have made some pretty good progress, and I am optimistic about the coming months.  The sun is getting closer and closer to the horizon, so in a couple short weeks it should start getting dark here, and I have a feeling that will be an amazing and beautiful experience all its own!