Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The End

Station closing is today. It is one day earlier than we were expecting, which means we have had a last-minute scramble to finish all of our tasks at the telescope. Bad weather is approaching the station, forcing an early close for the season.

I can't believe I've been here for almost four months. I have worked harder during that time than I have just about any other time in my life. That is one thing about living in a station where people are working 24 hours a day - you can easily feel that you should be working at all hours, every waking moment. All meals are shared with collaborators, and even social times often drift into long discussions about the telescope. It is a recipe for incredible productivity, but after a few months of being so saturated in my work, I am also looking forward to taking a few days to enjoy other things in life. I will be headed home to Athens, Ohio for a few days to visit my family, reunite with my cats, and rediscover pleasures like bathtubs, fresh vegetables, and dark nights. I am looking forward to it.

Like last season, I'll be flying out on the very last plane. It will be an event. For eight months, all flights to and from the South Pole will be suspended. The fifty people staying here at the station will have an emotional moment, watching our plane take off. It has the feel of a celebration, closing the summer season and officially beginning the winter season. But at the same time the apprehension and the vague unease among the winterovers is almost palpable. In a few weeks the sun will sink low to the horizon, and then eventually the station will be plunged into total darkness and extreme cold for months. I would love to have the experience for a few days, but I don't know if I could handle it for such a long time.

For me, the most emotional thing about leaving is the last glance to the telescope. Everything in my life has revolved around that instrument while I have been here. In the last moments, it almost acquires a personality in my perception. I imagine it watching us prepare to leave, tired from a long season of modifications and upgrades, and ready to begin scanning the microwave sky.

Thanks to everyone for reading this blog through my stay here, and for all the comments and emails. This will be my last post for a while, possibly until the next time I make this long trip. Stay warm!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

First Light for Season Two of SPT!

Everyone here is breathing a huge sigh of relief. Last night was the first night that our new set of detectors were cold enough to be operated. Unlike the last few test runs, for this run we had mounted the receiver up in the telescope where it normally lives, in preparation for doing real observing. As soon as the detectors were tuned, we pointed the telescope at an object in the sky called RCW38, which is a bright source of radiation at the frequencies we observe. We made a beautiful map of RCW38 and began learning about the properties of our new detector array, which looks fantastic. We still have a lot to learn before we leave, but last night was the big test, and possibly the most exciting moment of the whole season. We celebrated our success by sipping champagne out of paper cups while we looked at our very first data from the upgraded instrument. The enormous efforts that went into the upgrades this year look like they're going to pay off!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Order and Progress

A few weeks ago, I posted pictures from a walking tour of the edges of the station. Behind the station, construction materials, old scientific equipment, and curious miscellany have been collecting over the years in rows out on the ice. With construction on the main station near completion, the major building project on station this season has been a new facility to provide indoor storage for many of the materials currently stored outside.

Over the few months that I have spent here, I have had the opportunity to tour the construction site a few times, and recently I took some pictures of the building in a state of near-completion. Building at the South Pole poses significant and unusual challenges, among them the fact that any structure on this windswept plateau accumulates snow drifts sufficient to bury it in just a few years. The main station is elevated on stilts, and the entire thing can be jacked up as the snow accumulates over time. Other facilities on station have to be dug out each season by bulldozers. The Dome, which was the previous South Pole Station, is slowly being buried. Its shape was designed to provide a strong shelter capable of withstanding the steady accumulation, but not indefinitely. The facilities surrounding the dome have been housed under arch structures, which are similarly designed to provide strong shelters for the buildings underneath.

The new materials and storage facility is replacing some of the arch structures and previous facilities that surrounded the old Dome. In the picture below you can see the power plant on the left, the heavy machine shop on the right, and in the center is the arch where construction has been taking place this year. A couple of pictures of the interior of the building, and the arches behind it, are below that.

Even for me, walking around inside these worksites feels strange - just last year, there were still buildings under these arches that I visited, including the last South Pole bar. In between the new building and the storage arch that sits behind it, you can see the Dome - almost thoroughly eclipsed by the construction activities. In the last picture below, the original welcome sign to the South Pole Station rests on the ice behind segments of arch meant for the new facility. Everything built here is constantly changed, adapted, and upgraded to cope with the unchanging harshness of the environment at the South Pole.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Clock is Ticking

I looked up at the weather screen today and saw that the temperature had dropped to -38 F (which is actually almost exactly equal to -38 degrees C). The windchill today is about -60F. The dropping temperatures signal that the end of the season is rapidly approaching. Soon, it will be too cold for planes to land here, and the station will be isolated for a period of 8 months. Most of the SPT team is scheduled to leave on one of the last two flights out, expected to be on February 14 or thereabouts. As the end of the summer season approaches, personel on station are changing over as the summer staff leaves and the winter staff arrives. Rumors are flying about the station closing early, and about whether enough food and fuel have been delivered to sustain the station over the long winter. I think those rumors are as much a part of this season as the daily drops in temperature.

For SPT, this is a tense few weeks. We have just installed a brand new set of detectors in the receiver. These are much more sensitive than the ones that we used last season, but every new batch of detectors made at Berkeley is different, and it takes a lot of work to understand their features. We have a very short time to get the new receiver working, characterize the detectors, put everything in the telescope back together again, and get it all to work together. In the midst of this, we have two new members of the collaboration (Keith Vanderlinde and Dana Hrubes) who will be operating the instrument over the winter. They both need to be trained, and are understandably anxious about learning enough in such a short time to handle everything that could go wrong once the rest of us leave. I am not personally involved in much of the receiver work, but the tension permeates everything that we are currently doing.

Below is a picture showing a set of detectors like those we have just installed. Each little circular element is a few millimeters across, and is an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. The full array that makes up our focal plane consists of hundreds of these.

The detectors are fabricated on wedge-shaped wafers and then carefully installed in a 'wedding cake' assembly with optical feeds above each detector and a triangular filter above each wedge. The filters ensure that the radiation that reaches the detectors is the right frequency. The process of assembling and installing the focal plane is one of the most delicate tasks on this project. It's taking place right now as I write this entry, and if everything goes well we're on our way to a beautiful, sensitive new detector array for the second season of the SPT.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


For over a week, I have spent almost all of my time inside the station. A huge crowd of SPT folks has recently arrived and there is so much activity out at the telescope that it is a little bit of a zoo over there. I am taking the opportunity to quietly work on analyzing data. I set myself up at around 8pm in the science lab at the station and work on software and analysis all night. It's great to have the time to dig in to some of the data, but the long hours at my laptop in the quiet of the night sometimes feel a little dull.

Once in a while, though, some odd event puctuates the routine. I thought I'd post the picture below in honor of my mom's birthday, which is today. It has just the sort of whimsical flavor that she appreciates. This is a picture I snapped out the window at my desk, when I randomly looked out and saw someone attempting to fly a homemade kite in some of the most outrageous South Pole winds we've had recently. As well as I could tell, the kite itself was made of a gigantic piece of black scrap plastic. It was clearly very heavy, and when it crashed it cut well into the snow. But the winds were intense that day and had no trouble lifting it and piloting it in erratic patterns across the sky. I watched this anonymous person battling with it for a while until he wandered away from my view. Given that it was an unusual time of day for anyone to be doing much, I wonder if he had any idea anyone might be witnessing his experiment.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Last week, I had the opportunity to drive the telescope around a lot. We're not actively observing, but we are making many upgrades to the software that controls the telescope, and trying to debug little things that didn't work as smoothly as we liked last season. The only time of day when I could do this was between the night and day shifts, for a couple of hours when nobody else needed access. All season we have been working on insulating the telescope and doing a better job of sealing the inside of the instrument (and the lab) from the elements. This work requires keeping the telescope stationary and often "docked", meaning that it is parked above the control room so that we can get access to the cabin that normally holds the receiver. So I had to squeeze in between the day and night shifts of carpenters and SPT scientists who might need to work around the telescope.

For a few days, I went out and undocked the telescope and moved it around a bit to do some motion tests with various changes to the software. Moving the telescope involves issuing commands by computer from inside the lab. There is something truly awesome (and very intimidating) about having an instrument of this size under your control. First of all, it can be downright terrifying. The thing moves at an improbably high speed. It is massive! You can't imagine what it's like to see a thing of that size move so fast, and so smoothly, until you have witnessed it. Operating something that large is just sort of scary. Especially when (as was the case last week) some of the software changes led at first to unpredictable behavior. One of the stranger things is that if you are moving the telescope from inside the control room (which is directly under it), you can't see where the telescope is going. You can see the inside moving (the gears are awesome, and the entire roof rotates if you swing the thing around in azimuth), but it is nevertheless unnerving not being able to see where it points.

So, I was quite happy when Erik Leitch brought over a camera and a little TV monitor and installed them. It's an old camera and an old TV previously used to keep an eye on the DASI telescope. It was a great improvement during the motion tests last week, if only to keep me from getting too jumpy! But there was something inherently funny about having an old black-and-white TV monitor in the midst of our otherwise high-tech and state-of-the-art laboratory.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Monumental Effort

Today, what I should be writing about is the formal dedication ceremony for the new station. This morning, the flag was taken down once and for all from the top of the old dome, the previous South Pole Station, and transferred to a shiny new flagpole at the front of the new station. Distinguished guests were flown in for the ceremony and tours, including congressional respresentatives and the highest members of the NSF. Of course, since I'm on night shift, all of this took place while I was asleep. I could have stayed up for part of it, but I've been exhausted and I simply crashed. And then I slept in for the first time in weeks, which also meant that I missed the big dinner and most of the party to celebrate the formal opening of the new station.

The new station has been under construction for years, and for a newcomer like myself, it already feels like it's been here forever. I went into the dome last year, but already by that time the main living quarters were dismantled and mostly it was being used to store office supplies and snack foods in big racks criss-crossing the well-packed snow floor inside. For many people here, though, that dome was once home. Sometimes for the better part of many years, for the really dedicated members of the U.S. Antarctic Program who have wintered over many times. The work to build the new, modernized station has been intense, and today's formal dedication was the culmination of a massive, monumental effort. I could tell it was very sentimental for many members of the community.

For me, the official ceremonies do not have the personal significance that they do to people who have been involved in the South Pole Station for five years, a decade, or even two. But I am not without a good deal of awe for their accomplishments. Ironically, what made me most aware of the sheer scale of the project to keep a station going year-round at the South Pole, and most aware of the history and the people who have kept it going, was a recent tour of the grittier sides of station activites. Last week I went for a wander behind the station, looking in on all of the trade shops (carpenters, plumbers, electricians), the storage berms, and the out-of-the-way spots where old construction materials and decommissioned scientific equipment are stored, awaiting shipment back to the states.

New storage facilities are being built, as part of modernizing the station. But for years, elevated stretches of packed snow behind the station have been used to store construction materials, frozen food, and scraps of anything that might bear reuse in the future. This part of the station can feel like an endless sea of cardboard boxes, stacked pallets, and scrap metal.

Old scientific and communications materials are stored here, as well as anything else that breaks or becomes obsolete. It is all gradually on its way out, on return flights back to the U.S. But while it waits, exposed to the bare Antarctic elements, it conveys to the wandering observer a real sense of the history of this place and the unique mixture of basic life support services with technology and cutting-edge science that has always characterized daily life here.

Below are a few more pictures from my tour. A couple of these are of an old radome, an enclosure built to protect communications antennas. There are also stacks of giant empty spools, segments of arches used for storage facilities, and aisles of construction materials. All evidence of the massive, monumental scale of maintaining a research station here in all of its forms over the years.