Thanksgiving here is celebrated on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in the States.
For most people on the STO-2 team, it was a normal workday. However, a few of us started our day with the McMurdo Turkey Trot, a 5k race. People showed up in costumes and had a great time despite the first half being uphill and into a 20 mph wind! STO-2 supplied four runners out of 108: Kate from the gondola team, and Craig, Kay, and myself from the instrument team.
After the race, we went back out to the Long Duration Balloon facility to work for a few hours before coming back to prepare for our 7 p.m. seating in the McMurdo galley. People generally dress up a little from their normal workday clothes. The meal was a Thanksgiving feast! We chose from four different kinds of salad, root vegetables, green-bean casserole, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, and four different kinds of pie and cheesecake!
After dinner, we played a few games of "Settlers of Catan" at the coffeehouse and then danced the night away at a laser-light dance party.
The purpose of my deployment to Antarctica is to help the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II (STO-2) team launch a science payload to look at the star forming regions in the galaxy. STO-2 will fly aboard a Long Duration Balloon (LDB). The LDB program is part of the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, which launches payloads all over the world.
The STO-2 team traveled to the LDB headquarters in Palestine, Texas, last July and August for a hang test to ensure the payload is ready for launch. From there it was taken apart and shipped to Antarctica. The gondola was then shipped to New Zealand on a barge and flown from New Zealand to McMurdo Station on a supply mission. The instrument was flown the whole way to McMurdo.
The STO-2 team just after passing the hang test in Palestine, Texas, in August 2015. Image credit: Christopher Walker
After shipping the payload, the team started to reassemble it in the second half of October on the ice. (I was waiting to travel to McMurdo until backup parts were completed in mid November in case important equipment failed.) It's here in McMurdo that we unpack and reassemble the payload and continue instrument testing and reintegration.
Every day, we leave McMurdo at 7:30 a.m. and travel about six miles from McMurdo Station to the LDB facility just beyond Willy Field on the Ross Ice Shelf. We arrive between 8:05 and 8:15 depending on the driver and the mode of transportation. One of the buses is Ivan "the terra" bus, pictured below. The field camp consists of two hangars for the the payloads, a dining hall (called the galley), a bathroom facility and two smaller shelters for the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility staff. This year, there are two payloads, STO-2 and the Gamma Ray Imager/ Polarimeter for Solar flares (GRIPS) payload. In some years there are three payloads, but never more than that.
The LDB facility. From the left: a yellow storage facility, the GRIPS hangar (green stripe), the STO-2 hangar (brown stripe), the CSBF machine shop, the CSBF telemetry workshop, the bathroom, and all the way to the right, the yellow tent is the galley. Image credit: Jenna Kloosterman
There's a cook in the galley during lunchtime and coffee, tea, and hot chocolate
whenever you need it. Furthermore, we have views of Mt. Erebus, the
southern-most active volcano on Earth. Most days it is covered in
clouds, but when the clouds clear, it's one of my favorite things to
photograph. For a harsh continent, it's a good life!
After a full day of work, we leave LDB at 5:30 p.m. and are back in McMurdo for dinner between 6:05 and 6:15 p.m.
Boarding Ivan "the terra" bus with my colleague Jose Siles. Image credit: Jose Siles
The STO-2 gondola team has successfully tested the pointing system for the telescope, pointing on the sun and Venus. In order to do their tests, they had to open the hangar doors so the hangar could cool to the ambient temperature -- about 20 degrees F right now. The instrument team is glad that they are done until integration of the instrument with the gondola is complete.
The STO-2 instrument will be explained for a general audience in a future post. For our colleagues following us back home, the team has made progress in aligning the 1.5 and 1.9 THz local oscillators and is simultaneously conducting beam pattern measurements. The 4.7 THz channel has measured a Y-Factor (sensitivity measurement). If you are interested in the details, please communicate with us privately.
Every year in the summer as the sea ice melts, it is pushed up against the permanent ice shelf due to tidal forces. When this happens, the pressure from this force cracks the ice into ridges near Scott Base. Last night, I was lucky enough to walk through the pressure ridges that are formed this way with a group from the Long Duration Balloon Facility. We saw beautiful ice formations, Weddell Seals (including one that had just given birth) and melt ponds. Please see the slideshow above for the new phrase I'm coining, "Make like a seal." Words cannot describe the scenery, so just enjoy the slideshow!
The instrument I came to Antarctica to work on, the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II (STO-2), in the most basic terms is designed to study how stars are born. Although I'll avoid getting too technical on most of my posts here, this entry will be on the more technical side to provide an update to my colleagues back at JPL and around the world.
STO-2 uses superconducting mixers, which requires cooling it to below 9 K (that's -443 degrees F). In order to achieve this temperature, we first "precool" our cryostat to 77 K (-321 degrees F) using liquid nitrogen, and then cool using liquid helium to 4 K (-452 degrees F). The whole process takes about 48 hours.
Today, we finished the helium fill. I participated in the fill, but you cannot see me in the picture above because I was behind the shelves on the left.
The transfer occurs from a 500 L liquid helium storage Dewar (yes, as in James Dewar, the scotch-maker -- he made whiskey to support his science habit) to the 100 L liquid helium tank on the STO-2 instrument on the right.
Although it takes about 24 hours after the fill is complete to cool everything inside the cryostat to 4 K, it was cold enough after an hour to confirm that we have five live mixers with superconducting currents! We also have five local oscillator channels working! There is still much work to be done, but overall this is a very positive sign that we are on our way to a successful mission!
I spent my first day on the ice at the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Facility, where we work daily to prepare the STO-2 gondola and instrument. (LDB will be the subject of many future posts.)
After work, I attended a training session on outdoor skills in Antarctica. The training itself covers the flagging system (aka early GPS, so you know that you are on the trail and not walking into a snow covered crevasse) and procedures for checking out at the firehouse to let the right people know you are out hiking.
It is mostly common-sense, straight-forward information, but was required in order to walk down to the Ob Tube (Observation Tube), which I did with my friends and colleagues Chris and Kay from Arizona State University promptly after completing the training.
The Ob Tube is a hole is drilled in the sea ice and a long tube with an observation deck is inserted at the bottom. From here, one can observe the beauty of the sea. I saw only small fish and beautiful ice formations inside the Ob Tube, but a seal was resting on the sea ice outside. We also had a fantastic view of Ob Hill (Observation Hill). Enjoy the pictures from the evening!
The big day arrived! I set my alarm for 4:15 a.m. and I was out the door at 4:45 to take the shuttle to the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) Passenger Terminal. We put on most of our ECW at the CDC and wheeled all of our luggage into the terminal. We had to fill out a boarding card, and then your name is matched to the passenger manifest. Boarding passes are handed out with numbers. The flight crew weighs absolutely everything before it gets on the flight. Each passenger is allowed 85 lbs of personal luggage, although any ECW passengers are wearing is not counted against them. My luggage weighed in at 75 lbs -- I packed too light apparently (joking!).
Getting dressed in my ECW at the CDC before my ice flight. Image credit: Jenna Kloosterman
After checking in, we had a little time to eat a light breakfast and watch our last sunrise until we return to New Zealand. We watched a few more orientation videos and then went through a security screen. At the end of the security screen, we boarded a bus, which drove out to the tarmac to meet our plane. To my relief, it was a C-17!!! That means a plane with a jet engine, a five-hour flight time, a bathroom, and real seats. A first class military cargo plane!!! They hurried us on the plane, but I managed to hand my camera to a new friend to snap a quick picture as I boarded the plane.
Our flight last a little over five hours. The most concerning part was the "exit" sign on the ceiling! For the last two hours of the flight, we had sweeping views of the ice out the one window in the C-17.
First views of the sea ice shelf in Antarctica! Image credit: Jenna Kloosterman
We had a smooth landing at Pegasus Field. When the door to the C-17 was opened, a cold blast of Antarctic air filled the plane. Temperatures this time of year range in the 10-20 degree F range. I realized that I had left my sunglasses on one of my checked bags, so I put on my CDC-issued goggles. I snapped a quick picture of the C-17 and then boarded Ivan "the terra" bus. An hour drive to McMurdo Station and we were dropped off at the Chalet for more on-ice orientations. At the end, we were given our room assignments. We had to pick up bedding (sheets and blankets) from Building 155 across from the dorms and our luggage at Building 140. Fortunately, there was a shuttle-bus driver to help me carry my 75 lbs of luggage from Building 155 to my dorm in Building 208. All I had to do was haul it up three flights of stairs!
Last time I was in McMurdo, I was placed in a triple room in Building 203. Compared to that, Building 208 is the Hilton! All rooms are double occupancy, have their own sink, and share a bathroom with only one other room. It turns out I could have cut down on my packing since I did not need a robe to wear from the community shower to my room. Now I only had to share a bathroom with three other people. I will post pictures of the base and dorms in the coming weeks. So far my room remains a single, but I have been assured that I will have a new roommate with the next C-17 transport.
After unpacking, I met my colleagues coming back from the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Facility at the galley for dinner. More to come on LDB and meals in my posts ahead. I went to the gym for a run on the treadmill and then to the Coffee House to play games with my friends and colleagues.
NASA’s Global Climate Change website gets a lot of user feedback. Aside from typical random Internet trolls and students posing thinly veiled attempts at getting us to write their term papers, one of the most commonly asked questions goes something like this:
“Hey, NASA, are you really sure people are causing climate change? Have you double-checked?” or “Hey, NASA, I have an idea. Maybe climate change is caused by x, y, z and it’s not really caused by humans. You should look into this.”
The short answer to this type of question is “Yes, we’ve double-, triple-, quadruple-checked. It’s science! We check and recheck a gazillion times. We’ve looked into everything you could possibly imagine and more. Before we commit to what we say, we have a strong desire to make sure it’s actually true.”
One example of how careful we have to be is when we’re analyzing the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from space.
OCO-2 is the NASA mission designed to be sensitive enough to detect a single part of carbon dioxide per million parts of atmosphere (ppm). The way it works is super complicated. And because carbon dioxide is the most important human contribution to climate change (the biggest issue of our time) and expectations of science results were set very high, we have to be super-duper certain our measurements are correct.
The sensitivity makes it very challenging.
The instruments on OCO-2 not only measure the absolute amount of carbon dioxide at a location, but they also look for very small gradients in the distribution of CO2, the difference in the distribution of carbon dioxide between one location and another as a function of time. For example, “a gradient on and off a city is like 2 parts per million,” explained Mike Gunson, project scientist for the mission. "You see 2 parts per million from any city of modest size on up. You’re looking at the difference between 399.5 and 401.5 parts per million. So you have to be careful. Nobody’s done this over New York City, Mumbai, Beijing or Shanghai, where it could be wildly different.”
Scientists spend their lives working to get reliable data. Science is hard; it’s not a walk in the park. Everything doesn't just land in your lap. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get any data at all. People don’t often talk about the challenges of doing science, but if you could uncover the history of any project, you would probably find loads of problems, issues and challenges that come up.
After most NASA satellite launches, the instruments typically go through a validation phase, a two- or three-month period when engineers and project managers check, double-check and recheck the data coming in from the satellite to assess its quality and make sure it’s absolutely accurate before it’s released to the scientific community. But with OCO-2, “there is no validation phase,” Gunson told me, “because the measurements have such sensitivity. You’re always validating. Constant validation is an integral part of ensuring the integrity of the dataset.”
For OCO-2 to make an observation, the sky has to be clear, without clouds. Too much wind will move the carbon dioxide, so you also need quiet meteorological conditions. Then, before we can make an inference, we must assess the quality of data, which involves exceptionally large computing capacity.” Because there is so much data coming in, you end up using all sorts of analysis techniques, including machine learning, to analyze the quality of the data. OCO-2 launched in July 2014, and since this past September the data have been released to the broader science community to sink their teeth into. This means, Gunson said, “after a year of alligator-wrestling, all of a sudden we can walk it on a leash.”
Learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge.
I look forward to your comments.
After arriving at my hotel in Christchurch around 1 a.m., I was up and on a shuttle to the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) at 8:15 a.m. There we had an orientation session in the US Antarctic Passenger Terminal and were issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. (You'll notice that those of us in science enjoy our TLAs (three letter acronyms)!) The gear includes BIG RED (my favorite parka), wind pants, hats, gloves, goggles, fleece base layers, and bunny boots. The orientation procedures included a computer check to make sure that we don't bring any viruses that could infect the network in McMurdo as well as a form to make sure we had all received our flu vaccinations.
After the CDC, we had the rest of the day off. I met up with my friend Eric from the University of Arizona, his wife Valerie, and my colleague Craig, who was also heading down to the ice with me. Upon my request, we wandered down to the Rose Garden. Since there are no plants in Antarctica, I really wanted one last chance to smell the roses (literally!). From there we walked through a park in bloom with beautiful flowers and birds to the center of town.
Due to a series of devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 the town center was cordoned offthe last time I was in Christchurch. The city has been rebuilding slowly, and now the center has been reopened and most of the unsafe, damaged buildings have been imploded. There's a cathedral in the center (shown below) with reinforcements. It is still not safe to enter, and the only picture I could take was through a chain link fence. From there, we went to the only cathedral left standing -- called the Cardboard Cathedral. I honestly do not understand the reason it is called the Cardboard Cathedral, but it was the only thing left undamaged in the town center after the earthquakes.
We had an early dinner at Maharaja Indian Restaurant next to our hotel. To my disappointment, my last sunset until January was clouded over and I didn't see much. I will have to wait until I return to Christchurch for the next one. I went to bed early for a 4:45 a.m. pickup for my ice flight!
On Thursday evening, I boarded Qantas Flight 18 from LAX to Sydney, Australia. The Boeing 747 departed just after midnight and landed in Sydney on Saturday morning. I had a 9.5 hour layover in Sydney, so I went through customs in Australia, checked my large carry-on bag at the airport, and took the train to Circular Quay (the Aussie pronunciation is Circle Kay). There, I wandered around the famous Sydney Opera House and Royal Botanical Gardens.
See the slideshow above for photos of my adventures around Sydney.
After a nice afternoon, I boarded my evening flight to Christchurch, New Zealand. The flight landed around midnight, and after going through customs in New Zealand, where I had to convince the agents that my JPL hardware would not harm sheep, I finally arrived at my hotel at 1 a.m. Door-to-door travel time was around 32 hours. I was on empty and enjoyed a short night’s sleep before waking up to go to the Clothing Distribution Center the following morning. Stay tuned for my next post!
Welcome! This blog is intended to provide a behind-the-scenes look at life and work as a researcher in Antarctica. My trip begins tonight and I intend to update this blog with all of my interesting experiences as I travel to the "ice" as well as a discussion of the science we intend to do and the technology we have engineered to do it!
Traveling to Antarctica is what I imagine the experience of visiting a foreign planet would be like. With no plant life and a very arid climate, the continent feels surreal and unlike anything I have ever sensed elsewhere on Earth. I look forward to sharing my journey as we launch the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II (STO-2) from Willy Field!
Please feel free to contact me through my Science and Technology Personnel website with any questions and I will try my best to address them in future blog posts. As an added incentive to encourage questions from my readers, I will write postcards to the first 20 individuals and all K-12 classrooms who email me a question with their name and address.
My first trip to the ice was for STO's maiden voyage in the Antarctic spring and summer of 2011-2012. After my first trip, I learned that people have a lot of questions and misconceptions about the continent, so I want to start by addressing some of the most commonly asked questions.
First of all, geographically Antarctica refers to the southern-most continent on the planet. It is spring right now in the Southern Hemisphere and at McMurdo Station the sun is out 24 hours a day. The last sunset was Oct. 23, 2015, and the next sunset will be February 21, 2016. At McMurdo, we stay on New Zealand time (PST plus 21 hours) since it is the closest country to us.
The Arctic refers to the northern polar region. The Antarctic refers to the southern polar region.
Antarctica does not belong to any one country. Instead, it is governed by a treaty among 53 countries that preserves the continent for scientific exploration and bans any military activity. Currently, 30 countries operate bases for research. The United States has three main bases and two smaller outposts. I will be stationed at McMurdo, which has its closest approach from New Zealand and is by far the largest base on the continent with more than 100 buildings and about 1,000 people during the summer season.
In order to get to McMurdo, everyone flies commercially to Christchurch, New Zealand. (Another frequent misconception is whether I fly through Chile to get to Antarctica. There is a in fact a U.S. station on that side of the continent called Palmer Station, but it is not where I will be going.) The day after we arrive in Christchurch, also referred to as CHC (pronounced: cheech) because of the airport code, we are issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear from the Clothing Distribution Center (CDC). The CDC is where we pick up the big red jackets for which the the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) is famous. I loved my "big red" last time and returning it upon redeployment was such sweet sorrow. (No, we do not get to keep any of this stuff.) I am looking forward to our re-acquaintance!
Ice flights usually occur the day after visiting the CDC. If I am lucky, when I show up for my flight, it will be a C-17 plane. If not, I will fly an LC-130. What is the difference? A C-17 is basically a first-class cargo plane. It has jet engines and can reach Antarctica in around five hours. The flight crew installs real seats, and it has a bathroom, too! Although I have never been unlucky enough to fly a LC-130, my understanding is that plane is more like the Ryan Air of cargo planes -- you just sort of strap in wherever and hope for the best. If one needs to use the restroom while in flight, there is a privacy screen with a bucket. Since these planes do not have jet engines, the trip takes a whopping eight or nine hours! Similarly, weather conditions in Antarctica are unpredictable. It is possible that the flight will get canceled after all the passengers get to at the airport. Even worse is the "boomerang," in which we fly all the way to the continent, cannot land, and have to return to CHC. That means 10, or even 16 hours in flight and then you have to try again at the next available opportunity. Is anyone still interested in stowing away in my luggage as science cargo?
Upon my arrival in McMurdo, I will participate in a scientific balloon mission to launch a telescope into the stratosphere (the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere) to study how stars are born. This is the poor man's version of going to space. We will commute daily from McMurdo to an airfield located about eight miles away on the Ross Ice Shelf. We go to Antarctica for the polar vortex that sets up around the summer solstice. (There is also one in the winter, but flights are only conducted in the summer.) Each rotation around the continent lasts about 14 days, and if we launch early enough, we may continue for another rotation. The wind patterns have set up as early as December 5, but usually are not ready until after December 15. Last time I was there, the vortex was not ready until December 25, so unfortunately I do not yet know our launch date. Dear readers will have to stay tuned!
So how long will I stay down there? It really depends on when we are able to launch. Last time, because of the unusually late set up of the polar vortex and strong ground winds, STO did not launch until January 15. More factors, such as available flights back and weather conditions for planes to take off, play a role. In short, I am preparing to stay a while.
Questions? Topics related to Antarctica or STO-2 you would like to see addressed? Please email me!