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!
Joel asked: If you were to find aliens next to the sun, why would they be blue?
The only blue aliens I'm aware of lived on a moon called Pandora in a popular movie released in 2009. The foundation of your question is the more general question of why we observe a wide variety of colors "used" by life on Earth. Those colors are "used" by their organisms in many different ways. And there are a variety of mechanisms that generate the colors.
The colors of plants and animals have a variety of goals. For plants, the green of their leaves comes from the chlorophyll that absorbs violet-blue and yellow-orange-red light for photosynthesis. Some plants (like Japanese plum) have additional pigments for protection from ultraviolet light and appear dark red. Flowers have colors specifically to attract pollinators, but the colors the pollinators see may not be the colors we see.
Animals have colors to camouflage themselves and attract mates. Some plant and animal coloring is designed to warn off predators. The red eye you see in flash pictures of your friends is a reflection of their eyes' retinas. Photographs of dogs show their retinas reflect greenish light. Is retinal color related to color vision? Most humans have color vision and dogs are color blind.
The colors we see around us are generated by different mechanisms, which can reflect (pun intended) on its use by an organism. The color of a pigment depends on the colors it absorbs and those it reflects. Chlorophyll is a green pigment, and hair and skin colors result from pigments as well.
Polar bears' black skin pigmentation helps keep them warm. The bears' white fur only looks white in bulk. Individual hair follicles are actually transparent, so that they carry sunlight down from the "top" of the fur coat to the bear's skin, where all the colors of sunlight (you've seen them in a rainbow made by differential refraction, another mechanism!) are absorbed by the black skin, helping to keep the polar bear warm. The fiber optics we use to transfer data over the internet or between components in your home entertainment system carry light in the same way.
The iridescent color of bird feathers is produced by another mechanism, the same one that makes detergent bubbles and thin slicks of oil on water show colors. The structure of feathers and thickness of detergent and oil layers permits waves of light to "interfere" with each other. You've seen wave interference in a quiet pool or pond when you throw two small objects into the water and the circular waves move out from each impact point. When the waves cross over each other, their height is greater where the peaks combine and flat where a peak and a valley combine.
A similar thing happens with light waves in iridescent materials. In the feathers, waves of a particular color are reflected and combined before they are shunted out of the feather, while the other colors are absorbed by a black pigment. The colors come from the spacing of tiny reflectors, called lamellae, in the feathers: change the spacing and the color coming from the feather is different. In detergent bubbles and oil slicks, change the layer's thickness and you change the color seen.
So where might we expect blue-skinned aliens? My answer is on an exoplanet orbiting a cool, red star. Why? Because the alien probably wants to absorb as much stellar energy as it can from its star, and blue pigments absorb red light. It would be well-camouflaged in the blue vegetation trying to absorb as much energy from the red sun as it could.