Archive for January, 2007

Winding down/north

January 31, 2007

My shoe laces seem to come untied easily when I’m outside. What’s up with that?

Yup, It’s time to leave.

My flight north to McMurdo is on the 1st, which is tomorrow. But since I’m working nights, it’s more like the day after tomorrow in that I have another work day at the end of which (when I usually go to bed) I’ll be getting on a plane.

Panorama from the inside of the dome

So, I finally got a panoramic photo from the inside of the dome. I both need to get a better camera and learn the gimp or photoshop or some such. This though gives some sense of what the dome currently looks like. With it’s spooky gutted main building and boxes of frozen supplies stacked about.

My co-workers who arrived a few days ago are slowly getting acclimated. They are planning on staying here until close of station. Usually that is Feb 15 but that has been “conditionally extended” by perhaps a week. It’s all up to the weather. With -50° F being the point at which the electronics and hydraulics of a C-130 are not rated to work below. It’s down to -23°F today and I’m leaving tomorrow.

Sparkling world, Grid north and the Sun as a 24-hour clock

January 30, 2007

I woke up today at about midnight, stepped outside into the cold air and exceptionally bright daylight to walk the few meters to the bathroom for a sorely needed shower. It is difficult to describe how bright it is here when the sky is clear. What was striking about today was all the microscopic ice crystals floating in the air, reflecting the bright sunlight such that everywhere you looked the air was sparkling like the face of an adolescent girl who just discovered glitter make-up. Even when looking at my feet (which is all I could do as I didn’t bring my goggles or sunglasses with me for the short walk) the air was glistening. I looked up and covered the sun with my hand and could see two sun dogs on either side of the sun. I could only look for a split second since even those sun dogs were too bright to look at for any length of time. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera and by the time I got back to my Jamesway, the clear sky had become overcast enough so that the sparkling ice crystals and sun dogs were gone.

One of the reasons why the sun was so bright was that it was directly in front of me as I stepped out of the Jamesway. This made sense as it was close to grid north which corresponds to it being near midnight here (where we keep New Zealand time). How’s that you ask? Good question. First let me go back to when I was on the C-17 flying south from Christchurch to McMurdo station. I happened to be up in the cockpit talking to the pilots when we crossed 60° south latitude. They joked about how there was going be a big flash and the plane was going to start flying backwards. What they were talking about is that a different navigation system is used at latitudes higher then 60° (closer to the poles). A grid system where the direction towards the prime meridian is considered north, or grid north, and the direction towards the international dateline is grid south. This meant that we would go from flying due south from New Zealand (which is relatively close to the international dateline) to flying grid north without ever changing direction.

Still doesn’t make sense? How about thinking about it in terms of the Sun being a clock…

The sun never sets here at the south pole in the summer time it just circles over your head. Of course the Sun isn’t moving, it is the Earth which is rolling under it presenting the part of the world where it is noon up to the Sun. So at the South Pole the sun is pointing to wherever it is noon on the Earth at “normal” latitudes (and ignoring all that messy daylight savings time stuff). Since we are keeping New Zealand time here, at noon the sun is pointing towards New Zealand. Further, since New Zealand is pretty close to the International Data line, it is also pointing grid south. And so at midnight here, the Sun will be in grid north. One thing to keep in mind here is that if the sky is a clock and the Sun is the hour-hand, it is a 24-hour clock, with one revolution per day, and not the 12-hour we are used to looking at.

Ok, so there you have it – an entry without any pictures and full of pseudo-technical talk. Check out my flickr and youtube sites for photos…

A few more days

January 29, 2007

In order for me to have some time working together with my (3 day delayed) fellow DAQ co-workers, and not get on the plane they get off of, I’m staying here a few more days. This is, of course good for work, but not the best news for home. The word from the station manager is that tomorrow morning I’ll find out if I need to change rooms while staying here due to space constraints. Now, to me the word “room” implies a door and not a curtain, so I’m holding out that this somehow means that I’m going to get moved into the station. Mind you, I’m not holding my breath, but hope springs eternal.

I wandered over to the dome last night, to try once again for a panoramic shot from the inside of the dome. It didn’t turn out as I’d like, but this one from inside the dome looking out the main entrance turned out pretty good:

Looking out the dome

And I can’t resist, here’s another in-camera movie, walking from the pole into the dome:


January 28, 2007

Here I am, holding up the world.


Don’t go overboard with thanks, just by me a beer next time you see me…

I’m famous

January 27, 2007

So, I took some photos of a book (a comic/animated novel, actually) my wife asked me to bring down here. I popped it up on the geo pole marker and took some shots. It fell off a few times and again my fingers nearly froze off (I can’t push the button on my camera with the leather mittens I wear over my glove liners), but the shots turned out pretty good. I sent them off and they’ve tickled the author so much he’s put them up on his blog. He’s linked to my blog, now I’ve linked to his, I’m so hooked into the blog thing now…

In other news, I walked out to the TOS to help with another deployment. There was a C-130 on the ski-way, so I had to wait to cross. I got a treat of watching it take off in front of me and then circle over MAPO, the ICL and the station before heading north (of course) back to McMurdo. Unfortunately, it is pretty small and I stopped recording after it passed me, but here it is:

I’m still here

January 26, 2007

So, some (but not all) of the novelty of being here is starting to wear off. Mostly due to my odd (even for this place) work and sleep schedule. I’m keeping a satellite schedule to be awake during the satellite visibility and hence Internet connectivity. After looking at the clock several time several days back and honestly not knowing if it was am or pm without really having to think about it, I switched my alarm clock to 24 hour display. A day later, my body revolted and I slept for 14 hours straight one “night”. I guess I needed it, but I ended up on a day shift which wasn’t the plan. I’m now firmly back on “satellite shift”. Speaking of satellites, apparently the only reason why these three satellites are even visible from the south pole is because they have fallen out of their intended orbit just enough to pop up above the horizon here a few hours a day each. Lucky us.

Another difficult to get adjusted to thing down here is that you have to conserve water usage. Drink all you can, you need it, but you’re only supposed to take two 2-minute showers (running water time) and do one load of laundry each week. During my last rinse-soap-rinse shower, it crossed my mind that if I ever believe that 2-minutes of water per shower is enough, I’ve been here too long.

In fairness, there’s always something fun to do at any given time, a well-stocked music room, pool table, various lounges ranging from quiet reading to smoking, drinking and watching the latest downloaded football game. I just haven’t been taking advantage of all that enough.

I have though, been trying to get outside at least a few times each day, so for you viewing pleasure here is a walk from inside the main station, out to the pole.

Deploying string #47

January 25, 2007

Me inside the TOS

The other day, er night, I worked in the TOS deploying DOMs (the light detectors I described earlier) onto string #47. There I am, looking like I know what I’m doing. It took all night long do to this, after about 10 DOMs you get the hang of your job. There were 5 of us working the various tasks needed to deploy: working the winches (there are two we use during deployment), pulling the DOMs off the racks, checking their connectors and getting them ready for deployment, preparing the cable breakouts from the string for attaching the electronics and cables of the DOM to the string, attaching the DOM (which requires a little dance with the two winches getting the cable to bend around the DOM, putting the load on the DOM’s cables) taping all the various cables, chains, etc. down before dropping the DOM and the next 17 meters of the string into the ice.

The above photo is me standing at the winch control for “the drop” – which is after all 60 DOMs have been attached and we lower the remainder of the string (the black cable there) down the final 1500km down into the hole. I’m just standing there with my finger on a button. Tough, highly skilled work, that is.

Looking down the hole

Those holes are pretty ominous looking. This is actually looking down hole #57 from a few days earlier than #47 but they look the same. The craggily edges of the hole are formed from the fern drill as it descends. The fern layer is the first 50 meters of packed-powder (which is all you can see here) below that is solid ice. There is a different style drill for the fern layer than the ice. You might be able to make out the difference between the two drill heads in the top photo: the main drill is in front with the black calipers and the fern drill is behind it with the copper tubing. Basically the fern drill melts its way down and the main drill shoots compressed hot water blasting it’s way down the remaining 2400km.

Here’s a movie I took of a DOM going down hole #47. It needs some editing and better lighting but it might give you a better idea of what we’re doing. Of course the movie can’t make you feel the constant flow of ice cold air being sucked up through that hole in the sub-floor under the TOS, which makes working over that hole, attaching the DOM, a rather chilly job.

Yes, as a matter of fact, the world does revolve around me.

January 24, 2007

Me at the South Pole

I finally made it out to the pole(s) today. This year, the ceremonial pole (with the aluminum sphere) and geographic pole (in front of the sign) are right next to each other. The ceremonial pole, with the sphere on top of the barber pole and surrounded by the flags (of the signatories of the antarctic treaty) pretty much stays put, while the geographic pole moves each year. Well, ok the geo pole doesn’t actually move, the ice that all the buildings are on moves so where the pole marker goes need to change correspondingly.

GPS showing 90 south

Here’s a shot of me with my GPS showing 90 degrees south. My fingers nearly froze solid taking that picture (the ones holding the camera – it’s about -22F, -44F with wind chill today). The reading changes pretty frequently and I wanted to get a shot of 90.000.000 exactly. It took a few tries. Interestingly, the longitude just counted up as if I were just off the pole and walking in a circle around the pole. Which I did, so yes, I’ve walked around the world too.

I’ve also added a links off to the right to my YouTube and Flickr pages, so there are lots more videos and photos there to look at.


January 22, 2007


I suppose now might be a good time to explain, for those who don’t already know, why I’m at the South Pole. It’s for work. I work on a project called IceCube which is “An NSF funded, international high-energy neutrino detector being installed in the clear deep ice below the South Pole“. What this means is that we drill holes 2.5km deep down into the ice here and deploy “strings” of light detectors down those holes. After the hole has frozen in, these detectors digitize what they see and send that info to the surface. Some of what they will see will be the faint light which is the result of a neutrino striking the atomic particles in the ice, hence detecting a neutrino. On the surface connected to the strings is a cluster of computers which suck all that data up from the ice and process it, filtering out noise (things other than a neutrino hit) and then send that data to tape and north over a satellite link. I work on the first layer of that software, known as the Surface DAQ (Data Acquisition) running on that cluster of computers.

My primary job here is to get this DAQ software built, configured, installed and running on this year’s new cluster and new strings. I’m not the only one doing this, a few others will be showing up in a few days to help out, but I’m the first DAQ person on the scene here this year. Last year there were 9 strings in the ice, as of today there are 10 more, with 2 more on the way.

So, for me at home, IceCube is all software. Here at the pole it is a very different story – it’s all about the drill (which is an impressive feat of engineering in itself) and getting the strings deployed into the ice. The photo above is (another panoramic photo of) the TOS (which I think stands for Tower Operations Structure) and is the building in which a hole is drilled and the string is deployed. The spool off to the left is the communications cable being uncoiled down into the hole.

The end result (which will take a few more years to complete) is to have a cubic kilometer of ice, 1.5kms beneath the surface of the south pole, instrumented with 70-80 strings of these light detectors (60 per string). What is really crazy is that all this is, for the most part, looking for neutrinos which have come down (or up from here) through the planet from the north. The detector is, in effect, using the Earth as a filter. This works for neutrinos because they are magnetically neutral (hence their name “the neutral one”) so nothing is solid from their perspective, not even a planet. This makes them both very difficult to detect but also very informative, if you can catch enough, on the origins, structure and future of the universe.

Basically, some pretty routine stuff.


January 20, 2007

The answer to the most pressing question you have about the South Pole.