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.

Summer camp, and the livin’ is easy…

January 19, 2007

My Jamesway bunk

There are two places to sleep at the South Pole: the main station and summer camp. I’m in summer camp and this is a panoramic photo of my ‘room’. The photo distorts the size of the space, which is about 7 ft square. It’s basically a place to sleep, though there is wireless connectivity there. I’m inside Jamesway J-9:

Jamesway J-9

Quonset hut, is what others might call this. That section sticking out to the right (mid-way down the Jamesway) is the furnace which runs continuously heating the place. The temperature inside varies +-8F averaging at about 70F which means it can actually get quite warm in there. Behind and to the left of this photo, about 50ft away are the bathrooms. Walking over there is always a contest with yourself: can I make it there and back without my jacket, gloves or goggles? Today was a milestone for me: jeans and a hooded sweatshirt – no problem. -16F can be withstood for 20sec at a time – especially without much wind and in this dry air. And this is from someone who has only been here for a week – I saw a woman someone carrying supplies between the buildings the other day in a sleeveless t-shirt.

Living in the main station on the other hand is much nicer, but apparently to stay there one needs more “ice time” or seniority on their project than I.  I do, though, work in the main station most of the day. You can always spot those people though – walking around with wet hair, flip-flops and a smug grin.

95 years ago today

January 18, 2007

Scott at Pole with Amundsen’s Tent

From an email sent today to all at pole right now:

It was 95 years ago today 1/17/12 that Scott arrived at 90 South. Upon seeing Amundsen’s tent (attached picture) his words: “The Pole….Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority….Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it”

They didn’t make it home.

From what I understand of the first expeditions to the South Pole: Shackleton didn’t make it but made it back with all his men alive. Scott made it here, not first, but he and his team all died on the way back. Amundsen made it here first and made it back. Scott didn’t have margins in his planing and used ponies and themselves for hauling gear.  Amundsen used sled dogs he learned to handle preparing for going to the North Pole. The dogs were a much better choice.

Check out that tent.  I’ll post later a photo and description of where I’m sleeping.  While it is pretty basic, it’s a damn 5-star hotel in comparison to what those guys slept in.

Yes, the pole…

January 17, 2007

South Pole Station

I’ve been here a few days now, staying inside most of the time adjusting to the altitude and drinking lots of water (it is extremely dry here). In order to stay in sync with the satellite availability I’ve shifted my sleeping schedule to be awake during those times -meaning I’m swapping am and pm. That is a bit easier to do when the sun never sets, it just circles around us counterclockwise. Getting sleepy? Go outside. If the cold doesn’t wake you up the bright sunshine will.

Yesterday, I walked out to the ICL (IceCube Counting Lab) and took this photo looking back towards the main station. The ICL is where all the computers are for the IceCube project (the reason I’m here). The visibility for the last few days was very poor (perhaps 20 ft) and I didn’t like the idea of walking outside and getting lost 100ft from a building. Anyway, the photo above shows (from right to left): the new main station, the dome, and on the far left the flags surrounding the ceremonial pole.

The main station is new and getting it’s final touches done to it. Once all that siding is in place it is going to look pretty damn cool, though I don’t think they will finish it this summer season. The dome has been there since the 70’s and is scheduled to be taken down, and I hear possibly re-constructed in California somewhere. I’m tempted to go over there and scratch a mark into it and then be able to point it out sometime when at home.

Destination Zulu

January 16, 2007

Weather for South Pole Station
The date is 01-14-2007 at 3:41 AM

-21.9 C -7.4 F

-36.8 C -34.2 F

22.2 kts Grid 325

686.5 mb (10384 ft)

A bit windy, but this is actually quite warm for the pole.

Initially the first thing that hits you when you get off the plane at the pole (assuming you turned right and not left into the running propellers of the C-130) is the cold. You’ve got on your ECW so the cold isn’t so bad. What really takes it’s toll on you is the thin air. The natural elevation of the pole is just over 9 thousand feet (almost all of it ice), but because the air is thinner at the poles (on a spinning planet) what you experience is more like 10+ thousand feet. The barometric pressure, tells the story – here the scroll shows it is physiologically 10,384 feet. After climbing the two flights of stairs up to the main station, where it is warm, you are sucking air and your head is spinning. The advice they give to all is to take it easy for a few days. This is good advice to follow because your brain is swelling due to the thin air and you are going to be stupid for a few days.

Even further south

January 16, 2007

One day in McMurdo then onto another flight, still further south, this time to the pole.

C-130 in McMurdo destined for South Pole

This time on a Hercules C-130. These are much-loved smaller, slower, louder, older versions of the C-17 (kind of) – but they can land at the South Pole with it’s smaller runway. This was a 3-hour flight which “double boomeranged” meaning we turned around twice in air. When the load master (the closest thing to a flight-attendant you’ll find on a military cargo flight (where you are the cargo)) came on the speaker (which had to be extremely loud to be heard over the engines) to say that we were turning around due to a small mechanical problem, I didn’t believe him. He was very friendly when we boarded, joking that we were going back to Christchurch – a 9 hour flight on a C-130. Then I felt the plan banking and thought, ok he’s serious, I guess I’ll get to see more of McMurdo. No more than 2 minutes later he came back on and said that “the plane had fixed itself” and we were still going to the pole.

C-130 over Antarctica

I got to go up into the cockpit again during this flight.  Amazing experience, it’s like you are floating stationary above the earth as it slowly rolls under you.

McMurdo Station, Antarctica

January 16, 2007

C-17 in McMurdo

Here is the C-17 which took me from Christchurch, NZ to McMurdo station in Antarctica. We landed at Pegasus field which is out on the frozen sea ice of the Ross Sea. The flight was amazing, got to go up into the cockpit and talk to the pilots. The plane is so loud that they gave me headphones with a mic to talk to them, it was like I was on the radio or some such. They asked me all about Neutrinos and the IceCube project. I did my best all the while taking photos and staring out the windows down at the sea ice of the Southern Ocean and then the mountains of Antarctica.

McMurdo station itself isn’t much to speak of, lots of buildings, dirt (nothing green except the buildings at New Zealand’s nearby Scott’s base). There are, I think, a little over one thousand people at McMurdo station which is the main entry point to Antarctica for the US programs.

Scott’s Point, Hut and the Ross Sea

McMurdo is surrounded by some amazing mountains and scenery, though. This is Scott’s Point as seen from McMurdo looking out to the Ross Sea. You can barely make it out in this photo, but you can also see Scott’s Hut – where many of the early Antarctic expeditions were staged.