Epilogue: Our data (and sweet GoPro footage) are off the Ice!

The British Antarctic Survey did some fantastic work in retrieving our data drives for us from their remote landing place in Antarctica. They only had a few hours at the site before weather started looking bad, but managed to retrieve all of our most valuable items. Here’s what SPIDER looked like at her landing spot:

Looks like SPIDER landed right side up and then fell on her back.

Looks like SPIDER landed right side up and then fell on her back.

The cargo just arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, where Ed and Don awaited them. Ed and Don will make multiple copies of the data and then bring the drives back to the US.

But really, the fun part while we wait to start digging into the science encoded in our data is checking out what our GoPros mounted on board recorded.

These are just some preliminary shots- there should also be some video to post- but I was just too excited by these pictures no to post them right away!

Last days on the Ice

Four of the last five of the SPIDER crew– Don, Ed, Sasha, and I– are slated to leave the Ice tomorrow morning. That means this is probably my last blog post– at least until SPIDER 2! It has been an incredible few months, but I can’t say I’m all that sad for it to be ending. I’m ready to have an adventure in New Zealand and then get home to all the people I’ve missed so much while I’ve been away.

As is the nature of field campaigns, it has been an absolute roller coaster, but the highs have certainly made the lows fade in my memory. We got SPIDER on that balloon, and despite all of the complexities and possible points of failure, it worked. That’s a high I won’t be coming down from any time soon.

On top of success with our experiment, we’ve also had the privilege of exploring this amazing part of the world. Many would sacrifice a great deal to get to see this place, and we come here simply as a means to an end. I’ve tried to take advantage and soak it in as much as possible, and I hope I’ve illustrated the experience well enough to bring you all along for the adventure in a small way.

This past week, I’ve gone on all of the hiking trails available in McMurdo, and I’ll close this blog with the pictures from those adventures. Thanks for reading and for all of your support!

The end of SPIDER’s flight

SPIDER was released from her balloon at 5:55 am local time today (11:55 EST Saturday), and parachuted gracefully (we think) to earth. She took a pretty weird tour of the continent. The winds didn’t act exactly as we expected, and we went very slowly along for most of the time. Since our cryogens ran out yesterday afternoon, and the winds would have only pushed us further north, we cut her down. SPIDER’s final landing place is near several small sites, as close as 70 km away, which might be used for recovery of the data drives and other small parts.

John Ruhl made cool trajectory maps. This one shows just about our final flight path, made a few hours before we landed. We'll recover SPIDER using planes taking off from ITASE-1.

John Ruhl made cool trajectory maps. This one shows our whole flight path and final resting place. We expect to recover SPIDER using planes taking off from ITASE-1.

With recovery the last remaining piece of the campaign, much of the crew headed north yesterday. Only six of us remain, and we will all be glad to no longer be on shifts watching for our little data packets. Hopefully we can get a quick recovery done and head north ourselves, but we’re not sure when that will be yet.

I went on one adventure this week, and that was to go out to Hut Point to watch the ice breaker on its way in. It is clearing the way for the big cargo vessel that will arrive this week and supply McMurdo with 18 months worth of food and supplies. Steve and I went out hoping to see some awesome ice crushing action, but the boat was too far away to really see do its thing. Instead, we were treated to a bunch of seals swimming by. Seals look like way more majestic animals in the water than they do on the ice. It was fun to watch them swim and play with each other in the crystal clear water.

Every Thursday night at Scott Base, they have America night, which is the only time Americans are allowed in their bar (I mentioned this in a previous blog post- the only other time I’ve gone to America night). On Friday morning as a special treat, they opened up Scott Base for Day Bar America Night. So night shift people could enjoy as well! Since there is usually very little social life for night shifters, this was a pleasant break from the usual routine.

Outside Scott Base, there is a veritable swarm of seals, so I took a couple pictures of them.

Now we get a day or two of absolutely nothing to do on SPIDER while logistics of recovery are worked out. Hopefully we’ll have nice weather and I can get out and find something more exciting to document!


SPIDER has now been at float for a little over a week. The payload has been very slowly wandering south, a different trajectory than you’d usually expect for an LDB. Normally they make circular trips around the continent, but SPIDER is doing her own thing, wandering in an approximately straight line.

SPIDER's flight path so far after a week.

SPIDER’s flight path so far after a week.

While SPIDER was in our line of sight, we could communicate with the payload with high bandwidth- it was almost no different than commanding and data streaming on the ground. For those first couple of days, we got to make tweaks and get fast feedback and got all the systems in nominal working configuration. The change to over the horizon telemetry was stark. Now, our standard operating mode is through an Iridium link. This link provides us with a packet approximately the size of a text message every 15 minutes, providing us with a few snippets of temperature data, pointing information, and system states that inform us only about gross health of the system. We can also command through this link, although commands can take up to a minute or two to get to the payload, and then you have to wait up to 15 minutes to get a new packet to confirm that your command went through.

I was very nervous before flight about this limited information, but it has in fact been quite sufficient. SPIDER is boring. It is just working. It’s a great position to be in, especially since there are remarkably few knobs you can tweak to fix anything now that it’s up there!

Once a day, during our helium-3 fridge cycle, we get to turn on our high bandwidth antenna and get data streams and fast commanding. We only turn this link on during fridge cycles because our detectors are very sensitive to it and so take no useful data while it is on. We can get about 20 minutes of compressed old detector data for about 80 detectors (out of ~2000) during this high bandwidth period, which means that we get to spend the whole next day obsessing over this tiny data set and seeing what we can learn from it.

And let me tell you, analyzing real CMB data is awesome. We have a running joke in SPIDER about what qualifies as “science”. There is a lot of experimental physics that very much does not feel like science, but a lot more like grunt work or art and crafts. Without a doubt, we are now definitely doing science, and it is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Can’t wait to have all that data at my finger tips once we get our hard drives back!

These days we are monitoring the payload from an office in town, and going out to LDB to pack up the lab when there is time. So I don’t have a lot of pictures. I’ve posted below the few I’ve taken since launch, and also courtesy of Steve, my last photo with SPIDER.

SPIDER and me on hang test day.

SPIDER and me on hang test day.


This is surreal.

I have been working on SPIDER for three and a half years, and much of the rest of the collaboration has been working for many years beyond that. We have all gone through intense times of stress and disappointment, victories and defeats. The personal sacrifice on the part of every individual on the team to get SPIDER to the point of flight readiness has been a weight on all of our shoulders as we prepared to launch our hopes and dreams on a balloon.

Ballooning is incredibly risky. Everything can work flawlessly on the ground, and then one thing can break during launch, or freeze or overheat at float altitude, and no amount of commanding from afar can bring it back to life. This happens so often in ballooning, and all you can do is obsess over every aspect of the experiment, have redundancy where possible, and hope that there is nothing that you have missed. Luck helps too.

We can happily report that so far as we can tell, everything is working fantastically. We had a couple of bugs to sort out, but had the necessary redundancy and planning to deal with the problems that arose. None of our major fears came to pass, and we are now taking some state of the art pictures of the CMB. I am so proud of this team and what we have accomplished. I work with a remarkable group of people- a dedicated, hardworking, and brilliant team that I am also privileged to call friends. We have had high highs and low lows. We have had a grueling integration campaign in Texas, a government shutdown delay our launch by a year, a host of cryo-tastrophes, shipping damage, broken components, and weather delays upon weather delays. But we have worked diligently toward this single goal, and now that we have met it, I couldn’t be more proud.

Ok, now that I have indulged in sentimentality, let me tell you about launch day. Since time of day means absolutely nothing here, I will define launch day as starting at 4:30 am Dec. 31, since that is the last time I was asleep before we launched. This was hang test day. Before you launch, you have to go through the motions of getting ready to launch. The launch vehicle comes and picks up SPIDER and takes her out, but then stops before going to the pad. We make sure all our systems are functioning and all of our telemetry links are operational, and then come back inside. This is also a great opportunity for pictures!

We rolled out a bit after 8, so everyone got in early that day to prepare. During the hang test, we were informed that weather for the next day would be good for a launch, which was absolutely thrilling to hear, but also meant we had a very long day ahead of us. Before launching, we needed to fill our helium tank to the brim, which takes several hours, and ensure that every last little thing was in working order and ready to fly. For me, this meant I didn’t sleep that night (though I did make an effort for a couple of hours). I was SO excited and terrified.

We rolled out around 4 am on New Years Day, and the weather seemed perfect. I was posted inside, monitoring the health of our cryostat and issuing commands for valving operations. As we got the all clear from the weatherman to roll out to the pad and lay out the flight train around 8 am, we were all giddy with anticipation. It was happening. We were ready. The weather was perfect.

But the weather wasn’t perfect. The winds higher up where the balloon would be during launch were too fast, and so we were put in a weather hold. This lasted for something like 5 hours, while we all kept monitoring systems, ready to launch whenever they would clear us. The adrenaline started fading, and I got tired, so I made a trip out to the pad to get excited and woken up again. Shortly after I returned inside, we got the word that the winds had settled, and we were launching.

I planted myself in front of my cryo plots, and nervously watched, willing everything to stay ok for one more hour as the balloon inflated. I made a quick sprint outside to see the beginning of balloon inflation, and after sending my final valving commands minutes before launch, I ran outside again to watch the balloon take SPIDER away. I was a mess of nervous energy, along with most of the rest of the team. As soon as we were off the ground, I raced back inside to check on systems. I radioed the team, gleefully informing them that cryo looked fine, that everything looked fine. We had survived launch.

Over the next couple of hours, we all huddled around our computers, and as each subsystem came online, working as designed, we all cheered. By 9 PM, we were at float altitude and nothing had gone seriously wrong. I went home and slept like a rock as others got all of the details sorted and started taking data on the CMB.

Now we’re on shifts monitoring the tiny packet of data we receive every 10-15 minutes telling us that everything is ok up there. And everything is ok up there. Just like we designed it.

Even more penguin, SPIDER glamour shots, and the COSI SPB launch

Uncle John the penguin stayed out at LDB basically all day when he was here, so I got more footage to share with you all. These capture his experience with the “dance floor” a wooden floor in the snow where payloads sometimes go at LDB to do tests. It was really fun to watch him try to puzzle out what this thing was. In the first video, he finally gathers up his courage and tries to dive onto it. He quickly decides against staying, but in the second video, he sticks around a little longer.

Today we had the second balloon launch of the season. The COSI experiment was launched on a super pressure balloon- a model still being tested that should allow it to fly for 100 days. The road to LDB closed shortly before I tried to head out, so I watched from town on Ob Hill. A fog was mostly covering LDB up until very shortly before launch, so we saw the balloon rise out of the fog very suddenly and smoothly carry the payload away. We could see it fully inflated later in the day through binoculars. Pretty spectacular!

Jon got an incredible video out at LDB of the balloon eclipsing the sun as it was released.

That makes it two launches down and one to go. We hear there might be good weather coming our way on Thursday… We will be ready for it! We’re fully assembled and ready to go to space!

Christmas, nearly finished SPIDER, and MORE PENGUIN

As I was uploading photos to make a perfectly mundane penguin-less blog post, Ziggy ran into the high bay proclaiming the arrival of an adelie at LDB. Of course, all work immediately stopped, and we ran outside to meet him. This blog post can’t be chronological now, because penguins must come before all else. Meet Uncle John the penguin!

Edit: now with video!

This past week, we’ve seen a lot of snow and wind, so there have been no opportunities for balloon launching and few opportunities to get SPIDER outside. Going outside is necessary so we can calibrate our absolute pointing sensors and make sure that our solar panels and antenna communications work. It’s just about all we have left to do, and hopefully will happen today!

In the mean time, we’ve gone out on our front porch a couple of times, and wrapped everything up to be sun-proof.

This week we also got a Christmas party with several Santas and a fantastic Christmas feast. We also did a little decorating ourselves to make the high bay more festive.

We’re feeling very good with where our experiment stands now, and are just hoping that the weather cooperates and allows us to launch very soon. We are all tired from a long season and some hard days of work, but very proud of the experiment we’ve put together, and very excited for it to get up there and do some great science. Here’s hoping for a launch early this week!

And of course, to end, here are some scenic photos from a run I took recently up Arrival Heights.

More penguin, more scenery, and ANITA’s balloon launch!

The past several days have been BUSY. We started with Sunday, during which we filled our 1200 L liquid helium tank to the brim. During that somewhat long process, we were forced to take a break when we learned that our penguin friend had decided to return to LDB. Naturally, everyone dropped what they were doing to go take pictures, and I was happily able to get some better footage (including penguin sounds!) than I got the day before.

Aside from taking pictures of penguins, we’ve been productive in a lot of other ways. On one of my morning rides in, when we dropped off a flight crew at their plane, they asked if I wanted to get a tour of the plane. I got to sit in the pilot’s chair, which was really cool.

In SPIDER land, we’ve been scanning our telescope and got our sunshields installed. Tonight, we’ll finish getting all of our solar panels installed, and then we’ll be just about fully integrated.

Yesterday, we were visited by a group of congressmen from the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The group also included the director of the NSF and several NASA people. I had a brief conversation with Darrell Issa and a nice chat with staffers. Lamar Smith liked Natalie’s Texas flag and one of the California reps wanted his picture taken with Ed and the California flag. Everyone was taking pictures of SPIDER and asking questions. It was a nice change of pace to have people of influence take a tour and express interest in what we’re doing!

Interlude for pictures of the scenery.

Finally, today we witnessed our first balloon launch of the season out at LDB. ANITA, an experiment that detects interactions of incredibly high energy neutrinos with the Antarctic ice, was the first to go up. The launch went very smoothly, and was a treat to finally get to see!

Watching the balloon launch was very exciting, but thinking about our turn, watching our baby float away like that– SPIDER launch day is going to be very nerve-wracking. Day by day, we get closer to launch ready, though! Below is a recent video of scanning. In a few days, her lens caps will be removed, and she’ll be doing this scan at 100,000 feet, collecting a fantastic CMB data set!


When you tell people you are going to Antarctica, without fail the first thing they want to know about is whether you will see penguins. The second thing they want to know is whether you can bring one home with you. I knew the answer to the second question, but was hesitant about the first. Folks who have been down before have cautioned that I might not get to see any penguins since they only show up later in the season as the ice starts to break, and even if I did, they would probably be at a distance.

So when we heard a rumor near the end of the work day yesterday that an Emperor had been sighted near the road, I got excited that I might be able to take a picture out the window of the van of a speck out in the distant whiteness that I could post and say “Penguin!” just to prove I had seen one.

But Jon and Cynthia and I got much luckier than that. We spotted him off the road, and our shuttle driver pulled off and let us out. The penguin was scootching along on his belly, and he was headed right toward us! We were as close to an emperor penguin as we could possibly be without violating the rules of interfering with wildlife. He would scootch on his belly for a while (see video) and then stand up, look around, squawk, waddle on his feet a little while, and then go back to belly scootching. We were giggly and giddy the whole time, and for hours afterwards. There is such a thing as a penguin high.

My camera malfunctioned, of course, at the worst possible time, so I did not get many pictures or video. I’ll post what I did take, though, and check out other SPIDER people’s blogs for more. Everyone on the team got to see him as he made his way out to hang out at LDB!

Thanksgiving and another week of progress

The combination of being ridiculously busy and having poor (if any) internet when I do have downtime has prevented me from blogging at all this week. I am at this moment starting a calibration night shift (~11 PM to ~noon), so I’ll take advantage of this time when others are sleeping to use the unclogged internet!

Going back a week to Thanksgiving to begin. It’s never easy to be away from home for the holidays, but the wonderful Thanksgiving(s) we had here made the holiday special all the same. Last Thursday, the LDB galley staff went all out and cooked us an incredible feast for lunch. It had everything you could want from a home cooked Thanksgiving meal. And some of us poor souls had to stay a little late and eat the left overs for dinner too.

What more could you want for a Thanksgiving meal?

What more could you want for a Thanksgiving meal?

Around here, all holidays are moved to Saturdays. Since most people work six days a week and get Sundays off, this gives them the opportunity to get two days in a row off and to be more able to enjoy the holiday. So the big day was last Saturday. We worked a somewhat shorter day, and then met for the big dinner at 7. During the day, Cynthia used her mad crafty skills to make accessories out of materials in the lab. So folks looked a little more spruced up for dinner!

I didn’t take any photos on Thanksgiving, but I have stolen Cynthia’s to share with you.

This week, we have been working like mad to get our instrument flight ready. You have two competing interests- being very careful to make all the measurements you can to calibrate your instrument before you launch it and can never calibrate it again, and also completing every pre-flight step as quickly as possible so we are ready whenever the weather is suitable for launch. Other competing interests- like sleep, relaxation, fun- are no longer so high in priority. Because of that, I don’t have a lot of pictures from this week. So below is a somewhat random assortment.

First- trunion throw competition. Once the arm wrestling tournament ended due to too many injuries, we came up with a new contest- who could throw the non-flight trunions (basically, hunks of steel) the furthest. Jon and his Icelandic strength took home the prize.

Second, Bill and I checked out the Obs Tube again in sunnier weather than the first time. The colors were new, and the whales were making tons of sounds.

Finally, a couple pictures from the last few nights of calibration. My main job right now is pointing a spectrometer at our detectors so we can characterize their response as a function of the frequency of light they detect. The measurement is going really well, and hopefully should finish up tonight, leaving me with a mountain of data to analyze. It can be a pain to calibrate over 2000 detectors, but there are worse problems to have!