LDB, Scott Base, and Observation Hill

So far, this trip has been a lot of waiting. Waiting a week in Christchurch while bad weather kept us from getting to the Ice, and now, waiting for planes to get fixed so that our cargo can arrive and we can get to work. We have had four days in Antarctica now, and each day has increased our nervousness about schedule. Our cargo was slated to be here 13 days ago, and with an experiment as big as ours, every day to get it ready to fly counts. Crossing our fingers now that it will arrive very early tomorrow, and we can start to make tangible progress!

We have made some progress over the last couple of days. The Princeton team headed out to LDB (Long Duration Ballooning) for the first time, and got our cryostat into the high bay and uncrated. LDB is kind of out in the middle of nowhere- a 30 minute ride in a van from McMurdo. This is a bit of a painful commute (the roads are very bumpy), but once you’re out there, the scenery is fantastic. We’re near Mt. Erebus, the southernmost active volcano. You can see the smoke coming out of the top of it.

With Theo uncrated, there was little else to do with our tools still in New Zealand. Yesterday, we watched game 7 of the World Series, played games, and then went to America night at Scott Base. It’s the one night a week the Kiwis let us into their bar.

The bars at McMurdo are solid as well. Gallagher’s is a nice big place, with air hockey and fooseball. Southern Exposure is smaller, with a nice pool table, shuffleboard, and fooseball. If you know me, you know where I’m spending a lot of my free time here… Can’t let my pool skills get rusty!

Today, some of us went for a hike up Observation Hill, right next to McMurdo. It was a steep climb up in snow, but the view was well worth it.

Tonight is the Halloween Party, and then tomorrow we finally get to start working!

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Finally in Antarctica!

After a week of weather delays, we finally arrived in Antarctica yesterday. Even after the anticipation of working on SPIDER for three years and the year delay after the government shutdown and our final delay in Christchurch, my excitement was not disappointed. This place exceeds all expectations. I have been saying WOW a lot the past couple of days. It is unreal- like a different world. I feel so lucky to be able to see it. I hope my pictures and descriptions can do it some small amount of justice!

Our day started yesterday with a 5:30 am shuttle to the airport. We boarded a C17 at around 8:30, and were in the air a bit after 9. It was a five and a half hour flight to the Ice. Very noisy, but with ear plugs not so bad. Certainly a unique flying experience!

After arriving on the Ice, it was an hour shuttle ride to town. There we started our long list of orientation, safety, and training info sessions. We beat almost all of our cargo down here, so for now, there is very little work we can do on SPIDER. This has given us an opportunity to explore and get situated before we become incredibly busy. Happily, 7 more members of our team arrived this morning, so we are all getting adjusted and adventuring together.

After getting the newcomers moved in and settled, some of us went on a little hike out to Hut Point. It provided some really scenic views and brought us near our first wildlife: seals!

It is about 14 F here in McMurdo, -3 with windchill. But I was sweating on our hike. ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear is very good stuff indeed. We were all decked out in our Big Reds and ski pants, except Jon, who opted for his fancy pants Icelandic brand stuff.

And to end, here is a group shot from Steve.

Steve's tripod picture of the first 10 SPIDERers. We made it!

Steve’s tripod picture of the first 10 SPIDERers. We made it!

Weather delays

Several people have messaged me lately asking for updates on how things are in Antarctica, so I thought I should make a quick post clarifying: We are still in Christchurch. We have now been delayed four days due to bad weather in McMurdo. It’s impossible to say when we will get to go. But I will certainly post pictures and an update when we get there. For now, here are a couple pictures of the cheese monger where we bought a big wheel of cheese to bring to Antarctica. It was a magical place.

A shelf of aging cheese. The top shelf haven't grown rinds yet. We got ours from the fifth shelf down.

A shelf of aging cheese. The top shelf haven’t grown rinds yet. We got ours from the fifth shelf down.

Ed and so much cheese.

Ed and so much cheese.

Bonus day in New Zealand

The weather in McMurdo was bad today, so we got a call at 4:30 in the morning informing us that we were delayed 24 hours. Since it was a really nice day in Christchurch, this gave us the opportunity to do some more exploring. Today, we left the city and took to the hills for a hike. We took the Bridle Path up and over a hill to Lyttelton, a little port town. It was a short hike, but afforded us a breathtaking view, one which I’m sorry to say was impossible to capture with a camera. But I sure did try. I am sure Ed and Steve will have a good set too, what with their fancy cameras and photography skills.

First stop: Christchurch

Note: I added links to Ed’s and Steve’s blogs in the sidebar, and will add more blogs as more people make their journey south. For much nicer pictures and different perspectives (and pictures that include me in them) check those out!

I am happy to report that my travel buddies Ed, Steve, and I (along with our luggage!) made it safely to Christchurch yesterday afternoon. That ended what for me was more than 33 hours of travel. On the trip, we got to see Sydney from the air, and it looks like an incredible place. Hoping to spend time there some day. Even more incredible, though, was flying over New Zealand. Wow. Some of the most incredible landscapes I have seen. I’ll take a bunch of pictures when we go backpacking after the Ice, but now I really can’t wait for that part of the trip!

After a good long sleep last night, we got up this morning to head to the CDC, the confusing acronym for the Clothing Distribution Center. There, we got to watch some wonderful orientation videos and- the most fun part- receive our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear! This is a big pile of clothes that you get to borrow while you’re on the Ice. It looks like this:

Racks of clothes issued to everyone that goes to Antarctica

Racks of clothes issued to everyone that goes to Antarctica

Having finished our work for the day, we headed off to explore Christchurch. After a delicious lunch of lamb, we walked toward to the Botanic Gardens. We had an absolutely gorgeous day to enjoy the last greenery we will see for a long time. The gardens were beautiful and so I took a lot of pictures.

We then proceeded to walk around the City Center.

Ed and Steve in front of the Clock Tower in Christchurch

Ed and Steve in front of the Clock Tower in Christchurch

Christchurch is a unique city. When I first arrived, and in our walking around the outskirts of City Center, I noted that many of the buildings looked very new, and that there was a lot of construction going on. But I didn’t quite understand what the locals and others who have seen it before the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes were talking about when they spoke about all the damage that still remained and how the city was just not the same, even after all the rebuilding efforts. It really hit home once we got to the heart of City Center:

Christchurch Cathedral. This is where our walking tour took a very sad turn.

Christchurch Cathedral. This is where our walking tour took a very sad turn.

A lot of buildings looked like this or worse. It was very sad to see. Even almost four years after the earthquake, Christchurch still in many ways feels like a memorial to its old self and to those who died. I wish I could have seen it before.

I was impressed by the efforts to bring beauty to the ugliness of the devastation. Along the fences and boards that walled off the cathedral and nearby damaged buildings, there was art.

An innovative way to make a chain link fence beautiful

An innovative way to make a chain link fence beautiful

They also used sea containers to set up a really cool mall in the aftermath of the earthquake.

There is a mall called Re:Start in City Center made entirely of sea containers. It was built in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. We all agreed that it was a really awesome place.

There is a mall called Re:Start in City Center made entirely of sea containers. It was built in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake. We all agreed that it was a really awesome place.

There were sculptures and installations and art throughout City Center, and it really helped brighten up what would otherwise have been an incredibly depressing place.

Steve and flag art

To end the day, we walked into a bar called the Institution. It was a small little place with locally brewed beer, delicious cheese, and some really nice bartenders.

Almost everywhere we’ve gone in Christchurch, we have run into other folks on their way to Antarctica. Everyone is doing something different down there and has an interesting story about how they ended up doing this sort of job. It has made Christchurch feel like a very small town, though I’m sure McMurdo will feel much smaller.

We are scheduled to fly out at 9 AM tomorrow, with a 5:30 shuttle from our hotel. Hopefully the weather conditions in McMurdo allow us to make the flight, but if not, I sure wouldn’t mind hanging out in Christchurch a little while longer!

Pre-deployment introduction

Here begins a blog about my experience deploying to Antarctica to launch the SPIDER experiment. I haven’t kept a blog since Xanga was a thing, but I will do my best to post about my experience so all of my friends and family who have been so excited for this adventure can partake along with me. I plan for this blog to be not too scientific, as I anticipate that most of the people who read it will not be physicists. However, I’m not going down to Antarctica just to sight see, so I might get into some of the details of SPIDER too. By way of introduction:

Who am I?

I’m Anne Gambrel, a fourth year grad student at Princeton in the physics department. I’m from Omaha, and went to college at the University of Tulsa. I’ve never been to Antarctica before (not true of everyone on our team!), and will leave the US on Oct. 16. Our schedule has us launching in mid to late December, and cutting down and packing up by the end of January. So this blog will document about 3 and a half months of life on the Ice.

What is SPIDER?

SPIDER (which isn’t an acronym for anything anymore- it’s just our experiment’s name) is a balloon-borne telescope designed to look at the very earliest light we can see in the universe. You can see what it looks like in the picture below, taken last summer in Texas.

5 of SPIDER's 6 telescopes looking at photons in Palestine, TX in Summer 2013. Photo by Jon Gudmundsson.

5 of SPIDER’s 6 telescopes looking at photons in Palestine, TX in Summer 2013. Photo by Jon Gudmundsson

You can see a ring of six circles around the top end of SPIDER. Each of these is the top of an individual telescope. The telescopes are each about 100 lbs, 5 ft in length, and have incredibly sensitive microwave detectors. The light that we observe is not in the visible spectrum, but instead has much longer wavelength- about 2 mm. We use very sensitive superconducting devices to measure the power of that faint radiation. SPIDER uses a lot of interacting subsystems that cooperate to enable our detectors to work and to look where we want to in the sky, but I’ll save those details for another time.

Why do you have to go to Antarctica?

A lot of reasons! We want to put SPIDER on a balloon so we can look at the sky above the atmosphere, a big microwave emitter. Antarctica is a great place to launch a balloon. In the Austral summer, winds set up around the South Pole that keep the balloon rotating over the continent, so that when we cut it down, it lands on the ice, where we can recover it. We also use the 24 hours of sunlight to power the instrument.

Planck_CMB

The sky in microwave, as imaged by the Planck satellite. The red and blue hot and cold spots differ by only 0.001 K. The sky is very uniform in microwave! Compare this to the rich structure you see in stars and galaxies from visible light.

What is SPIDER’s goal?

We are trying to detect a very specific pattern in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. This pattern is a predicted signature of primordial gravity waves. Our best theory about what happened in the very earliest fraction of a second after the big bang is a period of exponential expansion–an explosive growth in spacetime that lasted ~10^-33 s. A lot of models for this theory predict that this rapid expansion would leave ripples in space time–gravity waves–that should be detectable in the cosmic microwave background SPIDER observes. One group, BICEP2, announced earlier this year that they had detected this signature with their telescope at the South Pole. Since then, their conclusion has become uncertain as new data has been published which shows our galaxy emits light with the same polarization property as we would expect from gravity waves. SPIDER, a more sensitive instrument observing more of the sky, should have the best measurement to date of the gravitational wave signature if it is there.

More when I get to Antarctica!

See you on the Ice!

A good chunk of the SPIDER team (including the team dog, Laika!) at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, TX. Photo from Jon Gudmundsson.

A good chunk of the SPIDER team (including the team dog, Laika!) at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, TX. Photo from Jon Gudmundsson.