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!

Under the ice and more cryo progress

This week started off with the very important and always somewhat nerve-racking step of moving Theo (our cyrostat) to the gondola from its ground station cart. We are well practiced at this maneuver, but you always have to be on your A game when transporting a cryogenic vessel that’s under vacuum. Happily, this went off without a hitch on Sunday!

Theo mounted on the gondola, along with a bunch of people in hard hats.

Theo mounted on the gondola, along with a bunch of people in hard hats.

After that long day on Sunday, we were told to take Monday off in preparation for the very busy next month that spans from the first helium fill until launch. We took full advantage of the day, starting with a trip to the Obs Tube.

The Obs Tube is a tube situated in the sea ice just down the hill from town. It fits one person, and takes you via ladder down a few meters to a compartment with windows below the ice. I don’t have any more adjectives to describe these sort of incredible experiences I’m having down here, so I guess I’ll just go with how my buddy Romano described it: f—in’ badass. The sea is brimming with life, despite the cold. Tiny white fishes are everywhere moving in slow motion. Little transparent white skeletal looking creatures and tiny jellyfish-looking things make you double take as you realize they are alive. And the coolest part- the sounds of the whales or seals. We imitate them to each other and it sounds like we are making lame sci fi laser gun sounds effects: “Pew pew!” But that’s exactly what it sounds like.

After that, Ed and I hit the gym to do some climbing. There are three gyms here- the weights gym, the gerbil gym, and the big gym. Here are a couple pictures of the big gym.

Later on, 12 members of the SPIDER team participated in a dodgeball tournament. It was a lot of fun, despite the two SPIDER teams finishing last.

The next day, we took the dive and put liquid helium into the main tank. Cooling warm(-ish) thing down to 4 K causes a lot of boil off and high pressures in the tank, so we do it slowly and keep people around for the 72 hours it takes for everything to equilibrate, just to make sure Theo is happy. So far, so good! Tomorrow, we should have superfluid, and within a day or two after that, a fully functioning microwave polarimeter!

Cooling down and pressure ridge tour

Yesterday we took our next big step toward a functioning experiment- we transferred liquid nitrogen into the main tank of the cryostat. It’s always exciting to get to the cryogens step. Exciting meant only in the sense of happy anticipation, and not at all in the sense of being terrified something will go wrong in an unrecoverable manner, of course. I’ve never been one to worry. In all seriousness, though, 28 hours in and things are looking good.

While the nitrogen fill was happening, I recorded what I thought was an amusing series of photos. The task at hand was to fill a bucket with water. The bucket is used as a heat sink to warm up the exhaust pipe from the cryostat. This keeps the check valve at the very end from freezing. Since drinking water is a limited resource in Antarctica, we wanted to use non-precious water. Bill suggested snow. Ed and I filled the bucket, brought it inside, and got impatient. It needed to melt faster. Below is the sequence leading to the fulfillment of that goal.

Several of us woke up very early this morning to leave on a 4 am tour of the pressure ridges near Scott Base. Pressure ridges form from the sea ice flowing up against the point where Scott base is located. This makes waves in the ice that crack on the crests to make jagged ice structures and on the troughs to create pools filled from the ocean below. The ridges are the most stunning part of Antarctica I have seen to date- well worth the lost sleep.

It was a snowy, windy day, so the photos don’t begin to capture it. In real life, the blue ice stood out sharply against the grey hills toward McMurdo and the white ice everywhere else. I felt like I was on a different planet, or in some artist’s imagination, or in a Dr. Seuss book. Totally unreal, and an experience I will never forget.

A week of waiting

I haven’t written a post in a week. Reasons for this include a lack of exciting activity, a lack of pictures, and overall melancholy as we have been playing the waiting game, trying our best to get Theo ready for cryogens.

We have hopefully found and fixed the last of our leaks– it is really difficult to get an experiment with that many vacuum flanges to be vacuum tight! The smallest scratch on a surface or tiny piece of schmutz on an o-ring can break your vacuum. Despite our vast collective experience and careful work in closing up, mistakes are made. Thankfully, we have also become very adept at finding and fixing leaks! After today’s leak check, we think we are close to as low of a pressure as we can achieve with no detectable leaks. Hopefully we will decide to fill liquid nitrogen tomorrow, and then the real fun begins! Might have base temperature detectors this time next week! But I am getting ahead of myself.

Here are some pictures from this week. First, wrapping up my vehicles and buildings tour:

A year and a bit ago when SPIDER was getting integrated in Palestine, TX, a few of us had a memorable night of watching some of the riggers arm wrestle, and then joining in the contest ourselves. That inspired Natalie to organize a SPIDER arm wrestling tournament. We’ve been doing matches after lunch in the galley, and they have been a nice light-hearted break from work. Below, Ivan (undefeated) was teaching Johanna technique, and Sean was her guinea pig.

Today we arrived at LDB to find a seal in our backyard! It’s a long ways to the nearest water, so we are curious how he got there. He quickly scooted his way across and out of LDB, happily heading in the correct direction toward water.

I’ll close with a picture of Erebus because it looks cool every day and I only take a picture every other day, but that’s still a lot of pictures, so I have to post one.

Erebus often has its own clouds. Here, there is a strip of them, so you can see the top and bottom.

Erebus often has its own clouds. Here, there is a strip of them, so you can see the top and bottom.

Closing up timelapse

Jon set up some go pros around the high bay to take pictures every 10 seconds while we were closing up. The result is pretty sweet. You can see the various layers going on the cryostat, and the domes being closed up. I wore red for a couple consecutive days, so I’m easy to pick out!