Life Update

Hello again! Those who have been following this blog for the past few months may have been wondering why I stopped posting halfway through my travel updates. The answer is that life got in the way (as it has a way of doing)…but as I am now finishing up one of my busiest semesters in graduate school so far, I am happy to announce my return. Thanks for bearing with me, and read on for more Antarctic adventures!

Even after leaving Antarctica, Boston made sure that I wasn’t done with extreme winter adventures. This year’s record-breaking blizzards had everyone asking the same question: car or snowbank?

Even after leaving Antarctica, Boston made sure that I wasn’t done with extreme winter adventures. This year’s record-breaking blizzards had everyone asking the same question: car or snowbank?

For those who may be curious, here are some of the things that I have been up to at work over the past three months:

In January, my research group published a new round of results. The most exciting (to me) is the culmination of our group’s collaboration with the Planck research team. Together, we have explored the microwave sky in more detail than anyone has ever been able to study it before. We have learned that even in one of the clearest patches of sky, dust from our galaxy still glows brightly and must be taken into account before we can draw conclusions about the earliest moments of our Universe’s existence (my research group’s primary goal). See my upcoming post on our science for more details!

At the beginning of March, I passed my Research Exam! (Preparing for this was the main reason for my initial disappearance from the blogosphere.) To achieve this, I had to write a report on the work I have completed in graduate school so far and present my research to a faculty committee. The committee asked me questions about my work and related areas of astrophysics and determined that I was knowledgeable enough to continue my studies. This means that according to the Harvard Astronomy Department, I have completed my candidacy/masters student work and I am officially a “Ph.D. Candidate.” I am now transitioning to my thesis work and plan to graduate in 2018.

Finally, this semester I have been the teaching assistant for Harvard’s undergraduate class on methods of observational astronomy. The capstone of the class is a trip to the Whipple Observatory in Arizona, during which the students collect their own observations on science-grade telescopes. They then analyze this data for their final projects. I had a fantastic time getting to know my students (and honing my own observational astronomy skills) this semester. The weather wasn’t great during our observing trip, but the clouds allowed the students’ musical talents to come to the forefront. During one of our cloudy nights, they recorded an homage to the professor for the class. Feel free to check it out below! (Featuring camera work and a cameo by yours truly.)

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Week Two

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Now that I’ve been here two weeks, I’ve really come to appreciate the luxury of time off on Sundays. Today I caught up on a week’s worth of sleep, went out to the telescope for two hours to show it off to the rest of the station for our “MAPO Open House,” and lounged around. Tonight we are having another bad movie night, a time-honored South Pole tradition. Last Sunday we saw “The Room” and tonight the agenda includes “Death Race 2000.” On Wednesday our group hosted a screening of “Spice World,” the 1997 movie about The Spice Girls. This is another group tradition, because one proposed name for the Keck Array was SPICE (the South Pole Inflationary Cosmology Experiment). Furthermore, since Keck has five receivers and there are five members of the Spice Girls, each receiver has a Spice Girls nickname. Much to my amusement, this means that everyone in our group – including the senior professors – can rattle off the names of all five Spice Girls at a moment’s notice. The movie is quite ridiculous, and quite enjoyable if one goes into a screening ready to make fun of everything. (The movie collection here is actually excellent; it includes everything from classics like Casablanca and Hitchcock to recent blockbusters like the Hunger Games movies. TV shows are well-represented too. I could do nothing but watch movies and TV for my entire deployment, and I still wouldn’t get through everything.)

Flyer on the rec board for our not-to-be-missed event.

Flyer on the rec board for our not-to-be-missed event.

On the work front, the most exciting development is that Kirit and Abby arrived on Monday! They have settled in well and we’ve been able to start some of the work that requires a larger team of people, like taking the forebaffles off of the telescope receivers. (Normally we have the forebaffles on while taking data to block out light from other sources, like the Sun and the ground.) Unfortunately, we got word from Caltech that the focal planes have been delayed again, so we haven’t yet taken the next step of removing receivers from the mount. There is still hope that they might arrive before Christmas, but we’re starting to prepare for the possibility that they won’t get here until January. I will be gone by then, but hopefully I’ll still get to help with the receiver prep leading up to their arrival.

The tops of the five Keck receivers protruding from the mount, with the forebaffles removed.

The tops of the five Keck receivers protruding from the mount, with the forebaffles removed.

In lieu of removing telescope receivers, we have been keeping busy with other tasks to improve the telescope’s operation and testing out equipment that won’t be needed until later in the season. One thing that I helped with is building a forebaffle for our star camera. This is a small optical telescope that shares the mount with our five CMB receivers. We use it to calibrate exactly where the telescope is pointing – by telling the telescope to point at a bright star and then adjusting the star camera so that the star is in exactly the center of the field, we can correct for any small position errors. Such errors tend to build up over time, since the mount isn’t perfect and the telescope therefore doesn’t always move exactly where we tell it to move. In the summertime the sky is bright, so we were having a hard time seeing enough stars due to glare from the sun and reflections off of the very shiny CMB forebaffles. Our solution is basically a hollow cardboard tube with some foam on the end that gets strapped on top of the star camera to block out some of this extraneous light, but it works well – in a new star pointing test run, we were able to see many more stars than before.

Star camera forebaffle -- simple scrounged cardboard and foam, but it worked well!

Star camera forebaffle — simple scrounged materials, but it worked well!

We have also been helping out with the BICEP3 assembly. The BICEP3 team finally got all of their urgently-needed cargo this week, so things are in full swing over in DSL. Current tasks include assembling the groundshield (which will block heat from the ground, so that it doesn’t interfere with measurements of the sky), getting the mount working properly with the telescope control software so that will point in the correct direction, and putting together the BICEP3 telescope receiver. I spent two afternoons helping put together various hardware pieces: a series of precisely-spaced bolts for the BICEP3 groundshield and a cart for moving the BICEP3 cryostat around the lab. Putting things together isn’t particularly creative work, but I find it very satisfying to be able to see that my efforts have produced something tangible. The BICEP3 team has been grateful for the extra help, as they are a bit behind on their assembly schedule – but not so far behind that anyone is panicking yet.

One of the eighty or so groundshield bolts. The brass nuts had to be precisely spaced to ensure a perfect fit.

Assembled cart with the lower part of the BICEP3 cryostat in place on top.Top: One of the eighty or so groundshield bolts. The brass nuts had to be precisely spaced to ensure a perfect fit. Bottom: Assembled cart with the lower part of the BICEP3 cryostat in place on top.

On the non-work front, I learned to drive a snowmobile this week! Although our group’s telescopes are close enough to the main station that snowmobile use generally isn’t necessary, driving one is quite fun. The station keeps a number of snowmobiles on hand, mostly for people who need to spend a lot of time traveling from one building to another, or for hauling cargo back and forth. MAPO has a dedicated snowmobile, which mostly gets used by our machinist but is available to us too. I got to drive it to DSL and back to transport some heavy equipment. I also drove a second snowmobile from DSL back to the main station to transport four people to dinner. Fuel is precious down here because it is difficult to bring in, so recreational snowmobile use is discouraged.

Snowmobile with cargo sled -- useful for giving up to six extra people (or lots of boxes) a ride.

Snowmobile with cargo sled — useful for giving up to six extra people (or lots of boxes) a ride.

That’s all for now – more soon!

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Week One

Saturday, December 6, 2014

I have now officially completed my first full work week here at Pole. (The schedule is six days on, one day off – most people work 8:30am to 5pm Monday through Saturday.) My typical weekday starts with a group meeting over breakfast, where we discuss the plan of work for the day. Two days a week we try to call into telecons with our collaborators in the US – which start at 6am local time (a challenge for me). This doesn’t always work, as the satellite service is patchy at best. This week we were only able to join for about half of each call. After our breakfast meeting, I walk the half-mile out to the telescope, work until lunchtime, walk back to the main station for lunch, and then go back to the telescope until dinner. On windy days the walk isn’t the most fun part of my day, but I’m glad to have an excuse to get outside and get some exercise. It can also be quite beautiful – we had several days of windy, overcast weather this week, which blew a lot of ice crystals into the air and produced some truly incredible sundogs.

A full-ring sundog, caused by blowing ice crystals.

A full-ring sundog, caused by blowing ice crystals.

Apart from having to get used to getting up early again, my week was actually pretty relaxed – mostly because we are still waiting for our new telescope parts. The first set of focal planes was tested at Harvard this week, which revealed that they needed a bit of rework. This means shipping them back to Caltech, which will cost us another few days. We are hoping that they will leave the US next Friday and arrive here within two weeks from today. We are also waiting for the rest of our work force to arrive. That is happening more immediately – Kirit (my fellow Harvard astronomy grad student) is in McMurdo and will hopefully fly in on Monday and Abby is only waiting on good enough weather to launch ANITA before she is able to come down as well. It will be exciting to have more people around. The BICEP3 group is growing too; four more people arrived this week, bringing our combined total to fifteen.

One of our helium compressors. These deliver helium to the refrigeration system for each receiver, to keep the telescope cold. We check the pressure every two days and add more helium if necessary.

One of our helium compressors. These deliver helium to the refrigeration system for each receiver, to keep the telescope cold. We check the pressure every two days and add more helium if necessary.

In the absence of the focal planes, my work this week has been a mix of typical Keck maintenance tasks and lab prep tasks. On the lab prep side, we have located everything we will need to disassemble and reassemble telescope receivers and have tested that all of the relevant hardware works. On the maintenance side, Grant has been teaching me everything one needs to know to keep Keck running smoothly. The most important collection of tasks happens once every two days, at the end of each observing cycle. Even though Antarctica is quite cold, our telescope needs to be much colder than the outside temperature here to get the best possible data. In fact, our focal planes operate at only a quarter of a degree above absolute zero. To keep them this cold, each receiver is connected to a special “helium sorption refrigerator” containing helium gas. (The other parts of the telescope receiver don’t need to be quite this cold but still need to be far below room temperature, so we cool them using a secondary system called a pulse tube refrigerator. Each pulse tube also contains helium gas.) The helium sorption refrigerators need to be “cycled” every two days to stay cold. While the fridge cycle is going on we can’t take data, so it is a perfect time for telescope maintenance. Maintenance tasks include replenishing the refrigerators’ helium supply if necessary, cleaning the metal track along which the telescope mount rotates, fine-tuning the telescope pointing, and checking to make sure that there is no snow inside the receivers or the ground shield. Snow removal was a big task yesterday due to the bad weather mid-week – we swept and shoveled perhaps a cubic meter of snow out of the ground shield. The most spectacular sundogs of the week appeared to reward our efforts.

Keck with sundog and secondary.

Keck with sundog and secondary.

And with that, I’m off to enjoy a lazy evening and a free day tomorrow. The weather is clearing up again, so we are all hoping for no more delays of people or cargo. Fingers crossed!

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First Two Workdays

Written December 2, 2014

Here is another update! My first two days of work have gone well. Grant and I are still the entire Keck Array workforce, so we’ve been hanging out in MAPO with only occasional visits from BICEP3 people. We heard from our team members still in the US that the Keck telescope focal planes will be slightly delayed leaving, so Grant and I have another few days to take it easy before we have to start prepping seriously for their arrival. Mostly that has meant that I’ve gotten to learn how to operate Keck while it is in data-taking mode, which is pretty fun. The observing schedule is mostly automated, but I got to see how the telescope control computers work and play around with it a bit. We have also been testing various pieces of equipment that haven’t been used since last year and unpacking and organizing the lab in preparation for the work to come.

The Keck control station, where we monitor all of the telescope systems.

The Keck control station, where we monitor all of the telescope systems.

Today we also played host to a BBC film crew, which slightly disrupted our workflow. They are making a documentary about the research our group does and wanted to get footage of real science. Mostly this meant that they were doing silly things like filming my advisor John walking up the stairs onto the roof (where the most impressive view of the telescope is), over and over – and today was the windiest day we’ve had so far (the windchill reached -60F!), so that can’t have been the most fun. They also wanted to interview John in front of the telescope, so Grant and I turned it around to point at the wrong part of the sky so that its most photogenic side could be facing forward. Grant and I apparently weren’t doing photogenic enough science to make the cut, so we won’t be appearing in the special (unless they come back and film us tomorrow), but I’m excited to see how it turns out nonetheless. I have a feeling that all of the epic shots of John “science-ing” will make me completely crack up laughing.

Film crew getting ready to head outside into the wind and cold.

The film crew getting ready to head outside into the wind and cold.

In non-work news, I got a tour of the traverse facilities yesterday evening. The traverse is a series of specially-modified tractors that travel hundreds of miles overland from the coast to the south pole to bring us items that are too heavy to fly in (mostly fuel to heat and operate the station). The tractors all have tank-style treads (rather than wheels) for easier operation in the snow. It takes about three weeks to make the journey, one way. The traverse is operated by a crew of ten people, who live in shipping container-style buildings on skies that are dragged by the tractors. (The living facilities are small but surprisingly nice – the kitchen module is equipped with running water courtesy of a snow-melting device and they have fewer water restrictions than we do on station.) The tractors also haul what are essentially huge plastic sleds with bags of fuel piled on top of them and other cargo sleds and containers, so when everything is hooked together the traverse forms a train that can spread out over as much as a mile. A separate tractor with a special sensor attached in front drives ahead of the main train to scout the route for crevasses. If they find any, they have to stop and blow them up (yes, with explosives) so that the sides get knocked together and the traverse can safely pass over. The crew is only in town for a few days before they start their three-week trip back to the coast, so I’m glad that I was able to get out there to see everything.

IMG_1425 IMG_1429 IMG_1449 From top to bottom: 1) The leading traverse tractor, equipped with a radar probe to search for hidden crevasses. 2) The exterior of one of the container modules and two of the tractors. 3) Inside the kitchen module. 4) The plastic “bladders” used to transport fuel. These have been emptied into the station storage tanks and then partially refilled with air to prevent the bladders from creasing, freezing, and developing leaks on the return trip to the coast.

That’s everything major to report. In minor news, the food continues to be good and I finally made it out to the building where BICEP3 is being installed. (It looks pretty cool.) I watched more Stargate SG-1 tonight and that continues to be good as well.

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Thanksgiving at the South Pole

Written November 30, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone! In honor of the holiday weekend, today’s post will talk about how I celebrated the holiday here at the bottom of the world.

South Pole turkey

Even the turkeys at the South Pole dress warmly.

Thanksgiving at the Pole is celebrated on Saturday, while everyone in the United States is heading off in search of Black Friday sales. (The South Pole, like McMurdo, operates on New Zealand time – so we are 18 hours ahead of Boston and 21 hours ahead of California.) The highlight of the day is a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Everyone on station gets the day off and volunteers pitch in to help prepare food and clean up, so even the kitchen staff can get a break.

The galley, decorated for Thanksgiving.

The galley, decorated for Thanksgiving.

My Thanksgiving Saturday began late, as I took advantage of the day off to sleep in. I then joined other people from my group for a delicious Thanksgiving brunch. I’ve been very impressed with the food here so far – there are fewer options than dining in McMurdo, but the quality is at least as high. Highlights of the brunch included made-to-order fried eggs, sausage, strawberry blintzes, and chocolate-covered fresh strawberries.

After brunch, we had a group meeting. Mostly everyone discussed the progress made on BICEP3 since the last meeting and made plans for the next two weeks. A lot of cargo arrived on my flight and a lot more is scheduled to come in over the next few days, so there is a lot to do. Since Grant has been continuing to run the Keck Array in normal data-taking mode, there was little to report from our side of group operations. Now that my arrival has doubled the Keck workforce, we will have separate Keck meetings every workday. Our meetings will be at 7:30am, but since breakfast ends at 8am on normal workdays anyway this is just a second reason to get up early. With constant 24-hour sunlight, the meal schedule is as good a way as any to regulate sleeping times.

After the meeting, one of the communication satellites was up so I took advantage of the temporary Internet and phone connection to call family and hear about how they spent Thanksgiving. This is the first year I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving away from my entire family, so it was especially nice to have a chance to call them. Calling the US is surprisingly easy from the South Pole – I have my own phone here, so I can talk as long as I want (as long as the connection cooperates). The US Antarctic Program headquarters are in Denver, so I have a Denver number and can call anywhere in the United States just as I could from a phone at home. All phone calls between Denver and the USAP-operated Antarctic bases are local calls (to my amusement), so calling my family there is even easier.

After the satellite set there was still a little time before dinner started, so I got a tour of “the arches” from one of the guys who is here to work on IceCube operations. (IceCube is an experiment that looks for neutrinos passing through the polar ice and is a huge operation; their detectors cover a square kilometer of ground and it cost twice as much to build as the South Pole station. Over one hundred people came down to help build it, but now that it is fully operational only a handful of people come down every year to do repairs and upgrades.) “The arches” are a series of underground storage areas accessed by climbing down an indoor staircase at one end of the station. They aren’t heated, so the temperature hovers between -50F and -60F year-round. One arch is a natural refrigerator and stores all of our food supplies that can be frozen (which, it turns out, is almost everything). The only foods that don’t get stored here are fresh fruits and vegetables – or “freshies” – which are highly prized and only available during the summer when regular flights are possible. During the winter, the reduced station population relies entirely on this frozen food warehouse.

The food arch -- a giant underground freezer, no artificial cooling required.

The food arch — a giant underground freezer, no artificial cooling required.

Other arches store the fuel reserves that power the station and the scientific experiments here (this area is off limits to everyone except for the “fuelies” who are in charge of fuel operations) and house some of the vehicles that are operated around station (snowmobiles and heavier equipment). There is also a special cache of cold weather gear, just in case something were to happen to the station and extra cold weather gear became vital.

The exterior of one of the arches, buried in snow and ice.

An outside view of one of the arches, buried in snow and ice.

After my appetite-inducing walk through the cold, I was very ready to eat by the time we returned to the station. The dinner began with half an hour of hor-d’oeuvres, which included a tasty New Zealand cheese pastry and a shrimp cocktail. After everyone had a chance to sample everything and chat, we moved into the main dining room for dinner. Everyone pitched in to make the dining room look festive – the tables were draped with white tablecloths and lined with real candles and were pre-set with fancy plates, cloth napkins, and wine glasses for everyone. The TV monitors that usually display local station information (weather, upcoming activities, the week’s menu, etc.) were all playing a Yule log video and the windows had been blocked with pictures painted on pieces of cardboard, to hide the 24-hour sunlight and create the illusion of evening. Everyone ate as much food and wine as they could, followed by a selection of pies for dessert. There was plenty of food for everyone; in fact, there were enough leftovers for an entire second dinner.

IMG_1390

IMG_1398 Thanksgiving dinner. Top: Appetizing shrimp, middle: the main course, bottom: one of our cooks poses with South Pole pumpkin pie (where every direction is north).

After such a feast, several of the grad students in my group and I decided to work off the calories with the best possible activity for a South Pole Thanksgiving – a quick walk out to the actual South Pole and back. We all piled into our cold weather gear and spent maybe 15 minutes outside taking pictures before heading back into the warmth.

Me at the pole, with a new friend.

Me at the pole, with a new friend.

After dinner there was a party in the station gymnasium, which lasted far into the night and featured a DJ and dancing. I poked my head in briefly, but I was too stuffed to feel like being terribly active, so I joined the BICEP3 grad students in one of the lounges and watched Stargate SG-1 instead. We are planning to make this a weekly event, so by the time I leave I will have seen a nice cross-section of episodes. Stargate is a great sci-fi show and has been on my “to watch” list for quite awhile, so I’m happy to finally have an excuse to see it and a fun group of people to watch it with. Watching science fiction in a group of scientists is always fun, because everyone always laughs when the actors start spouting techno-babble. Stargate is less guilty of this than some shows, but there were still plenty of fun moments.

And that is how I spent my first South Pole Thanksgiving! Overall, it was a very fun day. Today (Sunday) I spent another lazy day hanging around the main station – I slept in, did some shopping at the store, and caught up on my email and blog writing. Tomorrow will be my first day of real work. It has been nice to have a couple of days to settle in, but I’m looking forward to getting started.

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Travel Log Part 3 and South Pole Arrival

Post written November 28, 2014

On Friday, November 28 I awoke to a sunny day in McMurdo with very little wind – finally good flight conditions! They moved up my flight time an hour, so I had to rush to get dressed and clear out my room in time to go meet the shuttle to the airfield. (Fortunately I’d packed the night before.) When I got to the shuttle pickup point I learned that the flight had been delayed again, so we ended up waiting for about half an hour anyway. When we got the go ahead the eight people on my flight piled into a waiting NSF shuttle van and drove to Williams Field. This airfield is also located on the Ross Ice Shelf, but it is closer to town than Pegasus Field, where my flight from Christchurch landed. We had to wait another 45 minutes at the airfield for the plane to be ready (which gave us time to eat breakfast and get to know one another a little bit), but then we finally boarded our plane. It was another LC-130, but this one was owned and operated by the US Air Force and it was equipped with skis instead of wheels! The skis are necessary for landing on snow, as there is no real runway at the South Pole – only a groomed “skiway” near the main station. The inside was very similar to the LC-130 I flew from Christchurch to McMurdo, a single large open space with more cargo than passengers. Instead of commercial airplane-style chairs, we all sat in jumpseats along the sides of the plane. These were slightly less comfortable than the other seats would have been, but it meant that we all got to be right next to the windows, which is more than a fair tradeoff for a mere 2.5 hour flight.

Our ride to the South Pole, along with several members of our Air Force crew. Note the sled-like runners for landing on the snow.

Our ride to the South Pole, along with several members of our Air Force crew. Note the sled-like runners (“skis”) for landing on the snow.

The passenger area -- jumpseats and carry-on storage.

The passenger area — jumpseats and carry-on storage.

The plane was full of cargo -- including some for our group's new experiment, BICEP3.

The plane was full of cargo — including some for our group’s new experiment, BICEP3.

The best part about the flight was that since there were so few passengers, I was able to get permission to go hang out in the cockpit for the most scenic part of the flight. The cockpit was occupied by two pilots, a backup pilot, a navigator, and one or two other crewmembers who popped in and out; all military. They were all very nice and happy to answer my questions. Our route took us from McMurdo over the Ross Ice Sheet, then over the Trans-Antarctic mountain range that marks the transition between the ice sheet and the (much thicker, higher elevation) polar ice cap, then over the ice-covered polar plateau to the South Pole. I got to see almost the entire mountain range go by from the cockpit and the view was incredible. Some of the mountain peaks were almost level with our plane and all of the mountains were bare rock mostly covered with snow and ice. Huge glaciers full of crevasses flowed between the mountains, including what the pilot pointed out to me as the largest glacier in the world. All of these glaciers are slowly moving towards the coast, where they eventually fall off the continent into the sea. Some of them flow down more gradually and become the Ross Ice Shelf, which never melts. (Climate change is starting to make itself felt here, though, as the size of the ice sheet has been shrinking over the past few years.)

Mountains and glaciers and snow -- oh my!

Mountains and glaciers and snow — oh my!

Another fun fact – due to the location of the magnetic South Pole (which is NOT at the same point as the geographic South Pole), the compass in the cockpit showed that we were flying north-northwest rather than south. This clearly didn’t faze the pilots though, as we arrived at the South Pole station right on schedule.

So far south, we're heading north...or so the compass thinks.

So far south, we’re heading north…or so the compass thinks.

When I stepped off the plane, I was met by my advisor (John Kovac) and Grant, who is another grad student in our collaboration working on the Keck Array. More people will show up to help with Keck in the next few weeks, including Abby, but Grant and I comprise the full Keck workforce for now. There are ten people from our group here already, but the rest of them are working on BICEP3, so Grant has been on his own at Keck for the past two weeks. It was quite cold when we arrived – about -38F. I stayed warm in my ECW, but the mucus in my nose froze before we finished the short walk to the front entrance of the main station.

The main South Pole Station, built in 2003.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, built in 2003.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is where everyone sleeps, eats, and relaxes during free time. It is compact, but includes a medical clinic, a gymnasium, two lounges, a TV and games room, a store, a post office, a greenhouse, and an arts and crafts room. There are also two conference rooms, administrative offices, and a scientific laboratory space. We have workstations in the science lab, but our telescopes are located in two buildings about a kilometer away in the “Dark Sector,” which is reserved for astrophysics experiments.

I have my own room on station — small, but with more than enough space for all of my stuff. The room comes with a private phone line and an ethernet connection, both of which can only be used to access the local South Pole network unless a communications satellite is above the horizon.

After we arrived, we had a quick orientation followed by lunch. Here I got to see the rest of our group for the first time since arriving. It was great to hang out with everyone again! After lunch I really wanted to see the telescopes, but was cautioned against walking over because everyone is supposed to take it easy for a day or two after arrival to adjust to the altitude. (The South Pole station’s elevation is 9,306 ft and it feels even higher because the Earth’s atmosphere is thinner at the poles, so altitude sickness is a serious concern. Fortunately, I felt fine, but decided to be cautious anyway.) Instead of walking out to the telescopes, I hitched a ride from Rachel, one of our research assistants working on BICEP3. She arrived on a snowmobile dragging a sled behind it and four of us plus some packages hopped on and sped off to the telescopes. So even though it is very flat here, now I can say that I’ve been sledding at the South Pole.

The Dark Sector, which contains a number of astrophysics experiments. The South Pole Telescope and DSL are visible to the left and MAPO is visible to the right.

The Dark Sector. The South Pole Telescope (SPT) and DSL are visible to the left (behind the snow pile) and MAPO is visible to the right. The plywood construction on the top right of MAPO is the Keck groundshield.

Grant and I got off at MAPO, the building housing the Keck Array, while the others continued on to DSL, where BICEP3 will operate. Grant gave me a tour of MAPO, which was really cool because I finally got to see the telescope collecting the data that I have been looking at for the past several months. I will put up a more detailed post describing MAPO later, but for now here is a picture of me on the roof with the telescope.

Five Keck receivers and a Kate!

After my tour of MAPO I decided to hold off on walking over to DSL to see BICEP3 until I had acclimatized a bit more. Instead, I walked back to the main station, which turned out to be an easy hike in my ECW. Since I wasn’t feeling tired, I decided to go pay a visit to the actual South Pole before heading back inside. Interestingly enough, there are actually two different markers. The first is the “ceremonial” South Pole and has a pretty red and white pole topped by a reflective ball, surrounded by the flags of all of the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty (which states that no country will attempt to claim any part of the continent or mine any of its resources and preserves Antarctica for international scientific research). The second is the “geographic” South Pole and is a much smaller marker. The second marker is necessary because both markers and the entire station move about thirty feet every year, as they are carried along by the slowly moving polar ice sheet on which they sit. The geographic pole marker is moved every year on New Year’s Day to the new correct location of the South Pole, but it would be too much trouble to have to continually relocate the ceremonial pole and all of the flags. So each year both the station and the ceremonial pole move further away from the actual South Pole, although it will be a long time before they move out of easy walking distance.

IMG_1359 Me at the South Pole(s). Top: the ceremonial South Pole, reflecting me and the flags of the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty. Middle: the geographic South Pole marker, updated every January 1st to account for the movement of the polar ice cap. Bottom: my best guess at the current location of the South Pole, now almost 30 ft away from the geographic pole marker’s 2014 position.

Once I had visited the Pole, I decided to head back to the station for the rest of the day and “take it easy” as per my instructions on adjusting to the altitude. I got my first chance to try out the South Pole internet and set up my google voice account to let me call anywhere in the United States. The current most-convenient satellite pass is about 1-5pm local time, or 7-11pm on the East Coast of the US, but it shifts by a few minutes each day due to the satellites’ orbits. After dinner I finally unpacked my bags and decided to get an early night – happy to have finally reached the South Pole, and eager to settle into life here.

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The Travel Blog Returns

Hello, everyone!

I’m back in McMurdo, on my way home after an exciting month at the South Pole. Now that I’m in a place where I have reliable internet again, I will be uploading all of the blog posts that I have written while I’ve been gone. Rather than uploading them all at once I will try to space them out over the next month, to approximate the experience of viewing them in real time. Thanks for your patience and stay tuned — there’s a lot more to come!

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