Monday, December 12, 2011

Long Duration Balloon Animals

So I was as surprised as anyone when I found out that I was supposed to be working while I was down in Antarctica. I know, a shock right?! Was it so wrong to think that people go down there to have raging euro rave parties? Let's just say I got some bad information before I left for the trip (who'd have thunk that I'd find bad info on the nothing sacred?!?). Anyhow, my task at hand was beyond taking pictures and writing a blog. For the past 3 years I've been doing grad research at the University of Arizona. Specifically, I'm a slave..I mean a student researcher at Steward Observatory (essentially the astronomy dept).

In a nutshell, the project is a balloon telescope. So what's a balloon telescope? Is it just a balloon that's shaped like a telescope? Was it created by a balloon animal artist or clown? Well the answer to most of those questions is yes! A large part of it is definitely balloon shaped and though the team mostly consists of engineers, astronomers, and physicists, we're essentially just clowns with degrees! Example 1: these are literally the only 3 pictures of me working down there.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure
From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

Not even kidding. Hammering a gym weight, wearing a garbage bag, and wearing my huge jacket while sitting at my computer. And yes I graduated from clown college.

The best way to explain this project is that it is a radio astronomy telescope which will be flown from a high elevation balloon. The balloon, which will be launched in Antarctica, will carry the telescope to about 120,000' where it will remain for anywhere from 2 weeks to a month. There are some key reasons why a telescope would be launched on a balloon in Antarctica. First off, the elevation which the balloon flies is basically in space. At 120,000' the absorption due to molecules in the atmosphere is gone. Compared to a space telescope (which as you've guessed is also in space (you're so smart!)), it is literally an order of magnitude (10 times) less expensive. You also can retrieve the telescope when it's done flying whereas in a space telescope, it's out there for good and fixing it is out of the question if something doesn't work. Launching balloons from Antarctica is particularly efficient compared to launching elsewhere on Earth. The reason is that when the balloon flies, it will circle the pole, and can be made to land practically in the same place that you launched it! Pretty cool huh?

Though I pretend to be a lot of things in life, being an astronomer is not one of those things. Regardless, here is my understanding of the science this telescope is doing. The telescope will fly for between 2 weeks and a month. The name of the combined instrument is the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory (STO). While in the air, it will be doing a galactic survey of the Milky Way galaxy. While observing at wavelengths that are a nearing 1 millimeter, the targets are nebulae, or gas clouds. Gas clouds are the precursors to stars. As the gas cloud collapses due to its own gravity, its energy level increases and the star ignites. Observations have been made regarding the thermal nature of the outside of these gas clouds, but little has been done to characterize the inside. This is what STO is able to accomplish: it can generate a thermal map of the interior of these gas clouds. In doing so, astronomers hope to learn more about how stars are formed. The underlying science is essentially cosmology, or the study of the origins of our universe. Whoooh! I hope you got all that :) My job as an engineer is much simpler to explain: to use my inability to socialize and communicate effectively to put the instrument together. Done and done!

The facility itself is a very cool place called LDB, the Long Duration Balloon facility. LDB is actually an off-site facility which is located about 6 miles from McMurdo station. Whereas McMurdo is on an Island (Ross Island), LDB is located on an ice shelf (Ross Ice Shelf). So every morning, the whole team commutes 40 minutes on the largest bus known to man to a balloon launching facility that's been built on a floating chunk of glacial ice. Besides all the ridiculous stuff, it's pretty much no different than my normal work life in Tucson.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Antarctica and the Sun that Refuses to Set

Frigid....brutal...unforgiving. These are words often used to describe the harshest continent on earth. Not my words though. This is the Antarctic summer! We've got penguins playing beach volleyball, hippies playing frisbee golf, and homosexuals on rollerblades showing off how much fitter they are than you. But before your antarctic summer imaginings stray too far, you'll need to temper your expectations a bit. When I first stepped foot off that plane out onto the ice I braced for the absolute worst. I was also expecting penguin butlers but apparently the US government "forgot" to hire any this year. Stupid budget cuts. I was however pleasantly surprised at how moderate it actually was down here. Again this is the Antarctic summer and this was not the South Pole. In fact, there were days in November where it was actually colder in Minnesota than it was here in Antarctica. Just one more thing to think about as you draw ever closer into that dark, cold winter my Minnesota friends and family: it is literally warmer in Antarctica.

The other element of the Antarctic summer that was pleasantly surprising was the sun, which shines 24 hours a day, every day. It's a goth kid's worst nightmare. How are you expected to keep creepily pale with that damn sun out all the time?!? I really thought the perpetual sun would start wearing on my psyche but so far I've rather come to enjoy it. It's never difficult to wake up in the morning, I sleep like a rock so it's no biggy when it's bed time, and it keeps the weather much warmer all day. Leaving the bar at 1AM to a bright sunshiney day is a bit unnerving. Really makes you feel like a booze hound who's been pounding drinks all afternoon. Now that I think about it, it's probably horrible for anyone with a hangover. Goth kids and people with hangovers, those are the only people who dislike the perpetual sunshine. The only real downside of all the sunshine is something called snow blindness, which is essentially sun burn on your eyes (lovely, I know). On a clear day, everywhere you look is unbelievably bright. There is literally nowhere to divert your eyes from the brightness. It makes photography quite a bit easier but it requires everyone to wear sunglasses or ski goggles at all times outside. The native people in the Arctic solved this problem with wood glasses with slits in them called "Eskimo Goggles". And yes this was fashionable even before Kanye West found out about them.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The weather is of course a big deal down here. Vicious winds, snow, and cold can move in abruptly. Not only is it an inconvenience, it's dangerous. Getting caught away from base on foot, on skis, or even in a vehicle is risky business. There are stories of people having to take shelter in emergency shelters or by digging down into the snow. To classify the severity of the weather, a simple system has been developed which breaks down the various conditions into 3 parts. "Condition 3" is the best case scenario for weather. In this case, winds tend to be moderate and visibility is not hindered by blowing snow. "Condition 2" gets a little more scary with low visibility and high winds. Bitter cold often accompanies Condition 2. Travel between buildings / facilities is limited and frowned upon during Condition 2. "Condition 1" is the most fearsome of them all. In this scenario, visibility is non-existent due to high winds and blowing snow. The snowy wind not only prevents you from seeing beyond the reach of your hand, but the sound of it prevents you from even yelling to someone standing immediately next to you. Going outside during Condition 1 is strictly forbidden unless under the most extreme of scenarios (like if there is a Vikings game on and you are stuck somewhere without a TV). I have yet to experience anything but Condition 3.

Until next time, stay warm frozen friends! We travel soon the land of the balloons...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

First Steps in Antarctica

I'm generally a pretty modest guy, but I'm going to do a bit of bragging: I am a napping machine on airplanes. It's practically my best quality! I've been on flights where I"m asleep before we leave the gate and wake up when we hit the ground. Call it a gift. But this flight was different. The military C-17 I was now sitting in was too interesting to ignore. Everywhere around me people were stuffed together, wearing bits and pieces of their ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. The plane was almost completely windowless, the only window being a small port hole near the front of the plane. The view was nothing but clouds and ocean for about the first 6 hours. The last hour is when things got interesting. It was within this last hour when the pilots would decide if we boomerang (return back to New Zealand because of poor weather in Antarctica). Everyone crossed their fingers we would touch down in the chilly continent today. It was also in this last hour when I finally saw land.

White, as far as I could see. White covering mountains and valleys. White covering the enormous flats I figured were ice covered sea. White were my knuckles as I pressed my face closer to the window. Holy crap.

We were descending. Now wearing every last bit of my cold weather gear, I was strapped in and getting more and more excited by the minute. When the door finally opened, a rush of cold poured into the plane. My jaw literally dropped as I stepped down onto the ice for the first time. All around me were white mountains. As it turned out, the plane had landed on what was called the Ice Runway, which was little more than a cleared patch of sea ice. The runway would melt away into open water within a month or two. Immediately we were off, being scurried away in large buses. We were being taken to McMurdo Station.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The next few hours were a haze of safety lectures, info sessions, and signing my name on pretty much anything that came my way. Welcome to McMurdo Station, the largest station on the Antarctic continent. McMurdo is home to roughly 1100 people during the Antarctic summer and a couple hundred crazy nutjobs during the Antarctic winter. A sign posted in the galley (where we eat meals) indicated that about 3/4ths of the population were guys, about 1/4th were girls, and remaining percentages were either asexual extra terrestrials or snowmen.

The population at McMurdo was an interesting one. It seemed to me that about half were science folks and half were maintenance personnel. Due to the limits on showers per week (once every other day), smelly seemed to always be in fashion. Facial hair appeared also to be fashionable, as man, woman, child, and snowman were decked in the burliest facial hair they could muster. This was the look down here: beardy and smelly.

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The town itself was utilitarian. It wasn't beautiful, but it was surprisingly lively and ultimately practical. Some of the buildings of note were: the cardio gym, a small chapel (which also had yoga classes!), the galley / cafeteria, 2 bars, a coffee shop / wine bar / movie theater, a fire station, post office, and a whole slew of dorm buildings. The dorms are pretty standard: 1 to 2 roommates, a reasonably fast internet connection, phones, laundry, showers. The only real novelty were the curtains, which could be sealed around the windows with velcro to keep the perpetual sun out. Very quickly I realized that the goal was to try to make life at McMurdo Station as "normal" as it could possibly be.