Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Day 92, January 24, 2012 -- The EBEX has landed.

The EBEX flight was terminated at approximately 11:30AM GMT on January 23rd, or roughly 12:30AM on January 24th local McMurdo (NZ) time. I actually found out about this rather on accident, as I had been watching the payload track on the CSBF website and noticed the altitude, which had been at about 110,000 feet not 10 minutes before, was at 86,000 feet! I checked my email and sure enough I had a message saying the flight had been terminated -- finally!

Termination of a balloon payload involves a few different actions. One is opening the helium valves at the top of the balloon. Another is firing the Universal Terminate Package (UTP), which has a pair of explosive cable cutters that release a collar that holds the bottom of the balloon to the top of the parachute. As the parachute and payload fall away from the balloon, they pull a rip line that tears open the balloon to release all of the helium quickly into space.

And after that, after about 45-50 minutes, the payload lands on the Antarctic plateau! Once on the ground, another UTP separates the payload from the balloon in order to prevent the parachute from filling with wind (very prevalent on the plateau) and dragging the payload (as has happened in the past, most notably during the BLAST 2006 flight where the payload was dragged 150 miles and ended up in a crevasse). EBEX landed here:

This turns out to be not a bad place to land. The coordinates are Latitude: 72°22.63 S, Longitude: 159°2.69 E, at an elevation of about 7350 feet on the Antarctic plateau. Relative to McMurdo, it's about about 400 miles away over the Transantarctic mountain range, but it is only 190 miles from an Italian Antarctic station, Mario Zucchelli Base, at Terra Nova Bay. Hopefully we will be able to stage our recovery out of Zucchelli, which should allow for quicker flight turnarounds and more of the payload recovered.

In other news, the BLAST recovery team (Elio) was finally able to make it out to their payload a couple days ago. Elio posted this picture of BLAST on the ice: . Bad weather at the BLAST landing site has prevented more flights out.

Unfortunately, all recovery operations are on hold at the moment, as we have received word that one of the de Havilland Twin Otter planes (operated by Kenn Borek Air out of Canada) has gone missing in the Transantarctics while en route from South Pole Station to Zucchelli. Naturally, search and rescue operations have the highest priority.

No pictures today.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Days 85-88, January 17-20th, 2013 -- McMurdo Life

Again, the past few days, more of the same. The balloon has now come most of the way around the continent, at about longitude -163 at the time of this writing, but in order for it to land in a reasonable spot we have to wait for it to get to about longitude +157, which is 40 more degrees (longitude is measured from -180 to +180, with the prime meridian at 0). Given that it's been traveling at about 16-17 degrees per day, that means we've got a little over two days until our projected termination date/time.

So we just get to wait around in McMurdo and truly experience what life is like in the largest base in Antarctica. On Thursday, Michele and I went out to Hut Point to look for penguins. We saw one sitting on the ice off in the distance, but it went into the water as soon as a helicopter flew overhead. After that, no more penguins, but we did see a skua (boring) as well as what looked to be a seal swimming out in the open water near Hut Point.

Later that day, we walked to Scott Base, which is about 3 miles from McMurdo on the other side of the hill. I had never been to the store so I wanted to check out their selection of t-shirts and other souvenirs. In the evening we all attended a talk given by a doctor/astronaut/mountain climber (yes, I'm serious) who talked about his experiences on seven shuttle flights as well as his two attempts at climbing Mt. Everest (the second successful).

I don't remember what I did on Friday, but on Saturday I decided to volunteer in the galley during the afternoon. At first they had me help washing serving dishes, and when I was done with that I asked for more work -- apparently I'm the first volunteer they've had this season that has done so! I was then given a mop and mopped the entire service area. After returning the mop, I was recruited by the baking team who is currently shorthanded -- I helped with some of the prep work for both Sunday brunch and Saturday night's dinner. It was a lot of fun, and I got a sweet hat (I'll try and remember to take a picture of it for the next post).

In the evening, after dinner, I took part in the 2nd Annual Mustache Roulette. This, though not officially a fundraiser due to NSF rules, was a way to help a couple different charities by submitting one's facial hair to razor-related embarrassment. I was going to type out how it all works, but basically it's an excuse to have fun, shave some crazy 'staches, and raise money for good causes. I ended up getting my mustache shorn in a Batman-logo-style design, and two girls actually shaved their heads. They ended up raising over $1600 -- pretty impressive!

Pictures (including the 'stache, of course):

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Days 81-84 recap, January 13-16, 2013 -- Round and round she goes

EBEX continues on its (very) roughly circular path about the South Pole. Based on the current velocity of about 16-17 degrees of longitude per day, it will take about another week to get back to near (or slightly past) McMurdo for termination.

In the meantime, the remainder of the EBEX team on the ice (Jeff, Michele, Joy, Chappy, and myself) have been basically sitting around with little to do.  On Sunday, I went to the McMurdo fire station expo, where I got to dress in firefighter gear and pull a dummy out of a smoke-filled room, fulfilling every 7-year-old boy's fantasy. On Monday, I went and checked out the experiment of my current roommate, a researcher from NASA's Ames Research Center who is down here to test out a design for a new Mars rover drill system. It turns out that McMurdo's Dry Valleys (on the opposite side of the Royal Society mountain range from Ross Island) are the closest one can get on earth to a Mars environment. In addition, Chappy and Joy started the process of backing up some of our pre-flight calibration data while I took some pictures of the fish in the Crary lab aquarium.

Today (Wednesday), we went out to LDB to continue packing whatever remaining things we can pack without the rest of the experiment. As of now we have filled two of our five 8' shipping cubes, but most of the space in the rest is for things that are currently floating in the stratosphere. Toward the end of the day, I wandered around LDB taking pictures of things like the LDB freezer (basically an ice cave) and the old Caterpillar "Stretch 8" SD-8LGP bulldozers -- which, dating from the mid-50's, I'm told are the oldest Caterpillar bulldozers still in use. They have 54"-wide tracks and can pull almost 100,000 lbs!


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Day 80, January 12, 2013 -- Leaving on a turboprop plane

This morning, Kyle, Kevin, Kate, and Franky departed McMurdo for their respective homes. Actually, they were on two different LC-130 flights; one left early and one left this afternoon after some sort of weather delay. Bon voyage!

There were a few things that happened yesterday that I forgot to mention. The first is that BLAST has come back around and terminated their flight. They have landed on the ice shelf near the South Pole Traverse line (the tractor 'highway' used to get supplies [mostly fuel] to the Pole from McMurdo). Elio, the only remaining BLAST-er left, will be starting recovery operations with CSBF on Monday.

Second, last night Hannes, a former EBEX grad student who is now working at NIST, came in to McMurdo on his way to the Pole to work on the South Pole Telescope. We had been expecting his arrival but hadn't gotten any word from him; I randomly ran into him as I was heading back to bed and we stayed up and hung out for a while. We ended up talking a lot at lunch today while he waited to see if his flight to Pole (which was scheduled for the morning but had been delayed) would actually go out today or would be cancelled. It was cancelled in the end, so he's going to stick around at least until Monday.

Aside from that, most of today has consisted of sitting around and talking, so no pictures.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Day 79, January 11, 2013 -- Pack rats

After taking yesterday off following the conclusion of science data collection with EBEX, most of the team headed to the LDB facility today to start packing up the high bay. The main goal of today was to figure out what we could pack before the payload is recovered and try and get it mostly packed up. We in fact managed to do that and filled one of our 8' cube shipping containers.

Shaul left yesterday as well, and a bunch of the team will be leaving tomorrow to head back home. I will be staying around for recovery and packing, as will Jeff, Michele, Chappy, and Joy. Milligan will be here a few more days but won't stay for recovery, as he has a real job whose responsibilities he is shirking in order to be here in Antarctica with us.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Day 77, December 9, 2012 -- The King is dead

The EBEX cryostat has exhausted its supply of liquid helium, exactly on schedule.

The King is dead. Long live the King!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Day 68-74 recap, December 31, 2012 - January 6, 2013 -- T + 8 days

EBEX has now been up in the air for a little over a week and we've settled into a routine. We've been working 24 hour shifts to monitor the payload and deal with any issues that crop up. I'm working the 4PM-to-midnight shift.

Over the course of the past week I haven't had time to do much besides monitor the experiment as I shifted my schedule later. I basically completely missed the McMurdo New Year's celebration, Icestock, because I was dead tired after launch operations and the post-launch lack of sleep. I hear it was pretty great, though, with 9 (!) bands and a chili cookoff.

Today (the 6th) I heard news of some penguins off of Hut Point, so I went down with my camera and managed to catch a couple of them hanging out. Sadly, the lighting was kind of crappy (strong backlight from the sun), but there are some decent shots in there.

We're currently projecting that the cryogens will run out around ~Wednesday so we're trying to get as much data out of the experiment as possible before then. However, the balloon is currently on the complete opposite side of the continent from us so it will be a while before we terminate -- CSBF is projecting a termination date of some time around January 17th to allow time for the balloon to come back around near McMurdo to make recovery efforts easier.