Monday, December 11, 2006

Big Update

Sorry I've been so bad about adding new posts, but here is a big update on my past 3 weeks at the Pole.


The hardest thing about living at the South Pole is the little tent I call home. It would be fine to use such a cheap tent for camping back in the US, but it is wholly inappropriate to live in such a thing for 3 months at the bottom of the earth. Although the majority of my time and thoughts are centered on the numbing pain of my frostbitten extremities, I have found the howl of the wind to be a decent distraction.

Just kidding, Mom. In fact, I live in a very nice, very modern South Pole Station. This new station has replaced the old dome, the 30-year-old icon of humanity's presence at the Pole. The old dome is still here but is used mostly just for frozen food storage. Here in the new station I get my own heated room, plenty of hot meals, and an array of comforts you really wouldn't expect to find here: a United States Post Office (sort of), a game room, a music room, a gym, a full-court basket ball court, and a really nice sauna. They let us do laundry and take 4 minutes worth of shower each week. There are about 100 of us that live in the new station, and 100 more that live out in "Summer Camp", a collection of buildings that is temporarily put to use to house the summer crowd. To get a better picture of all this, check out the awesome New Station video tour put together by coworker Tom Crawford.

For the 20 or so days that I have been here, I have worked the "night shift", which only means that my schedule is out of sync with the rest of the station by 12 hours. The "what time is it? what should I be doing right now?" confusion is only compounded by the fact that the sun never sets. That's right: this is summertime in the southern hemisphere, and that means the sun never sets at the South Pole. In fact, the South Pole just has one "day" per year. The sun rises up in October, peaks in January, goes through a dramatic, month-long sunset in March, goes under for April-September, and does another slow-motion, month-long sunrise in October. Those may not be the exact months, but you get the picture: the sun just goes around and around and around, slowly traveling up and down over the course of a year. These days it's perched at about 20 degrees above the horizon, and will peak at 23 1/2 degrees at summer solstice. Nowadays I can tell the time to within 1 hour by noting the sun's location on the horizon.

The mixture of day-shifters and night-shifters at the Pole makes for some odd moments. For example, the meals are a bit strange. Someone is always starting their day with Cheerios while another downs a huge steak. Joe quietly sips coffee to wake up while Mary & Friends loudly drink beer to wind down. Another way to look at it: at any given time, someone is sleeping and someone else is drinking.

The food is surprisingly good here. I eat about twice as much as I do at home. I have eggs at almost every meal. I have two desserts per meal. At every meal I can look out the window and see the geographic South Pole, the point about which the Earth spins, located only about 50 feet away. I take great pleasure in this.

What is it like to walk around outside? To begin with, it is cold. For the time that I've been here, the average temperature has hovered around -25 F (-30 C), and even the slightest wind can send the windchill down into the -40's F. The key strategy for dealing with these extreme temperatures is layering. Including underwear, I typically have on 5 lower-body layers, 5 upper-body layers, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of socks, a pair of vacuum-insulated boots, and all manner of neck-warming, face-warming hat things. Luckily, all of this stuff actually works, and I'm usually quite comfortable outside. On several occasions I've taken my gloves off and worked with bare hands (though only for 30 minutes at a time). It is amazing how quickly your brain can adjust to a new environment; after only 3 weeks at the South Pole, my Texas-conditioned body thinks that -30F is cold, -10F is warm, and +10F is unimaginably hot.

The other obvious feature of walking outside here is the simplicity of the landscape. To being with, it is perfectly flat in all directions. There is white below the horizon, and blue above it. The ground is a crunchy mix of packed ice and snow that has been sculpted into 1 inch tall dunes by the wind. Up above is the deepest blue sky you can imagine. There are no features on the horizon, there are usually no clouds, and there are definitely no signs of life (except for us humans). So for those of you who were imagining me romping through dramatic Antarctic mountains with penguins everywhere, I'm sorry but you were dead wrong. In many ways I think this is much cooler.


There are four of us (Tom, Joaquin, Jeff and me) whose sole mission here is to build the main mirror of the South Pole Telescope. This is a circular dish 10 meters in diameter that focuses light from the sky onto the telescope's camera. Over the past few weeks, we've hit some milestones for the reflector's assembly:

Putting together the backup structure (or "BUS") of the mirror. The BUS is made of extremely stiff carbon fiber and will support the reflecting aluminum panels that go on top of it. Putting the BUS together was the coldest, toughest work I've experienced yet at the South Pole.

Completing the BUS and moving it the Dark Sector Laboratory, where the rest of the telescope is being built. Although it took us about 10 days to finish the BUS during our test build in Texas, it took us only 3 days at the Pole.

Installing the first 4 aluminum panels (only 214 to go!) . These panels make up the mirror surface, which is a large paraboloid.

And now we're about 2/3 of the way done. Our big goal is to be finished with the mirror by Christmas.

So that's all for now. I will upload a large batch of new photos pretty soon, so stay posted.


April said...

too bad about the penguins...but 4 minutes of shower time per week is probably about 3 minutes more than you're used to.

Andrej said...

Wow, I think that it's pretty cool what you guys are doing down there! I can't imagine how it must be! Science aside, I would love to see how things work down there, especially the outside temp. adjustment, haha! =)