It’s been a few days since I last posted, but I’ve been at the South Pole for about 48 hours now (as of writing this – I have to wait for the satellite to come back up tomorrow morning to post). So much has happened already, and with the sun up 24 hours a day I’m already having troubles keeping events from the two days apart, but I’ll do my best to fill you all in on the good stuff.
Before I get to what it’s like at the South Pole, I should post a few more pictures from McMurdo. The day I landed it was overcast so I didn’t get a chance to really see the surrounding view. Well, transport to the airplane for my trip to the Pole the following day wasn’t scheduled until 2:30 PM, and it was a beautiful clear day, so some of us walked back out to Discovery Hut to take in the view.
The view from Discovery Hut on a clear day. Much better!
Liz taking pictures of the view.
After the hike, we returned for lunch, then packed up and headed out to the airfield. There are several airfields at McMurdo, and we flew in and took off from the Pegasus Airfield, about an hour bus ride from the station (but it’s maybe only 10 or so miles from the station). When we got back out to Pegasus we had to wait for the aircraft (a C-130 Hercules) to fuel up and pack cargo, so we had an hour or so to kill in the airfield galley. It was really sunny and warm, so we went outside and took pictures of the view. Mount Erebus, a volcano that formed Ross Island, was visible from the airfield, smoking slightly. We even had a snowball fight.
Finally it was time to board the plane and take off, the last leg of a long journey. This flight was relatively short, just over 3 hours, and we landed around 10:00 PM, Tuesday Dec 6. When we landed we were greeted (following tradition) by colleagues already at the Pole. They gave us a warm welcome of handshakes and hugs and carried our bags into the station for us. The barometric pressure at the time resulted in a physiological altitude of 10,700 feet, so we were all a little winded coming up the two flights of stairs to reach the first floor of the station after coming off of several days at sea level.
So, what it’s like at the South Pole? It’s totally featureless minus the station, it’s cold, and when the sun is shining it’s really bright. The temperature has been pretty mild so far, though. Both days have been between -20 and -15 F, with windchills between -30 and -35. With all the gear they give you, it’s really not bad at all. I’ve certainly experienced worse growing up in northern Michigan, but then I didn’t have to walk kilometers in that. As you’ll see in a little bit, the telescope is about a kilometer from the station and we generally walk that back and forth two or three times a day. While I’ve been using the Carheartts and red parka (affectionately known as Big Red), gloves, neck gaiter and sunglasses/goggles, it’s been warm enough for me to wear a nice pair of socks and my usual everyday shoes back and forth instead of my big boots.
24 hour sunlight is definitely a little strange, but thankfully it hasn’t disrupted my sleep too much. It’s kind of nice because the station is built so that one side points towards the sun when it’s roughly noon in New Zealand. Since we keep New Zealand time here, it gives a nice way of telling time if you’re outside for any length of time (which hasn’t been the case yet, thankfully).
I was lucky and got a room in the station. Most of the time scientists get rooms in the station, but when the population gets high in the middle of the summer season, sometimes you’re put out in “Summer Camp.” (The population is currently 239, and pretty much peaks at 300. In the winter the population is about 60). Summer Camp is a bunch of half-barrel shaped buildings a hundred yards from the station or so where people get to rough it a bit more. Have to go outside to use the restroom and use extra pairs of thermal underwear to plug drafty holes in the wall. But besides the limit of showers (two two-minute showers a week), there’s just no way you can call living in the station roughing it…
Summer Camp. Glad I don't have to sleep out there.
Instead, I get to sleep here!
The station has just about everything. It’s got a full court gym, weight room, music room (complete with a theramin), arts and craft room, game room with a pool table, darts, foosball table and what appears to be several hundred books, a sauna, two or three rooms with relatively big televisions for watching movies, a greenhouse, a station store, and a post office. Oh, and I forgot to mention several conference rooms, a computer lab, and a science from which we can monitor our experiments remotely. We even have internet, at least when the satellites are up. It’s incredible the infrastructure that exists mere feet from the actual South Pole.
This post is getting really long, so let me end with a few pictures of the South Pole Telescope (known as the 10-meter down here since there are several telescopes and observatories). The first picture below is the view of the 10-meter (the big white structure) attached to the blue lab we all work in, the Dark Sector Laboratory, or DSL. (The land around the station is separated into several sectors, all used for different types of experiments. The Dark Sector is kept, well, dark. No extra lights (not that you need them in the summer anyway) or extraneous radio communications that could interfere with the observations of the telescopes out there). As you approach the 10-meter it really hits you how enormous it is. Besides the station, it’s the largest structure at the South Pole.
The view of the 10-meter at DSL as you get close.
SPT close up. This thing is just plain huge.
The back side of the telescope.
We’ve already done a ton of work, but I’ll leave that for another post. I do want to give a sneak peak, though… here is a picture of me holding up the partially assembled camera. All seven modules I worked on are installed in the center, and most of the other pixels are also installed, (currently taped off). I’m a little biased, but this thing is gorgeous!
The back side of the camera, (partially assembled).
Me holding the partially assembled camera up. I've been working on the seven gold modules in the center for the last couple years.