Spencer Klein Expedition 2006
My trip to the South Pole began on January 20, 2006. I flew (American/Quantas airlines) from Oakland to Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand (crossing the international dateline) to Christchurch, New Zealand, arriving on Jan. 22nd.
The next day, I was outfitted with ECW (extreme cold weather) gear by the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP for those keen on acronyms). On the 24th, we returned to the USAP passenger terminal, change into our ECW gear, and wait for the plane. It's warm outside, even more so in ECW gear. Finally, we watch a safety briefing and board an old bus for the ride to the plane. We're flying on an US Air Force C-17 jet transport. It's a medium sized widebody plane, designed for landing on short runways. We pick up sack lunches and board. There are about 35 of us on the flight - we practically rattle around on the plane. There are airplane style seats down the center, and jump seats down the sides of the plane. It's loud, and there are only a few small porthole-type windows and no entertainment, but somehow it's much more relaxing than a commerical flight.
We're allowed to take turns visiting the cockpit to look out the front windows. The view when we reach Antarctica is spectacular - we can see lots of icebergs breaking away from the continental landmass. We arrive at Pegasis field 'airport' about an hour later, after a 5 hour flight. The runway is on the Ross ice shelf, with water (deep) below, but it doesn't feel very different from landing on concrete. We're ushered off the plane onto a huge-tired bus for the ~ 40 minute, 17 mile drive to McMurdo station.
In McMurdo, we're attend a welcome/safety briefing and are assigned to (shared) rooms for our overnight. After dinner, we have a weigh-in for our flight to the Pole, check our luggeage, and then have a chance to wander around. Pat Toale, Seon Hee Seo and I visit Scott hut, built by Scott in 1903 - the first building in Antarctica, and still well preserved. We also see a Russian icebreaker, down there to escort a fuel ship and a cargo ship to the station. The next day, we ride to Williams field. LC-130s are lighter, and so can land on thinner ice, much closer to the base. There are about 10 of us on the 3-hour flight to the Pole. The C-130 is smaller than the C-17, about the size of a 737. It has air-force style seating down the sides, with baggage stowed in the middle and the back. There's plenty of room for 10 of us. It's fairly cloudy, but we get some great views of the mountains surrounding the central Antarctic plain. Landing is smooth - the LC-130 uses skis to land on the relatively soft snow/ice, but, again, it doesn't feel much worse than landing on concrete. We're still taxiing to the station when the crew starts opening the large cargo door at the rear of the plane.
Getting off the plane is a shock. Not only is it 20 degrees below zero, but the pole is at an altitude of 9300 feet, and the lack of oxygen is keenly felt. Because of the cold, the effective altitude is over 10,000 feet. We stagger to the station for another welcome/safety briefing. I am assigned a room in the new station - it's very comfortable. There's a bathroom down the hall, and meals are served in a cafeteria just down the hall. The food was generally very good during my stay.
After lunch, I 'suit-up' to walk to the experiment. Going outside is a small adventure. We generally wore underwear, thermal underwear, ski-pants, a jacket and a parka, plus glove liners and mittens or gloves. In Christchurch, we were issued a profusion of different types of gloves and mittens - it's hard to sort them all out. Footwear consists of inner sock liners, wool socks, booties, plastic boot inserts, and thick boots. Different people had different ways to keep their heads warm - I usually wore a gaiter around my neck, ski goggles and a hat, plus the hood of my parka.
I go with Pat Toale and Mike Zernick. People keep an eye out on each other, and neither Pat nor I (the 2 new arrivals) would have been wise to go out alone on our first day.
It's about a 1 km (0.6 mile) walk to IceCube. We cross the skiway - there's a flashing light that "Comms" (the operations center) turns on when a plane is expected - it tells us we need to wait. This doesn't sound very far, but between the altitude and cold and the ~ 20 pounds of gear, it's not to be taken too lightly. Sometimes, we're able to get a ride in our van or a snowmobile, but usually we have to walk.
When I arrive, the day shift is in the midst of deploying the 7th of the 8 strings IceCube deployed this austral season. Each string contains 60 light sensors, called digital optical modules (DOMs). My shift is very late in the season, and our group is one of the last to arrive. By now, deployment was very routine. After watching for a while, we visit the counting house, where the IceCube surface electronics is housed. It's a small trailer (sized to fit on a C-130 in one piece) filled with racks of electronics, plus two computer workstations. The racks are filled with computers with special interface cards to communicated with the in-ice computers, disk drives, communications equipment, and a GPS clock to provide accurate time.
Over the next few days, the drillers drill the hole for the last string. They use a hot water drill. A set of heaters heats water to 90 degrees (Centigrade), and pumps it through a nozzle which melts a hole about 60 cm (2 feet) in diameter at a rate of ~ 1.8 meters (5 feet) per minute. Including setup, and time to drill through the fern (snow/looser ice at the top of the icepack), it takes about 3 days to drill the hole.
Deployment takes about 12-15 hours. I help out during the day shift, 6 am to 6 pm. There areabout 8 of us, each with assigned jobs - running the winch which is used to lower the cable into the hole, prepping the DOMs for deployment, attaching DOMs to the cable, making electrical connections, using a laser rangefinder to measure the distance between DOMs (it should be 17 meters (55 feet), watching the cable reel, etc. Finally, all 60 DOMs are attached, and the last 1400 meters of cable are unrolled in about an hour. That afternoon, we return to the drill to spend some time wrestling with the cables, so that we can plug the other end into it's connector. The cable is about 3 inches in diameter, with kevlar reinforcement for strength, and not very flexible.
My major job during my stay is to commission the strings that have been deployed, turning them on slowly, testing them at every step of the way, to avoid damage to the equipment. I will also spend some time collecting data for higher-level verification tests of the equipment. Much of this data involves flashing
various light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on one DOM, and observing the light from the other modules. From this data, we can study the timing resolution (measurement accuracy) and physical location of the detectors and measure the optical properties (scattering and absorption) of the ice. We have other
methods to study these items, but it's also very important to check them with in-situ data - otherwise we might have an unpleasant surprise. This LED data is also useful for simulating neutrino events.
I also spent some time helping the "IceTop" folks. IceTop will be a set of 160 ice tanks (2 for each IceCube string) being built to study cosmic rays hitting the surface of the earth. It is also important as a veto for IceCube neutrino events, and as a calibration aid for IceCube. Each tank is instrumented with 2 DOMs. The tanks were filled with water earlier in the season, and left uninsulated to speed the cooling/freezing process. However, for the austral night, they need to be insulated with Perlite insulation. Perlite is a natural silicon-containing rock with good insulating properties, one of the few types of insulation that is
ecologically acceptable at the Pole. We need to pour about 200 pounds of perlite insulation into each tank. The perlite is in bags that weigh about 35 pounds. This would normally be easy, but between the stiff cold weather gear, particularly gloves (this greatly complicates holding anything) and the cold and altitude, this is a rather difficult and unpleasant job. By the time we're ready to do this (early February), it's cooled off to about 40 below, in either Centigrade or Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, we take turns working on this, and it's done in a few days.
During the last few days of my trip, the temperature drops still further, to near -50 (Fahrenheit), and there is considerable speculation about whether they will close the station early for the winter, and send everybody home ASAP. At the same time, there is a backlog of people waiting to fly from McMurdo station to New Zealand, so many peoples flights are changing.
Despite this, nothing major happens, and I leave for New Zealand on the 13th. It's a straight-through trip - a morning flight on a LC-130 to McMurdo station, and hour there, and then an afternoon/evening flight to New Zealand on a C-17. The most exciting part of the trip is on the LC-130, where the cabin heating fails, and the temperature drops way below zero. Fortunately, we are wearing our required ECW gear, so stay reasonably warm - it's still warmer than being outside at the Pole. Because of bad weather, the LC-130 lands at Pegasis field; after an hour wait, the C-17 arrives, and we head for New Zealand.
We arrive in Christchurch around 10 pm, make a quick dash to return our ECW gear, and then head for our hotels.
I leave New Zealand for home on the 14th. and gain back the day I lost on the way down, arriving back home on the 14th.