COSI 2016!

Sorry to leave you all hanging for so long. It’s been a busy past year for COSI! And it’s about time that we caught you up on what we’ve been working on.

First and foremost, COSI is just about ready to launch again! We’re launching from another Super Pressure Balloon this coming April, except this time, instead of being in the freezing cold of Antarctica, we’ll be the first science group to launch from CSBF’s new site in Wanaka, New Zealand! And we’re all looking forward to a much longer flight.

The last post in the blog was the disappointing news about the COSI’14 flight terminating early after a meager 2 days at float due to a leak in the ballon. The silver lining to the instrument coming down so early is that it landed relatively close to McMurdo Station, meaning it would be a fairly straightforward recovery. If you want to hear more about my Antarctica recovery adventures and check out all of the pictures, look my other post from today titled “COSI’14 Recovery.” I’ll pick up the story here starting with the delivery of all of the COSI instrument back to Berkeley in March 2015.

Before any decision could be made about COSI’s future timeline, we needed to check the status of our detectors. We pumped down the cryostat and turned on the cryocooler right when the we got it all back in April. And, low and behold, each of the twelve detectors came up working well; none had been damaged during the flight/landing/shipping! We had the whole readout pipeline running in our lab within a couple of weeks, so when the Balloon Program Office offered to have us fly out of Wanaka in Spring of 2016, we felt pretty confident we could be ready in time.

One major hurdle that we had to pass over was disassembling the cryostat. One of our twelve detectors had 10 bad strips, so given the opportunity, we wanted to see if it could be refabricated to be fully operational. In August (after I passed my quals!), we disassembled the cryostat and removed one of the detectors for refabrication. Everything was put back together in September and we started system tests immediately.

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Chris Cork, a retired SSL engineer who used to work with the LBL Detector Group, graced us with his presence and took the lead with the cryostat integration. Here he is putting the new and improved germanium detector into the stack.

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The COSI cryostat put together again! At the same time as refabricating one of the detectors, we developed a new temperature regulation system for the cryoscooler. You can see the copper tubing around the cryocooler here.

Before our flight from New Zealand we needed to pass a compatibility test with CSBF in Palestine, Texas, just like in Summer 2014. But, due to the fact that COSI’16 is almost identical to COSI’14, both teams agreed that a simple compatibility,with just the power system, flight computer, and one card cage would be sufficient. Brent, Alex, and McBride spent a leisurely 10 days working in Palestine to pass the COSI’16 compatibility test (but none of them took any pictures!).

We had another trip to Palestine this past November to use their thermal vacuum chamber. We wanted to put our cryostat and electronics through more rigorous testing before our flight. In their BEMCO chamber we are able to simulate the space environment through day and night cycles. It’s pretty anti-intuitive, but flights from New Zealand will have colder temperatures than flights from Antarctica, this is not only because we’ll be going through night cycles, but you can get some very cold storms over the ocean. The temperature in flight can reach as low as -100 C, but with foam surrounding the gondola we should be able to maintain a balmy -40 C in the electronics bay.

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Clio and McBride monitoring during the BEMCO test. Clio’s written a whole new GSE (Ground Support Equipment, i.e. the program that we use to talk to and monitor the instrument) in the past few months, so this was a great opportunity to test it!

Once back in Berkeley, we had the month of December to fully integrate the gondola and do some system testing and calibrations before packing up.

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Clio installing the new cryocooler cooling system. We’re pumping liquid fluorinert (environmentally friendly!) through the cryocooler and out to a radiator to keep everything a moderate temperature in flight.

Clio installing the new cryocooler cooling system. We’re pumping liquid flourinert (environmently friendly!) through the cryocooler and out to a radiator to keep everything a moderate temperature in flight.

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COSI gondola fully operational in Berkeley. The California winter months are perfect for calibrations in the SSL highboy.

We shipped everything out on January 6th and we’ll be meeting the container in Wanaka on the 15th of February! We’re all so excited about the next few months! GO COSI CO!

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COSI’14 Recovery (long overdue)

Balloon payloads are effectively reusable. You launch your instrument once, after the flight is terminated it lands with the assistance of a parachute, you go out and pick it up, take it back to the lab for repairs/upgrades, and then you’re able to launch it again often within a year or two. So, with such a short flight and a close landing it would be pretty likely that we could recover the entire COSI instrument in the remainder of the Antarctic summer season.

The COSI instrument landed on the Polar Plateau about 350 miles away from McMurdo. We were scheduled to fly on a Twin Otter, which, due to the cabin size and weight limits, meant that we’d have to go out on three separate day trips to pick up everything. It’s a two hour plane ride, and we’d be limited to three hours on the ground. Our highest priority for the recovery was to get the computer hard drives, which store the raw flight data, and then of course the cryostat. The majority of our electronics are custom built, so ideally we’d recover the entire instrument, limiting the amount of rebuilding that would need to be done between campaigns. Either way, we have to almost entirely disassemble the instrument out in the field to fit things in the plane to bring back.

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The Twin Otter which took us out for recovery.

I was the lucky one who got to go out for recovery. It’s typically one scientist (usually an eager grad student), one rigger, the LDB camp manager Scott Battion, and a pilot + co-pilot. After termination the rest of the COSI team helped pack up everything in our Weatherport for the shipment back to Berkeley and then left the continent, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs waiting for a recovery flight.

The ballon was terminated on Dec 30th, and it wasn’t until Jan 21st that we actually got our first flight out to the payload. We had the GPS coordinates of the payload that were transmitted from the instrument after it landed, so we knew where to go looking for it.

The flight out to the instrument was so amazing, that it’s hard for me to put it into words. We got to fly over the Transantarctic Mountain Range. And the sites were breathtaking. I’ve included some photos here, but my little camera doesn’t do the mountains or ice any justice.

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LDB seen from the air on our way out. There’s our tiny little Weatherport on the left. And if you zoom in and squint you can see the shape of Annie beside the galley. Hey Annie!

 

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The COSI landing site, as I mentioned, was in the middle of the Eastern Polar Plateau, also referred to as the Great Flat White, as will become apparent with the pictures below. Once landing beside the instrument, we worked for 2 and a half hours to get the hard drives and remove the cryostat and shield detectors from the gondola. It was pretty tough work, especially removing the heavy/delicate cryostat and undoing the hundreds of 2-56 screws that connected the signal cables, but Garrison and Scott were really efficient and we had lots of help from the pilot and co-pilot.

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Our first sighting of the COSI payload from the air.

COSI what was found #1

COSI what was found #2

Photos taken by Scott Battion showing the COSI instrument as we found it on the Polar Plateau.

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Doug and Steve watching Scott remove the OpenPort antennas during a short break on our first trip out to the site. You can see the empty hole in the top of the gondola where the cryostat used to be.

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Garrison, the appointed recovery rigger, and I failing at a jumping high-five after we finished packing up on our first day of recovery. He went for two hands and I just went for one. It was a disaster.

We didn’t have enough fuel for the ride back to McMurdo, so we had to stop off at a fuel cache at Odell Glacier.

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Steve and Doug refueling the plane while Scott, Garrison and I used the opportunity to stretch our legs and take some photos.

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On the trip back, we took a different route, taking us to the edge of the ice. We got to see lots of seals and penguins and even spotted a couple of whales from the air. It was even more incredible than the ride out, and I didn’t think that was possible.

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All those black dots to the right are seals.

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Unfortunately, the adventure had to end. We made it back safe and sound to McMurdo and unloaded the recovered items. I was still so excited by the journey and I couldn’t stop smiling for hours. But, we needed to rest up to be ready to fly out again the next day.

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Garrison showing off the recovered CSBF instrumentation placed gently into the  back of a pickup.

Turns out it was a couple of days before we flew out again. That time it was a lot colder, as you can see from my frosted eyelashes, and there were even more tiny 2-56 screws to undo. But, we were able to recover the rest of our electronics boxes and all of our cables, leaving only the gondola frame and battery box in the field for the final pickup.

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I walked a bit away to get a shot of the recovery site showing a glimpse of the expanse of the Great Flat White.

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It was on this second flight that we tried our darnedest to locate the balloon. It usually falls within a few miles of the gondola, and seeing the direction that the parachute lands gives you a pretty good indicator for the direction of the balloon. We searched and searched the surrounding area, flying over miles of white ice, but even with 10 eyes looking out we unfortunately didn’t find the giant thing. I like to consider this a sacrifice to the balloon gods, maybe they’ll be on our side this next time around.

Scott and Garrison made the third trip out to the site without me to disassemble the gondola (“disassemble” is code “cutting to shreds”) and clean up the site.

After all was said and done it was time to leave the continent. What an amazing way to spend three months. Definitely something our team will never forget.

 

I want to give a final shout out to Lisa, the LDB galley chef. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend lots of time hanging out with Lisa in her kitchen, especially after the rest of the COSI team left. She’s amazing and her cooking is amazing and she made the entire experience that much more amazing. Thanks Lisa :).

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Lisa BBQing out at LDB with my support (read: eating finger-licking delicious ribs!). The CSBF guys requested more meat, so that’s what they got.

COSI Termination

I’m saddened to report that the COSI/SPB balloon flight was terminated much earlier than expected. The balloon developed a leak after the first day at float and we decided to increase the chances of instrument recovery this season instead of continuing operations for as long as the balloon maintained altitude. The payload had a smooth landing at about 6:15 am this morning and is currently sitting 350 miles from McMurdo at an elevation of 8000 ft. Hopefully we’ll be able to get out there within the week to recover the hard drives and detectors and whatever else will fit in the plane.

Thank you to everyone who followed the campaign, your positive words were encouraging and inspiring. Thank you to NASA and the SPB program, it was an honour to be able to be the first science flight on this generation of super pressure balloons, too bad we couldn’t kick that 55-day-record’s butt. A huge thanks goes out to all of CSBF, the support you’ve shown us and our science team over the past months has been amazing and your handle on the launch and termination was precise and professional. Here’s to another COSI launch in the super near future!

It’s a harsh continent

The last launch attempt was tough. We got so close. Closer than most of us on COSI have ever been to launching a payload that we have worked on. In fact, we got past a point that CSBF said there was no going back from, but then the situation turned a bit dire and we had to back off.

As mentioned many times before, COSI is flying on the super pressure balloon. We’re the first science flight on this type of balloon (although, they’ve flown a science flight on a predecessor many years ago). The super pressure balloon could be the next best thing to happen to scientific ballooning; it promises 100 day flights, which means you get that much closer to mimicking a satellite for a small fraction of the cost. The success of the COSI/SPB flight this season is somewhat pivotal for the SPB progress in the world of science.

But, there’s a catch. Not only do these balloon cost a couple million dollars each, but they are extremely delicate and thus difficult to launch. Looking back at past posts, I realize that we’ve never really described the launch procedure, so here it goes (this is SPB specific).

 

The total time dedicated to preparing to launch is about 8 hours. First, the science team and the CSBF electronics group does their pre-flight checkout. We visually inspect all of the connections on the gondola, we put up a radioactive source to check if our detector lines widths look good, we send commands through each of our telemetry links… we pretty much check every aspect of our system to make sure it’s working as expected. We’ve done this a few times now so it takes just under an hour to go though the 70 item on the list. Chris Field works in parallel checking the SIP (Science Instrument Package), the termination electronics, the batteries and solar power and a lot of other things that I don’t know about.

After we’ve gone through our respective lists, we inform the riggers that we’re ready to be lifted. We get help from the riggers to roll the gondola out the door of our weatherport and out onto the porch. They come over with the launch vehicle, The Boss, and proceed to pick us up. We end up sitting at the end of the weatherport driveway for about another hour while the parachute is hooked up, the termination is tested, and while we check the rest of our telemetry links (the openport iridium link doesn’t work indoors). Then, we’re ready to be moved to the launch pad (this is where we’re currently at while I write this post. Clio is blogging live about the current launch attempt, but we’re on a weather hold for the moment…).

The Boss starts the slow trudge out to middle of the perfectly groomed launch pad, which has been kept in pristine condition by Fleet Ops here in McMurdo. At this point, the CSBF weather guy, Chris Schwantes, has decided which direction the winds will be consistently coming from and thus has chosen the proper direction to lay out the balloon. The balloon and parachute are laid out behind the launch vehicle upwind of the payload so that once the balloon is inflated and released it will sail up to position itself about 600 ft above the payload.

The laying out of the balloon isn’t so simple. This thing is huge. It measures just under 400 ft in diameter once it’s completely inflated at float. It’s stored in a box where the combined weight is 9000 lbs. The balloon itself is only 1.5 mil thick and weighs 5000 lbs. Taking the balloon out of the box is difficult enough, putting the balloon back in the box (in the event of a scrubbed launch attempt) is even crazier. It’s actually a rule at CSBF: super pressure balloons cannot go back in their box. So when that balloon was laid out last Friday during out last launch attempt, CSBF told us that this was it, there was no going back. We were thrilled.

An added complication of the super pressure balloon is the electronics and valves contained in the top of the balloon. This weight makes this inflation process more involved. A smaller balloon, referred to as the tow balloon, is inflated first and attached to the top of the super pressure for the duration of the inflation. Once the inflation of the tow balloon is compete, then the inflation of the main balloon can begin. The balloon is held down on a spool during the inflation, and only once the inflation is complete and the winds are calm and everything else is right, the balloon will be released from the spool and lift itself above the launch vehicle. Because the winds are never quite perfect, the Boss will have to be maneuvered to stay underneath the balloon before the release of the gondola. Then, up up and away!

Our launch attempt last week got us all the way up to the inflation of the tow balloon.  Unfortunately, the winds had changed direction during the few hours that it took to get the launch vehicle, parachute and balloon in position. By the time the tow balloon was inflated, there were cross winds with gusts up to 8 or 9 kts (3-4 kts average is the max for our super pressure launch). The four riggers who were holding the tow balloon in place were doing all they could just to not have it blow away. Seeing the wind direction, the magnitude of the gusts, and the difficulty in just having the tow balloon barely stable, CSBF made the decision that it would be too risky to try and inflate the super pressure. The launch was called off and the tow balloon was released.

At this point, we didn’t really know the significance of the scrubbed launch. The balloon was out, but the launch was cancelled. If we were to take what CSBF said earlier with all seriousness, that would mean that the super pressure balloon was done with (we have no spare). Within the hour, most things were pretty much cleared up. CSBF decided that it would be worth the effort to try and put the balloon back in the box (they got permission from headquarters to attempt to launch with the same balloon again), so not all was lost. It took 10 riggers over an hour of strenuous, delicate work to get the 5000 lbs balloon back. Everyone is crossing their fingers that nothing was damaged in the process and we’re going to go ahead and try to launch again. Today is the day.

If you have a no-wind dance, now’s the time to get moving.

6th time’s the charm!

ANITA had their 6th roll out this morning and after a few snags they made it out to the flight line and had a gorgeous launch! For many of us, on COSI and ANITA, this was the first balloon launch we’ve witnessed live. It was remarkable.

For safety reasons, spectators (but only those associated with LDB are allowed) need to stay over 500 feet from the launch pad. People that was deemed non-essential personnel, like ourselves, watch the whole process from just outside of our buildings. The balloon inflation takes about an hour to complete.

Some of the COSI, ANITA, and SPIDER groups waiting around for the inflation to be complete.

Some of the COSI, ANITA, and SPIDER groups waiting around for the inflation to be complete.

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I decided it was a good time for a snow angle.

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McBride, Brent, and Clio standing in front of the ANITA payload on the launch pad with the balloon fully inflated and ready for release.

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ANITA in the middle of the launch pad with the balloon inflating beside it. It looks tiny from here!

The balloon doesn’t swell up to its full size (over 400 ft in diameter) until it reaches its float altitude (110,000 ft).

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Right after the balloon was released. You could hear the whoosh/flapping of the polyethylene even from where we were. It was pretty surreal.

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The Boss maneuvers to stay underneath the balloon before the release of the gondola.

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The ANITA payload after launch. It’s just itty bitty.

GO ANITA GO!!!

The Crud

The infamous McMurdo Crud. Anyone who has been down here knows about it, probably too well. It’s your common cold &/or stomach bug, but it spreads like no other. It seems like there is no way of avoiding it. Hand sanitizer galore and vigorous hand washing can only go so far. It knocked me out for two days at the beginning of last week, it moved on to McBride, then hit Martin. Who’s next?! Only the Crud knows…

In other news, still no weatherport, but we’ve officially made ourselves at home in the little room off of the galley. At least we get the advantage of being near the delicious food at all times. It’s safe to say that I haven’t felt hungry since arriving.

Brent and I trying out the weatherport. We're all getting very antsy waiting to get started on our real work.

Brent and I trying out the weatherport. We’re all getting very antsy waiting to get started on our real work.

Alex warming up a power supply after it was sitting outside in the shipping container at -15 C for a couple weeks.

Alex warming up a power supply after it was sitting outside in the shipping container at -15 C for a couple weeks.

Just another day in the little room off of the galley.

Just another day in the little room off of the galley.

Without a real place to work, we’ve been pretty free during the weeknight evenings. We did the short walk out to Discovery Hut a few evenings ago. The storage hut was built by Robert Scott in 1902. It’s been remarkably preserved and is designated a historical monument.

The hut and some signs.

The hut and some signs.

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Clio and I standing excitedly out at Hut Point. McMurdo and Observation Hill are see in the background.

A seal that we saw. There were about five of them out there that evening. The seal don't often move so they end up looking a lot like massive black slugs on the ice. My very limited goggle-ing tells me this is a Weddell seal. This guy was scratching his tummy with a really weird look hand/fin thing.

A seal that we saw. There were about five of them out there that evening. The seals don’t often move so they end up looking a lot like massive black slugs on the ice. My very limited goggle-ing tells me this is a Weddell seal. This guy was scratching his tummy with a really weird look hand/fin thing.

A few of ANITA folk standing out near Discovery Hut. White Island and Black island are far in the distance.

A few of the ANITA folk standing out near Discovery Hut. White Island and Black island are far in the distance across the ice shelf. In a couple months time, at the peak of the Austral summer, most of that ice will be gone.

We’ve been told that we’ll finally be getting into our weatherport on Wednesday, so it’s soon to be a lot more work and less play. We’re all really looking forward to it.

We’ve arrived and it’s gorgeous!!

It’s been just over 24 hours since we touched down on the Ice, and unfortunately my writing skills are not refined enough for me to explain how amazing it is here. The view are so much more than I was expecting, and I was expecting a lot. The people are fantastic. The food is good. It’s definitely not as cold as we all we thought it would be (although the temperature has been hovering around -15 ºC, it doesn’t feel nearly that bad). And the shuttle trip out to the balloon base (a solid 7.5 miles from McMurdo on the ice shelf) is breathtaking.

View of the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound, with Scott's Base in the foreground.

View of the Ross Ice Shelf and McMurdo Sound, with Scott Base in the foreground. You can actually see the divide between the sea ice that melts every summer and the permanent ice self.

The view of McMurdo from the LDB (Long Duration Balloon) base looking across the Ross Ice Shelf. You can see the three wind turbines just above the bulldozer - these provide power to the New Zealand base, Scott's Base, which is just down the road from McMurdo.

The view of McMurdo from the LDB (Long Duration Balloon) base looking across the Ross Ice Shelf (or McMurdo Ice Shelf? Not really sure). If you look closely, you can see three wind turbines just above the bulldozer – these provide power to the New Zealand base, Scott Base, which is just down the road from McMurdo.

Here's a satellite photo of McMurdo and the surrounding area. We will be taking a 30 minute shuttle ride out to the LDB everyday, which is located to the upper left of this photo.

Here’s a satellite photo of McMurdo and the surrounding area. We will be taking a 30 minute shuttle ride out to the LDB everyday, which is located to the upper left of this photo.

There are three different ballooning projects happening on the Ice this year. Apart from us there is ANITA, who I already mentioned but here’s another link (http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/~anita/new/html/science.html), and SPIDER, a cosmic ray detector looking for polarization in the CMB (http://arxiv.org/abs/1106.3087). Both SPIDER and ANITA are massive payloads. CSBF had to actually widen the highbay doors at their facilities in Palestine to get ANITA in and out during their calibration tests (and in the end, there was only a few inches of clearance).

The massive ANITA payload, measuring 30 ft in height.

If you haven’t seen my last post yet, here’s another picture of the massive ANITA payload in Palestine during their compatibility test last August. The payload  measures 30 ft in height and maxes out all of the size allowances of CSBF.

Our gondola is tiny in comparison, measuring a mear 5’x5’x7’. Three balloon payloads, with us being the smallest, and only two highbays means we would have been shoved in a corner and would have had to fight for time with the crane. Instead, CSBF figured that it would be easier to give us our own space and build up a weather port – a glorified heated tent. The weather in McMurdo the weeks leading up to our arrival was devastating. There were huge storms which delayed flights (49% of the flights since the beginning of the season have been delayed) and work here on the base has been slow going. As a result, the other two groups haven’t received the majority of their science cargo and our weather port is still in the early stages of construction. Ironically, we have all of our equipment here and no where to work and the other two groups have huge highbays and no equipment. The ANITA group has been kind enough to give us a small amount of desk space in their highbay, so hopefully tomorrow we can actually get started on some of the hardware.

Steve McBride out at the LBD (Long Duration Ballon) base. You can see the two large highbays and the tiny frame of our weatherport to the left.

Steve McBride out at the LBD  base. You can see the two large highbays and the tiny frame of our weatherport to the left.

Alex and the cryostat arrived in McMurdo late Sunday night, almost two weeks after I dropped him off in LA! (He had a crazy trip down here, so I’m hoping he’ll write up a blog post tell the story.) Unfortunately, our cryostat developed a leak due to the extreme temperatures during the flight down to Christchurch. This means that we have to warm up the detectors, pump out the cryostat, then cool them down again before turning anything on. It puts us back about a week, but hey, we don’t have space to work with the cryostat in the first place, so it’s not entirely that bad.

Me sitting beside the cryostat and pump. It's currently residing in the Science Support Center, but hopefully we'll be ready to move it out to LDB early next week.

Me keeping the cryostat and pump company. It’s currently residing in the Science Support Center, but hopefully we’ll be ready to move it out to LDB early next week.