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.

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Penguin Sighting

Some of us were lucky enough to see a penguin the other day! Alex, Brent, McBride and I were in the van heading back to McMurdo, and saw the penguin between LDB and Willy Field. He was pretty far away, so my pictures aren’t that great. Alan, Martin and Abby were on a later van and were able to get much closer!IMG_2285

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The ANITA team came out yesterday for a launch attempt and told us that the penguin was hanging around LDB. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen him today. The later it gets in the season, the closer penguins get to McMurdo, so hopefully we’ll get to see some more! Given that we’re still waiting for ANITA to launch before we can launch, it looks like we’re all going to be around for awhile.

Fun in McMurdo

We’re waiting for our next launch opportunity. It’s a little unclear when that will be, as there are currently two balloons ready to launch: us and ANITA. ANITA rolled out today, but the launch attempt got cancelled because the weather wasn’t quite good enough. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of days.

Though we are ready to launch, we’re using this time to take more calibration data and fix up our ground software. But as our instrument and the flight software seem to be working pretty well, it means we have some time to do fun things! (And in my case, time to write about some of the fun things we’ve done since arriving here).

Observation Hill:

Ob Hill is a hill right next to McMurdo that offers some great views from the top. It’s a bit of a steep climb, but not that long. We headed up there as a group a couple of weeks ago, and I went again the other day. The views were incredible!

Mt Erebus from the top of Ob Hill. We can see the other side of Erebus from LDB.

Mt Erebus from the top of Ob Hill. We can see the other side of Erebus from LDB.

Looking down at McMurdo from the top of Ob Hill

Looking down at McMurdo from the top of Ob Hill

We could see LDB way out in the distance

We could see LDB way out in the distance

McBride taking a rest halfway up the climb

McBride taking a rest halfway up the climb, with some pretty sweet mountains in the background

Me at the top of Ob Hill

Me at the top of Ob Hill

When I climbed up a couple of days ago, the clouds and mountains looked super awesome

When I climbed up a couple of days ago, the clouds and mountains looked super awesome

Pressure Ridges:

The pressure ridges are ridges of ice formed by the sea ice and the permanent ice pushing against each other. LDB offered tours that we could sign up for, so a bunch of us went. Unfortunately, we couldn’t all sign up for the same tour. I went with Carolyn and McBride, and Brent, Alan, Martin, and Abby went a couple days later. We drive past the pressure ridges on the way to LDB every day, but they look much more impressive up close. We also got to see some seals, which is always exciting.

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Carolyn and I at the pressure ridges

Carolyn and I at the pressure ridges

Observation Tube:

 Ob Tube is a metal tube that goes through the ice and ends in a tiny room that looks out into the ocean. It’s a really neat way for people to look at the ocean and the bottom of the ice. To get to the bottom, we had to climb down a “ladder”, which was really just rungs sticking out of the wall. Towards the bottom, the rungs turn into a sketchy rope ladder (which was pretty short, so it wasn’t that sketchy). It’s pretty cramped, and Alex said he got a little claustrophobic. Because the space is so small, only one person can go down at a time. We had to wait over an hour for our turns. Looking out at the ocean and the bottom of the ice was so amazing that it was definitely worth the wait!

There's a little "apple" next to the entrance to ob tube. It's not heated, but it was a good shelter from the wind.

There’s a little “apple” next to the entrance to ob tube. It’s not heated, but it was a good shelter from the wind.

The view from the entrance to ob tube. The clouds were pretty epic that day.

The view from the entrance to ob tube. The clouds were pretty epic that day.

Looking down ob tube from the top

Looking down ob tube from the top

Here’s some photos of all of us climbing into ob tube:

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The bottom of the ice from inside ob tube. Unfortunately my camera wasn't that great at taking pictures of the ocean through a window.

The bottom of the ice from inside ob tube. Unfortunately my camera wasn’t that great at taking pictures of the ocean through a window.

The bottom of the ice and the ocean

The bottom of the ice and the ocean

Hut Point:

Discovery hut, out on hut point, is a short walk from McMurdo, and Brent hadn’t been yet, so he and I went last night. We saw some seals, as well as the hole they use to come up from the water. One of the seals was younger than the rest, and kept moving around, which was pretty cute.

So many seals!

So many seals!

The seal hole in the ice! I hadn't seen one yet.

The seal hole in the ice

The sassy young seal, as Brent called it

The sassy young seal, as Brent called it

Today Brent decided to have a Christmas party, thinking we’d all be too distracted by watching ANITA launch to get any work done. Even though the launch didn’t happen, we still had a good time playing Christmas music, eating too many cookies, and decorating our Christmas tree!

Our Christmas party spread, consisting of cookies and cider from McMurdo, chocolate from Steve Boggs, and reese's and holiday themed goldfish from McBride's daughter.

Our Christmas party spread, consisting of cookies and cider from McMurdo, chocolate from Steve Boggs, and reese’s and holiday themed goldfish from McBride’s daughter.

McBride's daughter also sent him Irish whiskey. It seemed like a very appropriate addition to the care package.

McBride’s daughter also sent him Irish whiskey. It seemed like a very appropriate addition to the care package.

Brent's sister sent us an adorable Christmas tree made out of paper. It also came with ornaments, and instructions on how to decorate it.

Brent’s sister sent us an adorable Christmas tree made out of paper. It also came with ornaments, and instructions on how to decorate it.

Carolyn and McBride putting the garland on the tree

Carolyn and McBride putting the garland on the tree

Alan adding an ornament to the tree

Alan adding an ornament to the tree

The tree all decorated! We think it's awesome :)

The tree all decorated! We think it’s awesome 🙂 Thanks, Brent’s sister!

A Typical Day

As of last Friday, we finally have a weather port! This means we’ve been able to really get started working at LDB. The LDB site is about 7.5 miles away from McMurdo, so we have to take a shuttles to get there. Every day (including Sundays), there is a big shuttle bus, called the kress, that takes all the LDB people out there. There are also shuttle vans approximately once an hour, though at night they get less frequent. These vans are for both LDB and Willy Field, an airport near McMurdo.

The kress at LDB. It's a really big vehicle, and also really slow.

In the mornings, we’re encouraged to take the kress at 7:30 AM so that we don’t clog the Willy Field shuttles. Here it is at LDB. It’s a really big vehicle, and also really slow.

Brent inside the kress. The kress is freezing, so everyone has to bundle up and wear their extreme cold weather gear.

Brent inside the kress. The kress is freezing, so everyone has to bundle up and wear their extreme cold weather gear.

Because the kress is so slow, the ride takes about 45 minutes to an hour, which is long enough for a nap. Carolyn and Brent decided to take advantage of that fact yesterday morning.

Because the kress is so slow, the ride takes about 45 minutes to an hour, which is long enough for a nap. Carolyn and Brent decided to take advantage of that fact yesterday morning.

everyone getting off the kress and walking to their buildings

everyone getting off the kress and walking to their buildings

We often want to stay later than 5:30, which is when the kress takes everyone back to McMurdo, so we just hop on one of the shuttle vans.

We often want to stay later than 5:30, which is when the kress takes everyone back to McMurdo, so we just hop on one of the shuttle vans.

The kress doesn’t have any heating, so we’re all pretty cold by the time we get to LDB. Thankfully the weather port gets pretty warm! Once we’ve gotten settled in for the day, Steve goes around handing out vitamin C, which he always seems very excited about. Carolyn sometimes has morning stretch sessions, inspired by the carpenters who built our weather port.

Steve getting ready to pass out vitamin C this morning.

Steve getting ready to pass out vitamin C this morning.

Carolyn during one of her morning stretch sessions. The carpenters building our weather port stretched every morning, and Carolyn and I often joined them. We decided to continue the tradition, and she's been doing a good job sticking to it.

Carolyn during one of her morning stretch sessions. The carpenters building our weather port stretched every morning, and Carolyn and I often joined them. We decided to continue the tradition, and she’s been doing a good job sticking to it.

So what exactly do we do when we’re working out here? Right now, our main priority is to build up our gondola and fix some issues we’re having with the cryostat. So far, we’ve got a lot of the electronics boxes and the SIP on the gondola, and we’re hoping to get the cryostat up there in the next couple of days. Once everything has been integrated, we’ll calibrate our instrument and make sure everything is ready for the launch.

Carolyn working on the cryostat

Steve, Brent and Carolyn working on the cryostat. Carolyn’s checking the temperature sensitivity with a bag of snow from outside.

Carolyn and Steve getting some helium ready

Carolyn and Steve getting some helium ready to leak-check the cryostat

Lunch is always a good part of the day. The food at LDB is much better than the food at McMurdo, so we get pretty excited for lunch. There’s a little galley tent at LDB, but it’s all the way at the other end of the facility. The bright side is that while walking there we get some pretty awesome views!

The LDB galley

The LDB galley

Brent, McBride and Alex at lunch

Brent, McBride and Alex at lunch

The view from the back of LDB. This is what we see while walking from our weather port to the galley (or any other building at LDB, really). It's pretty incredible!

The view from the back of LDB. This is what we see while walking from our weather port to the galley (or any other building at LDB, really). It’s pretty incredible!

When we were in Palestine, we ate a lot of goldfish. We decided to continue that tradition in Antarctica. We are already on our third huge box of goldfish, and are rationing them: one box per week.

McBride and the third box of goldfish. This one is whole grain instead of original. Opinions are mixed about which type is better.

McBride and the third box of goldfish. This one is whole grain instead of original. Opinions are mixed about which type is better.

A funny thing about the whole grain goldfish is that a lot of them get stuck together. For some reason, everyone got really excited about this.

A funny thing about the whole grain goldfish is that a lot of them get stuck together. For some reason, everyone got really excited about this.

More goldfish stuck together...

More goldfish stuck together…

And even more....

And even more….

If we get back by 7:30, we can eat dinner in McMurdo. If not, dinner there is over, so we just heat up leftovers at LDB. There are plenty of activities going on in McMurdo during the evening, so we can often find something to do. On Wednesdays there’s pub trivia, which is fun, though it’s difficult to stop McBride from yelling out the answers so loudly that all the other teams can hear! There’s also the coffee house, which is a good place for wine and board games. If we feel like staying in, the lounge in our dorm has couches, a TV, and a ton of VHS tapes. Most of the LDB people are in the same dorm, so it’s a good place to socialize with people from ANITA, Spider, and CSBF. In addition, there are walks / excursions we can go on, like discovery hut, observation hill, and a tour of the pressure ridges (I’ll go into more detail about these in another post).

Martin, Abby, McBride, Alex, Alan, and Brent at dinner in McMurdo

Martin, Abby, McBride, Alex, Alan, and Brent at dinner in McMurdo

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.

Our first few days at LDB

We’ve been here a few days, and as expected, our weather port is still not done. We currently have a small space to work in the same building as the galley, or cafeteria, at LDB. We don’t have space to unpack the entire shipping container, nor do we want to, as we would then have to move everything into our weather port later. We unpacked what we needed to work on the flight computer, the card cage boards, and some other things. Today we got (very slow) internet in our space, which everyone is pretty excited about.

Brent and our temporary space, which we were in the process of unpacking.

Brent and our temporary space, which we were in the process of unpacking

The goldfish were a key item to get from the shipping container, at least as far as McBride was concerned!

The goldfish were a key item to get from the shipping container, at least as far as McBride was concerned!

Our weather port is coming along. On Monday it had a front, and on Tuesday it had walls and insulation! Today they are working on the doors, so we are hopeful that we’ll be able to move in there early next week.

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We can’t wander too far from LDB, because there could be crevasses around. Alex found a hole in the snow right next to the weather port and thought he had found a crevasse. He was very excited about it.

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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.