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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :).