Thursday, November 15, 2012

Solar Panel Testing and more about life in McMurdo: November 15, 2012

After being away for two days, returning to the payload building at LDB was a bit of a change. Several more of the BLAST crew had arrived, including a professor I took a few classes with as an undergrad. The BLAST Gondola was set up and the instrument seemed to be taking shape.

On the Super-TIGER side of things, the blue foam insulation, black plastic, and mylar layering looked complete for both of our instrument modules. Frank, Dana, Sean, and Thomas spent the day working on the blue foam insulation for the bottom of the instrument, which until now had stayed exposed. I spent most of the day working on some software I had come up with back in August. Then, the focus was on getting something useable; now, I'm making sure it still works (which it eventually did) and making sure that the information that it extracts out of the data looks good. This isn't data analysis software or anything exciting, but it does tell us what various settings have been set to on our instrument and helps us monitor things.

Garry, Dana, and Richard also went out to test the solar panels. Both banks of three panels each were outputting about 290 Watts, a pretty sizable increase from the amount they were outputting when we had tested them in Texas in July. Since the entire instrument should only need around 250 Watts, we should have more than enough power during flight.

I've gotten some questions from a couple of people about more general things about Antarctica and McMurdo, so I figured I'd go through some of that now. McMurdo station itself is located on Ross Island, which, while not part of the Antarctic mainland, is connected by the permanent ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. Right now, there is the permanent ice of the ice shelf, which is mostly glacial ice, and seasonal sea ice, that will melt at some point in the next couple of months. The seasonal ice extends just past Scott Base, so McMurdo will have a harbor at some point while I'm here. The station currently has around 950 people--I forgot to check the bulletin board this morning for the exact figure.

McMurdo acts as the jumping off point for people headed all around the continent. People flying to the South Pole station normally spend a day or two (or more, if there are weather/mechanical problems) in McMurdo, and there are a variety of field camps that people will head out to. I've talked to people headed to field camps on Mount Erebus, which has a camp at 7000ft and at 11000ft and further out on the ice shelf, where they'll set up some seismic monitoring stations. There seem to be a lot of people that do seismic monitoring here--there are people looking to study the formation of the Antarctic mountains by evaluating seismic activity here, people working on monitoring stations that try to detect unauthorized nuclear testing around the world, and a few people looking at icequakes and the ice shelf itself.

McMurdo itself is relatively compact--the main buildings in the center of town aren't more than a few hundred feet away from each other. There are over 100 buildings in town, but most of the activity happens in a smaller fraction of them. Towards the outskirts of town there are storage areas and parking lots, where there are some pretty big fuel tanks, heavy equipment and other necessary stuff that isn't being used. There is a waste sorting facility, a water treatment plant, and a set of fuel generators. On the hill above town are three wind turbines, but they are used to power Scott Base.

Scott Base is run by Antarctica New Zealand, and has probably around a hundred people living in it. It's about two miles away on the road out to the LDB site, so we go by it every day. Thursday night a few of us went over again, since their store and bar have a different selection than the bars and store in McMurdo.

There are roads and hiking trails around McMurdo, and, for the most part, these are open to whoever wants to use them. Some of the longer trails or trails on sea ice require checking out with the Fire House and filing a hiking plan with them, so that if people get lost or miss their scheduled check in time, the search and rescue team can be mobilized to go get them. Beyond the marked trails and roads, though, we're not really allowed to wander. On some of the trails on land there are specially protected areas designated and experiments that can easily be disturbed by people wandering through them; otherwise, like near Scott Base, there may be buried or concealed power or fuel lines that they don't want people climbing over or stepping on. On the ice shelf and the sea ice, there is always the danger of Crevasses. These are holes in the ice that can be very deep, and can be covered by only a thin layer of ice and snow at the top, making them look just like any other part of the ice shelf. In the past, people have wandered off the marked trails and fallen into crevasses and been seriously injured, and in a couple cases ended up dying. Staying on the marked paths is all we're really allowed to do for now.

The population in McMurdo is a mix between scientists and support staff. I'm not sure what the percentages of each are, since dorms are assigned based on what kind of work you do, and just about everyone in my dorm works out at LDB or does some other type of science around the station. I would guess that the vast majority of the people down here are not scientists, or "grantees", but I don't know exactly how many there are. There was a "social" for scientists on Monday night that seemed to have around a hundred to a hundred and fifty people at it, but I'm not sure how many of them just showed up once they heard that there was free ice cream.

The LDB site is smaller, with probably no more than ten buildings (there are a few buildings built out of old shipping containers, but also a ton of old empty shipping containers, so I'm not sure which is which for some of them. Also, I don't know whether to count outhouses or not.). Super-TIGER is in the payload building on one end, with the other buildings (going in order of distance from us) being the other payload building (home to the EBEX experiment), the rigging shop (where the balloon riggers have all their equipment), the electronics building, the mechanical building/heated bathrooms, the generator building, the galley, and then an administrative building.


  1. Since you mentioned stores, don't forget to buy an Antarctica bear if you come across one.

  2. You're quite right that the solar panel can't be directly connected.. . I sense that you want to start small, but unfortunately, it's hard enough to make a system with a dozen or more panels pay back. (It can, we have a system...) But with just one panel, maybe a small one, the economy of scale is gone. You need to buy a grid-tie inverter, which watt-for-watt will be more expensive than a regular size one, and for a small panel, the $$/watt value will be poor.. . There are some [illegal in most places] tiny grid-tie inverters that I see advertised on the web from time to time, with an ordinary plug that goes into the wall. Those are generally against electrical codes, and the danger is real.. . There is also a crop of micro-inverters being sold by companies such as Enphase. These are legitimate products, but will still be costly per watt, and ultimately, it will be hard to have a net savings over time with just one panel.. . Have you already taken the conservation steps like LED light bulbs, efficient appliances (especially refrigerator), insulation, and using a power strip to turn off loads that are not being used? That stuff isn't sexy, but saves money fast. solar panels Venice FL

  3. The solar panels or more correctly the array of photovoltaic cells can use the renewable energy from the sun& convert it into usable electricity to power our homes & feed back to the grid.

    solar panels Venice FL

  4. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information.installers

  5. Here's how to cut your electric bill by 75%:

    Want to know how to easily produce all of the renewable energy you could ever want right at home?

    And you’ll be able to make your home totally immune from power outages, blackouts, and energy grid outages
    so even if everyone else in your area (or even the whole country) loses power, you won’t.