Friday, February 1, 2013

Termination: February 1 (& 2), 2013

Friday morning I woke up early from jet lag, and just when I was about to fall asleep I got a call that we'd gotten word that we would be coming down soon. We turned off our instrument and prepared for cutdown. Since the concern was the poor terrain to the south, we got a few extra hours of flight when our trajectory turned north, and we sent the commands to turn the instrument back on.

Just as I was leaving to go stop by the department and say hi to people and go to our Graduate Student Seminar talk, we got another flurry of emails to turn off the instrument. This time, we ended up starting to come down about 45 minutes later.

The process of termination is pretty cool--helium gets vented from the balloon, the balloon is ripped so it comes back down, the payload falls, and then a parachute is deployed. After we hit the ground, the parachute detaches (TIGER 2001 had some issues with this step), and the instrument is on the ground.

Super-TIGER hit the ground at 17:17 EST (22:17 GMT) on February 1, 2013. The flight time was about 55 days, 2 hours, and 32 minutes. The final resting place is at 82°14.75 S, 81°54.83 W.

I plan on updating the blog at least once more with the details of the (very unlikely) recovery operations this year, if any.

The Long Trip Back: January 30-31, 2013

I got up early Wednesday morning in McMurdo and made sure that all of my stuff was out of my room. I went over to the galley for one last breakfast, said goodbye to Sean, and then walked up to the Movement Control Center, where we were supposed to show up at 7:15am. 

Decoration in the MCC. 
Once everyone was assembled, we got on our old friend Ivan the Terra Bus for one last 7:30am trip out of McMurdo.

The Pegasus airfield is out on the permanent ice shelf south of McMurdo. For the first few miles, the road to the airfield is the same as the road to LDB, so we got one last glimpse of the LDB camp.

Once we got to the airfield, we got a good look at one of the Kenn Borek Basler aircraft. These modified DC-3s are what we hope to use to recover the Super-TIGER payload. I'm not sure where this one, which was closest, was going that day but the other had another successful flight out to BLAST, where Elio and the recovery team got everything but the aluminum frame.

We didn't go inside the passenger terminal building, so we basically waited around outside for a while and watched the goings-on of the airfield. It was a pretty nice day, so there wasn't much going on for a while.

Eventually, though, a whole group of people started walking away from the passenger terminal. We weren't sure why, until we saw that they were going to get a better look at an Emperor Penguin that was standing around next to some equipment.

We watched as the penguin lay down, then got back up again and waddled all around for a while.

Since this was the only Emperor Penguin I saw the entire time I was in Antarctica, I took a lot of photos.

The penguin started walking kind of towards us, so I got much closer than I'd expected by just standing still.

Eventually, a van showed up to shuttle us out to our plane. Just as we were getting in, a Skua, evidently sick of the penguin hogging everyone's attention, landed next to someone's carry-on bag and stuck its head in a plastic bag that they'd packed their lunch in, looking for food. Someone nearby noticed and scared the skua away, but then it decided to land on top of the van as we were loading up. Once it flew off again, we drove over to our plane.

We flew out in a New York Air National Guard LC-130 Hercules. This is a modified version of the C-130 military transport that has skis and so can land on the Pegasus skiway. The larger C-17s that just have wheels haven't returned to the ice yet. 

The LC-130 is notably a propellor plane, which means that it doesn't travel as fast as the C-17 we took down here. We were told that our flight would probably be around 8 and a half hours.

Inside, the plane was pretty full, so I only had about 2 inches between my knee and a pallet of bags brought on board by all the passengers.

We settled in for the flight, which ended up taking a little under 8 hours. I wasn't able to sleep or do much other than read.

Eventually, though, we touched down in Christchurch and they opened up the back loading hatch of the plane. It was there that I got my first glimpse of a living plant in three months, the trees around the airport.

We hopped on a bus for a quick ride over to the terminal, went through Immigration back into New Zealand, then collected our bags and went through customs. I took off all of my required ECW gear and put on regular tennis shoes, because it was nice and warm in Christchurch.

Then, I had to walk over to the Clothing Distribution Center to return all of the cold weather gear I'd been issued back in October. I pushed my luggage cart down the sidewalk all the way to the CDC, through some nice warm and sunny weather. I didn't mind that the walk was long, because I got to enjoy it.

After returning my gear and picking up my forward itinerary, I waited around for JohnE and Thomas. Thomas was staying at a hotel closer to the airport, so he just walked over. JohnE eventually showed up still wearing his wind pants and ECW boots, so he did not have nearly as pleasant of a time in the 86 Fahrenheit/30 Celsius weather.

By the time we got to the hotel--JohnE and I were at the Pavillions again--it was 7:30pm. After showering and checking email, we went over to the pizza place we'd gone to the first night in Christchurch back in October and I once again had a delicious lamb and veggie pizza with rosemary mint sauce. We also stopped by Smash Palace, the bar near the hotel with scaffolding and plastic sheeting for walls.

Our taxi to the airport left the hotel at 5:15am Thursday morning, so I didn't get a chance to get too much sleep (JohnE and I were still used to our night shift). The internet had been out at the hotel after we got back Wednesday night, so I hadn't seen an email telling me that I was now flying through Dallas/Fort Worth instead of LAX. This lead to me getting very confused when I checked in and was told that I'd have to collect my bags in Dallas to go through customs.

The flight over to Sydney wasn't too bad. We had a 6-hour layover there before continuing on to Dallas, and it was there that we said goodbye to Thomas, who left on an earlier flight through LAX.

We got on the plane to Dallas and were greeted with an announcement telling us that not only was the seatbelt sign off, but we all had to actually keep our seatbelts UNfastened for the next several minutes while the plane was refueling. After a safety video by Ricky Ponting and other members of the Australian cricket team, our 15-hour flight got underway. Among the many movies I watched was a documentary about Felix Baumgartner, who jumped out of a high-altitude balloon at 127,000ft in October. Looking at the view from that altitude was pretty amazing, and I got a good sense for just how high up Super-TIGER has been flying.

After a short layover in Dallas, we made it back to St. Louis Thursday evening, and I went out to meet up with a few friends that night (also, my apartment was at about 52 degrees when I got home, so I didn't mind being out while it warmed up a bit).

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I'm in the Christchurch airport now, where we just watched our first sunrise in three months. I'll have a longer post up once I've got time, but here's a sneak peak:

This emperor penguin was just hanging out at the airport while we were waiting for our flight.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bag Drag and our last day in McMurdo: January 29, 2013

With our scheduled departure for Wednesday, January 30, JohnE, Thomas, and I had our last day in McMurdo today. Thomas and Sean went out to LDB as usual for last-minute packing and preparations for shipping (and delicious lunch). In McMurdo, I went to the store before lunch (last-minute shopping!) and then hiked out to Hut Point after lunch. I spent most of the afternoon packing up all of my stuff and forcing everything to fit into the two bags I brought with me. I also cleaned up my half of the room and made sure everything was ready to go.

Just before dinner, I got an email with details about our flight and the "Bag Drag" operation. I walked over for dinner and to double-check the manifest. After dinner, I headed back to my dorm to make sure everything was packed up. At 8:00pm, I was supposed to be up in the McMurdo Movement Control Center to check in for my flight tomorrow morning. Since I wasn't sure how easily I'd be able to get all of my stuff over there, I left my room at 7:45.

I got outside my dorm to find two pickup trucks waiting to ferry people and their luggage up to bag drag, and was offered a ride, so I threw my bags up on the truck and rode in the bed with a few other people the 200ft or so up the hill to the MCC. Once inside, I had to label all of my bags with my name and flight number (GCH063). Then, we waited in line until it was our turn to check in.

First, they checked my passport and gave me my arrival card for immigration and customs in New Zealand, and double-checked that I had the appropriate Emergency Cold Weather (ECW) gear with me. Then, they weighed all of my checked bags to make sure they were below the 150lb limit (when I weighed them earlier, I had about 80lbs of stuff). Then, I had to climb on the scale and be weighed along with my ECW gear and carry-on bag. I'll have to be weighed again tomorrow when we leave.

With our transport out to the airfield scheduled for 7:15am, we went out to Southern Exposure for one last night out with the friends we've made in the last few months in McMurdo. We said goodbye to Elio from BLAST, Asad, Michele, and Chappy from EBEX, Jessa the cook, who was responsible for our food, especially the delicious prepared salads, Pat, one of the technicians out at Pegasus Field, Lee the Packers fan (who I begrudgingly wished the best and that the Packers win one fewer game than the Vikings next year), and others. After that, I walked out to Hut Point one last time. There weren't any penguins, and the wind was pretty strong, so I went back in shortly thereafter. Then it was time to take a shower (I'm not making the same mistake as Richard, who packed away his towel, and then was stuck for 3 days, but I also don't want a wet towel in my carry-on bag tomorrow morning), check email, update the blog, and then I'll get to sleep soon.

I'll keep updating the blog through our trip home and the rest of our flight (and whatever recovery operations Sean gets up to). I'm not sure yet how long I'll have in New Zealand (flights out aren't confirmed yet), but I'll keep things posted.

The last few months have been an amazing experience, and I'm surprised at the number of people that have told me they've been keeping up to date with the blog. Thank you, everyone, for reading and all your support.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Last Weekend in McMurdo: January 26-28, 2013

In the past few days, it's suddenly sunk in how soon we're actually leaving McMurdo. After Wednesday, only Sean will be left for whatever attempts at recovery we're able to get this season. Saturday I walked out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none). The winds were picking up and it was starting to snow, so I went back inside and did laundry for the last time. 

Saturday JohnE and I met up with Erica, a friend of ours from St. Louis, who had just returned from four weeks in the field doing seismology work. Apparently people at her field camp saw the Super-TIGER balloon fly over just before Christmas. We also got reports from members of the BARREL experiment, who are launching balloons out of the British base at Halley Bay, that Super-TIGER flew over there and looked like it was going strong. We're now two and a half times around the continent and over 50 days of flight. 

Sunday it continued to snow, so I caught a shuttle over to the Scott Base store for some final souvenir shopping. I left this a little late, so the selection in the McMurdo store wasn't great and Scott Base had a few things I wanted to be sure I got. Sunday night we went to Burger Bar at Gallagher's again for dinner, which ended up being delicious like last week.

Monday I started packing everything up and trying to make it fit in my suitcase. So far, it looks like everything is going to fit, but I still have to get my room cleaned and my cold-weather gear sorted tomorrow. 

Since we need to pack up our office in Crary Lab, we're in the middle of our last monitoring shift. We already cleaned everything out and vacuumed, and when we're done with the shift we'll turn off our local monitoring computer and pack it up to ship back to St. Louis. Tomorrow it's time to finish packing and get everything ready to go to leave early Wednesday morning ("weather and logistics permitting", as the McMurdo Housing email said). 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

No update today. For the past several days, everyone in McMurdo has been concerned about an aircraft that was flying from the South Pole to an Italian base that was overdue by quite some time. This morning, Kenn Borek air, the contractor that operates the overdue plane and the other small aircraft on continent, released the following statement:

Friday evening Calgary time, a C130 Hercules aircraft of the New York Air National Guard made visual contact with the overdue aircraft in Antarctica. The sighting was confirmed approximately thirty minutes later by a Kenn Borek Air Ltd. Twin Otter aircraft deployed in a search and rescue (SAR) role. The crew of the SAR Twin Otter reports that the overdue aircraft impacted a steep snow and ice covered mountain slope. No signs of activity are evident in the area surrounding the site, and it appears that the impact was not survivable.
Due to the terrain and ongoing weather conditions, the SAR Twin Otter was unable to land near the site. Subject to favourable weather conditions, helicopter crews and mountain rescue personnel will attempt to access the accident site Saturday morning Calgary local time.

 The thoughts and prayers of the entire Super-TIGER team are with the family and friends of the Kenn Borek crew.

Friday, January 25, 2013

January 25, 2013

Thursday, Sean and Thomas headed out to LDB to work as usual. In town, I walked out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none). On the way back, I ran into JohnE, who was doing the same thing. I hiked around the Observation Hill loop again and found a lot more of the snow melted, which is nice.

We're about halfway around our third orbit.

Otherwise, there isn't much going on with Super-TIGER here. JohnE, Thomas and I are scheduled to leave next Wednesday, January 30th, and Sean is now planning to stay until February 11 to do whatever recovery operations we're able to do this year. It's strange to think that a week from now--assuming nothing gets ridiculously delayed--I'll be on a plane on the way back to the states.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

EBEX terminates, and a hike through Arrival Heights: January 24, 2013

Towards the end of our monitoring shift last night, EBEX's flight was terminated and the payload came down on a parachute. They're located in Victoria Land, a few hundred kilometers north-west of McMurdo on the plateau. It sounds like they may base their recovery out of the Italian base, which sounds like a fun place to visit.

This also means that Super-TIGER is now the only CSBF balloon payload flying over Antarctica (there are a few balloons from the BARREL experiment launched from the British and South African bases up there). We're almost halfway through our third time around, and seem to be basically following our first trip around the continent.

Today we had a very calm day, so after my typical walk out to Hut Point to check for penguins (there were none. It was sad.) I decided to hike up the Hut Point Ridge through Arrival Heights. JohnE, Thomas, and I had done this hike back in October when we first arrived in McMurdo.

Halfway up the hill is a memorial to Richard Williams, who died in McMurdo sound in 1956 when his tractor fell through the ice (Williams Field is also named after him). This memorial has a statue of the virgin Mary and is known as "Roll Cage Mary" around McMurdo.

Normally, the ridge gets really windy, but today it was calm and I barely felt any wind at all. From the top, there were some very nice views looking north into McMurdo Sound.

There also were some great views of Mt. Erebus.

There are a couple of experiments housed on top, and I was able to get some good photos from the road. Officially, the areas off the marked path are restricted, so I wasn't able to get much closer.

 Sean and Thomas went to high-altitude training just in case our payload comes down at a similar elevation Otherwise, there isn't anything else interesting going on down here with Super-TIGER.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Another Day in McMurdo, a Fake Trophy, and then I found $5: January 23, 2012

Wednesday we had great weather here in McMurdo--just about freezing, clear skies, basically no wind. I hiked the Observation Hill Loop and there was a lot more snow on the path than there normally is. The snow we got the other day hasn't had a really good chance to melt yet.

And then I found $5.

This is the last place I ever expected to find a random $5 bill.

Otherwise, there wasn't much exciting going on here. JohnE and Thomas covered the first part of our McMurdo shift while I went to play in the Wednesday night soccer game. EBEX is expecting to cut down in the next day or so.  Elio from BLAST once again did not get on a flight out to their payload, but he did tweet out this photo from when they got out there yesterday:

Side note: through the Photoshop skills of the team back at Wash U, we now have a picture of an awesome real-looking trophy for the longest Antarctic balloon flight. This trophy does not exist. But I kind of wish it did.

I wish this actually existed. Actually, it would be really awesome if there were just a bunch of random NASA trophies floating around travelling between collaborations. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Observation Hill Cross Centennial: January 22, 2013

"Tuesday, January 22. Rousing out at 6 a.m. we got the large piece of the cross up Observation Hill by 11 a.m. It was a heavy job, and the ice was looking very bad all round, and I for one was glad when we had got it up by 5 o'clock or so. It really is magnificent, and will be a permanent memorial which could be seen from the ship nine miles off with a naked eye. It stands nine feet out of the rocks, and many feet into the ground, and I do not believe it will ever move. When it was up, facing out over the Barrier, we gave three cheers and one more"--Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 338

A hundred years ago today, the surviving members of Robert F. Scott's Terra Nova expedition erected a cross on top of Observation Hill, overlooking the Ross Ice Shelf ("the Barrier") and McMurdo Sound. The cross, a permanent memorial of the deaths of the five members of the Polar Party, still stands and is still visible from miles around.

The five members of the expedition that had made it to the pole--Scott, Edward Wilson, Edgar Evans, Henry Bowers, and Lawrence Oates--all died on their return journey. Evans died at the base of the Beardmore Glacier (which Super-TIGER flew over a few days ago), while Oates famously left the expedition's tent in the middle of the blizzard with the words "I am just going outside and may be some time" and was never seen again, sacrificing himself so the others might continue without being slowed down by him. The other three died in their tent about 11 miles from a depot full of food in late March 1912.

They were discovered by the rest of the expedition in November 1912, and plans were made for a memorial.

Observation Hill was chosen for reasons that Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of the expedition, describes here:
"Observation Hill was clearly the place for it, it knew them all so well. Three of them were Discovery men who lived three years under its shadow: they had seen it time after time as they came back from hard journeys on the Barrier: Observation Hill and Castle Rock were the two which always welcomed them in. It commanded McMurdo Sound on one side, where they had lived: and the Barrier on the other, where they had died. No more fitting pedestal, a pedestal which in itself is nearly 1000 feet high, could have been found"--Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 338

The names of all five members of the polar party are inscribed on the center of the cross.

The inscription, from Tennyson's Ulysses, was also a matter of some debate:
"There was some discussion as to the inscription, it being urged that there should be some quotation from the Bible because "the women think a lot of these things." But I was glad to see the concluding line of Tennyson's "Ulysses" adopted: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"-Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, pp. 337

Since today was the centennial, JohnE and I hiked up the hill shortly after lunch. The recent snowfall made this a bit more difficult than it had been in the past, and the wind was blowing quite a bit, but we made it to the top and got treated to an amazingly clear view of the surrounding area. It really is amazing that a wooden cross has been able to withstand the winds of a hundred years of storms basically unscathed.

In other news, Elio from BLAST was finally able to get out to the payload today and get their data and other important equipment. They're planning on one more flight out (hopefully tomorrow) before leaving the rest for the returning South Pole Traverse (considerably more equipped than Scott's party) to pick up.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Breaking the Record and a visit to Cosray: January 20-21, 2013

On Sunday morning, Super-TIGER surpassed CREAM I's duration of 41 days, 21 hours and 31 minutes to become the longest Antarctic Long-Duration Balloon flight!

We're still about 1/3 of the way through our third time around the continent, so we'll certainly make the record a lot harder to beat in the coming days. 

Sunday afternoon the McMurdo team got a tour of the Cosray (short for Cosmic Rays) building near McMurdo from Paul Evenson of the University of Delaware. This building houses the longest-running experiment in Antarctica, a cosmic-ray neutron monitor that first went online during the 1959-1960 season, although it was moved a year or so later so that it would be farther away from the nuclear power plant (which no longer exists).  The Cosray building is about halfway between McMurdo and Scott Base, so we drove by it every day on the way out to LDB.

Inside the building, there's a small kitchen set and a living room with some couches and a bookshelf full of physics reference books.

We first went into the data room, where three laptops are continuously working and sending data off-continent over the internet. There's a very sensitive barometer, which is necessary for making corrections to the data that is recorded. Cosray is just one of several ground-based neutron monitors scattered around the globe, with other stations in places like Greenland, Thailand, and Delaware.

In the main part of the building, the detectors are surrounded by lead rings and covered in blue foam. 

In the back of the room is a "Bit Bucket". Initially, all of the data was recorded on punch-tape to be read out by computers later. This bucket has all of the punched out chads.

We also got to see the machine that makes the holes in the tape.

The walls of the building are colorfully painted, including a description of cosmic rays interacting in the atmosphere.

There is also a lot of art scattered around the building. For the first 30 or so years that the experiment operated, a scientist would winter over to keep an eye on the equipment, and apparently would have nothing better to do than paint.

Once we got back outside, we had to get back on the main road. The snow that's been accumulating the last couple of days made this a little difficult.

Eventually, Thomas had to get out and shovel, while the rest of us remained inside the van providing moral support.

When we got back to town, we went over to the McMurdo station sign to take a photo with a sign JohnE and I had made on our shift to celebrate breaking the record. 

After that, we went back to the dorms for a bit...with a stop to throw a few snowballs on the way.

Dennis, JohnE's roommate, returns fire.

Sunday night we went to Burger Bar at Gallagher's, where we had burgers and fries in the bar before our monitoring shift. This was the right way to celebrate breaking a ballooning record.

Monday wasn't particularly exciting. After lunch, I talked with my family back in the states, and then walked out to Hut Point. The strong winds and deep snow dissuaded me from also doing the Observation Hill Loop. Otherwise, it was a pretty normal day, and we had another not-so-exciting monitoring shift at night.