BLAST at McMurdo Station, Antarctica — Austral Summer 2006

My name is Gaelen Marsden. I'm a graduate student in physics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. I work on BLAST, a 2-metre sub-millimetre telescope that flies on a balloon to an altitude of 40km to get above (most of) the atmosphere. I am currently at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where we are preparing for a long-duration balloon flight. We expect to launch in mid-December, although the date is highly dependent on weather. I'm keeping an online journal while here.

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Note: please click on thumbnails to see the day's collection of pictures.
Monday December 4, 2006 (11:48:46)
I am now safely at home and well rested. The trip home was long, but mostly unevently, with no missed flights or lost baggage. I flew out of McMurdo on a New Zealand Hercules, a much smaller and slower aircraft than the C-17 which we all flew in on. It was originally scheduled to leave at 9am on Thursday morning, but due to delays in the plane's arrival on Wednesday night, it was rescheduled for 1pm. By the time lunch hour came around, it was delayed again until 2pm. We ended up sitting around for 3 hours at the airport, and finally got off the ground at about 4:30pm. The plane was nearly empty, with only 9 passengers and no cargo. I had been told the flight would be 8 hours, but due to favourable tail winds they were predicting 6 and half, although it ended up being 7. Customs and gear return went smoothly, and I was in bed by 1am. My flight out of Christchurch was at 2pm on Saturday, so I had a couple of hours after hotel check-out to wander around town. The flights back to LA were smooth, and I managed to sleep a few hours. Due to the late booking of my flights, I ended up with a 9 hour layover in LA, and I decided to spend it visiting museums. I rented a car (I asked for a compact car, and was given a Mustang — bank error in my favour!), immediately stumbled upon KCRW, arguably one of the world's best indie stations, and headed for the Getty Center. It was fantastic — a photographer's dream — and I really enjoyed my time there. I had been hoping to visit the Magritte exhibit a the LA County Museum of Art, but time proved to be a bit short, and I decided seeing both would be spreading myself too thin. My flight out of LA was at 8pm, and I was home by midnight. The BLAST team continues to do well, and it sounds like we may launch as soon as next week.

Thursday November 30, 2006 (19:05:09)
We've spent the last couple of days inside working on the gondola. A few problems have been fixed, and a few more things have been closed up. We spent today doing the final focus test, this time with the highbay doors open all afternoon. That made for some chilly working conditions, and Ed escaped to the warmth of the galley. We're feeling pretty good about the test, but will run one more day of testing, after letting the gondola cool down overnight with the highbay heat off. In other news, today is my last day. We don't need as many people around now that the gondola is nearly built up, so I leave for the lands of warmth (ha!) and darkness. Please stay tuned to Don's blog for continued coverage, including launch (hopefully) a week or two. (And see one final panorama.)

Tuesday November 28, 2006 (15:58:22)
It's been a while since I posted. We've been busy. Some of us took Sunday off of work, which was nice. We slept in, met for brunch, took a walk out to the ice runway, a group played computer games, Matt and I bowled, and we watched a movie at night. Yesterday we were busy mounting the solar arrays and the remaining sun shields. We worked right up until quittin' time and had to rush to catch the bus, which waited 15 minutes for us. We finished the sun shields this morning and took the gondola outside to calibrate pointing sun sensors, including the GPS, sun sensor, magnetometer and star cameras (yes, we managed to see a star!). Nick left this morning, leaving us we 11 for a few days, until we rejuggle again at the end of the week.

Friday November 24, 2006 (20:38:27)
Ed arrived on Thursday, in time for dinner. Afterwards, Don, Marie, Matt and I went to the New Zealand camp Scott Base, 3 km from McMurdo, for American Night, the one night of the week where they welcome McMurdoites to their bar. We visited their gift shop, had a quick beer, and walked back home. It was a clear night and the view across the ice was beautiful. Work on BLAST is progressing smoothly. Mark D. and Enzo are continuing detector noise tests. Don and Chris are working on code for the secondary mirror focussing motors. I finally managed to get the solar panels outside in the Sun, and it turns out what we thought was a problem with some of the cells was just a problem with our understanding of how they work. The result is that I don't have to spend two days replacing cells, like I thought I would. Good news! On Friday we started mounting the sun shield panels, the final step towards a complete gondola. This weekend is American Thanksgiving, and most of the base is taking a long weekend (that is, Saturday as well as Sunday). We are celebrating by taking one day off, although in shifts: Mark D., Enzo and Marie will work on Sunday to perform noise tests with as few people around as possible, while the rest of us will work on Saturday.

Wednesday November 22, 2006 (17:17:41)
After dinner last night, a bunch of us hiked up Observation Hill. It provided a great view of McMurdo and surroundings (see today's panorama). After the walk, I took a quick walk around town taking pictures of various McMurdo sights. Today, we stayed inside again to allow the programmers to program. The rest of us worked on miscellaneous gondola things.

Tuesday November 21, 2006 (14:58:35)
Short post today, due to general lack of new photo subjects. Due to weather, we stayed inside yesterday. Some analyzed, some coded, and some built up the sun shield frame. Last night the clouds finally parted and we saw mountains again. It was pretty amazing to be reminded, after nearly a week of hiding, how large they are. Today we are performing the 150 metre test, which is going well.

Saturday November 18, 2006 (21:21:35)
Most of yesterday was spent tracking down ground loops in the gondola electrical systems. Marie and Nick also spent time balancing the inner frame. Today we prepared for our near-focus beam tests, which involves refocussing the telescope by moving the secondary away from the primary. We place a cold source at the new focus and move it around using the X-Y stage. We will do this at 3 distances, starting with 50 metres, to get a handle on our focussing capabilities. The weather hasn't been our friend, though. We had to bring BLAST inside early due accumulating snow and subsequent freezing of various components.
Sunday Update: We came in late today, allowing us to sleep in and attend brunch. Last night was pleasant: we had wine with dinner (Saturday being the only day alcohol is allowed in the galley), Chris and I played ping pong, and most of the group met up in the dorm lounge to watch Pulp Fiction. Overcast today, with forecast for snow, so we're setting up for the 100 metre test as quickly as possible.

Thursday November 16, 2006 (15:20:39)
Yesterday we performed more noise tests and sealed up the electronics to radio frequency noise. We also mounted the star cameras and tied down cables. In the evening, the majority of us (everyone but Barth and Enzo) took a field trip to Cape Evans, the location of Scott's Hut, home to the teams of both Scott and Shackleton in the 1910s. The site is amazingly well preserved. Today, more cable tying and cryostat alignment. (Panorama alert.)

Tuesday November 14, 2006 (08:43:06)
Having accomplished the first set of lab tests with no large difficulties, we decided to take Sunday off from work. We met for breakfast (our first time enjoying the much-hyped Sunday brunch) at 10:30 and decided to meet again at noon for an outdoor excursion. We decided to walk the Cape Armitage loop, which takes one from McMurdo out across the sea ice, around the cape to Scott Base. It was quite warm in town with no wind to speak of, but it quickly got very windy and cold out on the ice. It wasn't too bad, though, and except for a few periods of foggy sunglasses and cramped legs, it was quite enjoyable. I engaged in a brief nap upon returning, and met up with the rest of the crew at 4:00 for a screening of 12 Monkeys at the coffee shop. Dinner, some ping pong, and to bed early was the schedule for the rest of the night. With the cryostat ground tests completed, yesterday was a busy day of transfering the cryostat and electronics to the gondola, along with several other related items, such as plumbing the inner frame cooling system and installing thermometers and routing their cables. (New panorama.)

Saturday November 11, 2006 (14:35:10)
More optics testing. We performed FTS measurements and near-field beammaps over the last two days. We are planning to take tomorrow morning off and were excited about a field trip occuring this evening, but unfortunately we noticed the sign-up too late, and it was already full. We are listed as alternates, but are not terribly hopeful. In a matter of minutes, Matt and I will be performing our first interview, with Matt the LDB cook, on behalf of Paul Devlin.

Thursday November 9, 2006 (16:46:00)
Work on the gondola continues. The fluid balance system has been installed, secondary alignment tests have been performed, and, since the liquid helium arrived last night (the cryo team stayed late), the cryostat is now cool. The cryostat has given us problems in the past, so it's quite a relief that it worked first time. We will now perform beam tests and filter measurements, and will hopefully have the cryostat on the gondola in a few days. And see the new panoramas.

Tuesday November 7, 2006 (09:45:11)
We continue to work on the gondola while we wait for the liquid helium to show up. We have installed the fluid balancing system on the inner frame and will balance the inner frame today. We now have a porch in front of the highbay (perfect for patio parties) and will soon take the gondola outside to calibrate the sun sensor. Today will also be the day that we test the solar arrays, but it has warmed up significantly and, with the reflected sunlight off the doors, is quite warm out on the porch in the afternoon. After dinner last night we took a walk out to Discovery Hut (see discussion of McMurdo huts here) and Hut Point, a short walk from McMurdo proper. Marco is also posting pictures, so check them out, too.

Monday November 6, 2006 (12:06:25)
While the cryostat cools, we continue to mount things on the gondola. We brought the primary mirror in from cold storage yesterday afternoon, and after letting it warm up overnight, mounted it this morning. There may be some more waiting around in the next day or two, as the liquid helium we need to cool the cryostat further has not yet been delivered from New Zealand. If you get tired of the technical photos I've been posting lately, check out the U.S. Antarctic Program Photo Library. And if you want my advice, skip right to the wildlife section.

Saturday November 4, 2006 (17:09:05)
Not much to report, today. It's a cloudy day, so no new scenery pictures (plus, I'm running out of new scenery to photograph), and not a whole lot happening inside. I might even have to start (gasp!) skipping days soon. The cryostat is cooling and the gondola is pointing. Since it was cloudy, I didn't have to test solar arrays today. I wonder what kind of excuse I came come up with for tomorrow? Oh, and check out the new panorama.

Friday November 3, 2006 (16:26:18)
Not much to report today. We continue to build up BLAST at a relaxed rate. All of the electronics are now running, the cryostat is closed and pumping down, and the gondola will soon be pointing. I nearly had to spend the afternoon outdoors to test solar arrays, but fortunately I forgot my lab book at the dorm. I may not be so lucky tomorrow.

Thursday November 2, 2006 (15:06:32)
Last night part of the cryo team stayed at work for an extra couple of hours. The rest of us returned at the normal time and reunited with Chris, who had just returned from snow school. He told us about Scott Tents, quinzees, and pee flags. After dinner, Don, Matt, Nick and I attended a lecture on penguin research. I figure that if I'm not going to see any penguins (sitings are apparently very rare for the LDB crew), I might as well learn something about them. The food continues to be excellent, the scenery astounding, and the sleep short. Please check out my panorama gallery, which I just set up today.

Wednesday November 1, 2006 (15:03:39)
The second wave arrived last night, as scheduled. We met up for dinner and had a beer at Gallagher's, one of two McMurdo bars. This morning gave us our inaugral ride on Ivan the Terra Bus. Don, Enzo and Marie opened up the electronic racks this morning to inspect for shipping damage, and the cryo team has begun to align the cold optics (the re-imaging mirrors inside of the cryostat). A couple of notes about general life down here: I'm begining to sleep better (I woke up a lot for the first several nights), but am still having trouble going to bed early enough for 8 hours of sleep. Nine o'clock rolls around, and it just seems way too bright to think about going to bed. Next thing you know it's eleven; Given that I'm supposedly an astronomer, I probably should have figured this out a long time ago, but it completely caught me by surprise... the Sun goes the opposite way down here, that is, counterclockwise. It took me a while, but I managed to convince myself that this is what you expect, and that I'm not in fact going crazy. I've been to the Southern hemisphere before, but it was in the tropics, near the austral summer solstice, so the effect was much less pronounced. And, on a technical note, this site now features an RSS feed, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.

Tuesday October 31, 2006 (16:03:43)
A day in the life of an Antarctic Long Duration Balloon scientist.
Now that we've been here a few days, we're starting to get a feel for the daily routine. Yesterday I photographed most of the days events to show how the day progresses. It's really no different than anywhere else, I suppose, just different surroundings. The major differences I have noticed are: (i) It's very dry. I can't think of a time I've suffered such dry hands, face and lips. (ii) We find ourselves eating way more than normal. Something to do with the body keeping itself warm, I guess. (iii) We're always tired, even though we're getting decent amounts of sleep. The 24 hour daylight probably has something to do with it. (iv) The scenery is unbelievable. It probably won't last forever, but I'm floored everytime I walk out the door. So far, we've been working regular days, but will probably start working longer days, soon. Hopefully we'll all have caught up on our sleep by then.

Tuesday October 31, 2006 (09:23:16)
We've had a busy couple of days. Sunday involved unloading the large sea crate, containing, among other things, the gondola frame. We continued unpacking and started building up the gondola. On Monday we continued work on the gondola and started setting up the lab. After restoring the base frame with its legs and pyramids, we mounted the reaction wheel and inner frame. Chris set up cryo corner, Matt and I got command ops up and running, and Nick has been repopulating the gondola with various electronics boxes. Today, Chris is at snow school, which involves a training session followed 36 hours out in the middle of nowhere. He is lucky enough to partake in this adventure since he is scheduled to assist in the recovery of the instrument at the end of the flight. The rest of us are continuing where we left off yesterday. The second wave, Don, Enzo, Marco, Marie and Mark D., are scheduled to arrive today. They were originally supposed to fly in yesterday, but because flights to the South Pole have been delayed, there are no free beds in McMurdo. The first flight to Pole left this morning, so if all goes well, we'll be a much bigger team tomorrow. And, although not yet on the Ice, Don has begun posting to his blog. Check it out! And don't miss his panoramas of Christchurch.

Sunday October 29, 2006 (09:51:46)
Yesterday was our first day of work. We spent the morning unloading sea crates and the afternoon unpacking. We had lunch at the base, as we will do every day, since the base is a 30 minute drive from McMurdo. There is a galley at the base, and Matt the cook provided another wonderful meal. One interesting aspect of the balloon base is that there are no plumbed toilets – we were told there would be toilets this year, but they are not working yet. So, there are 3 (unheated) outhouses surrounding the base. It's an interesting experience. There was a McMurdo Halloween party last night, which we briefly attended. The costumes were impressive; some were very creative, some were clearly thought out way ahead of time. None of us were thinking this far ahead, back in August, to pack costumes along with the experiment. Today, more unpacking and unloading.

Friday October 27, 2006 (22:29:00)
Today was the big day. The trip to Antarctica! We left the hotel at 6:00 and arrived at the airport at 6:30. We had until 7:00 to dress and repack our bags. Some of us were worried that we had a fair bit more weight and volume than the guidelines allowed, but it worked out in the end. We checked in, waited around for a while, watched an informational video, then boarded the C-17 Globemaster military jet a little before 8:00. We sat around until the plane departed at 9:00. The flight was 5 hours, and mostly uneventful. There are only a few small windows in the plane; every once in a while we'd check to see if there was anything to see, but it was usually just clouds. Then, with about an hour left, Matt called us over, and there were the stunning mountains of Antarctica. After landing, we were bussed to McMurdo and were given some more information talks. We were then taken to our dorms, picked up our checked luggage, had dinner, and were taken for a tour of the balloon facilities. The dorm is pretty standard, almost exactly like my first-year residence (except I'm sleeping on the right side of the room instead of the left). The cafeteria is almost nothing like my University dorm, though... I was quite worried about the vegetarian selection, but tonight's meal was fantastic. The main dish was eggplant and brussel sprouts with peanut sauce (very good), and there were 4 fantastic salads, including quinoa! Crazy! And, there's a soy milk dispenser right beside the regular milk. I'm in heaven.

Thursday October 26, 2006 (22:16:19)
We were outfitted with our Extreme Cold Weather clothing this afternoon. It involved picking up two duffel bags full of winter clothing and trying everything on for fit. That kept us busy for a couple hours, and we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing hills in the countryside to the south of Christchurch. Lots of sheep. 'Nuff said.

Thursday October 26, 2006 (09:56:55)
BLAST is once again on the move, this time to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. As with Ft. Sumner in 2003 and Kiruna in 2005, I will keeping a photo log (a phlog, if you will) detailing our exploits. The journey to McMurdo takes us through Christchurch, New Zealand, where we receive our Extreme Cold Weather clothing. The first wave of BLASTies (Chris, Matt, Nick and myself) were to meet in LA on Sunday night for the flight to Christchurch, through Aukland. My flight from Vancouver to LA was delayed, though, and I arrived at the Qantas check-in counter in LA (my Vancouver-LA flight was booked separately from the LA-Christchurch leg) 10 minutes before the plane was scheduled to leave. The Qantas people were very helpful; even though it was entirely not their fault that I was late, they put me on the flight to Sydney, which left an hour later. I had a smooth trip, arriving in Christchurch in the mid-afternoon, only a handful of hours later than scheduled. And, hey, now I've been to Australia! We are currently enjoying our time in Christchurch, and leave for McMurdo tomorrow morning.

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© 2006 Gaelen Marsden (gmarsden AT