Saturday, September 18, 2010

I have not figured out how an entire week goes by without finding time to write a blog entry... So, here it is Sunday in McMurdo again. And it is really windy again, so probably no hiking today, on our one day off.

There has been both good news and bad this week regarding the long-duration balloons. There have been four launches, which is all of the payloads intended for studying the "ozone hole". Unfortunately, though, the balloon control center lost contact with the first balloon payload early this week. The balloon itself and the control systems were working fine, but they could not talk to the scientific payload at all. They tried for three days to regain communication, but were unsuccessful.  In some ironic stroke of fortune, though, the balloon was heading back toward the McMurdo area, which allowed for the possibility of destroying the balloon and retrieving the payload. This procedure was done early in the morning one day this week and the payload landed about 60 mi from McMurdo. The hope is to retrieve the payload as soon as the helicopters start flying (around the 28th of Sept).

Meanwhile, three payloads are floating above the Antarctic continent and seem to be returning excellent data about ozone and nacreous cloud particles. Through the miracles of modern technology, we receive our data via the internet every hour! The control center in Toulouse sends a query to the payload via Iridium satellite and the payload management software responds by sending down packets of data, also via Iridium. So, within about an hour of a measurement being taken, we know what the ozone amount is! Below is a  Google Earth map of where the 3 balloons are as of this morning. We hope they will all stay afloat for several weeks, if not months, providing us with lots of data about the formation of the "ozone hole".

Trajectories of the 3 long-duration balloons from launch to current position.

It is finally getting to the time of year when the sun is up for a normal day's length; soon it will be up 24 hours a day! McMurdo and the surrouding areas look quite different when the sun is really out than in many of the pictures I've posted before. So, I thought I would share some of these, just for fun.

Little chunks of clear ice glowing in the sun.

Balloon launch on a sunny, clear day!

Even though the sun is up, it is still low on the horizon - look at that long shadow!

Finally, I wanted to share another fun thing we get to see here fairly often. It is a mirage called "Fata Morgana", which is named after a character in the legend of King Arthur (Morgan Le Fay). She is generally regarded as a sorceress or magician and the application of her name to this mirage seems appropriate. It is also fairly common at sea, I understand. The mirage occurs when there is a layer of very cold air near the surface and a layer of much warmer air above it. You can imagine that, with all the ice and glaciers around here, the surface air is often quite cold. The difference in temperature bends the light, making distant objects look much bigger than they are.  See for yourself below - this is the largest Fata Morgana that any of us can recall having seen here.

Fata Morgana at the base of Mt. Discovery. In truth there is no cliff there at all!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Launch #2: Ups and Downs

Before anyone panics over the title of this post - the "down" does not refer to a payload falling out of the sky (thank goodness!). Nonetheless, there is plenty of drama from the past few days to share.

As I had hoped at the end of the previous post, the weather was cooperative and CNES planned a launch of payload #2 (carrying the CU ozone instrument and University of Wyoming particle counter) for the morning of Saturday 11 September. It was still a bit windy as the crew was setting up and inflating the balloon, but the forecast had called for the winds to die off by late morning. Unfortunately, that forecast did not hold up and the crew had to take some unusual measures on the launch pad - for example, tying the launch table (which is on wheels) to their passenger van to keep it from rolling across the ice in the wind. Below are a couple of pictures from this launch attempt. Sadly, just before launch, a very large wind gust knocked the balloon onto the ground and the director aborted the launch. They could not be sure that the balloon had not been damaged by hitting the ground. Better safe than sorry!
The wind blimp (know by the French as "Le poisson" - the fish).
It's very windy when the tails are straight out and the line makes a sharp angle to the surface.
Balloon blowing in the wind - it took four big guys to hold the table in place.
Fortunately, the winds calmed to almost nothing in the afternoon, allowing for a picture-perfect launch!

Wheeling the payload and control module out for launch.
Both are covered in solar panels to provide power to the instrumentation.

Payload 2 took off smoothly and rose to an altitude of 17 km (about 10 mi) in a couple of hours. It was in a pretty fast wind, moving toward the east at about 50 mph. After performing flawlessly for almost 24 hours, we suddenly stopped getting data from the instruments. Based on the amount of power being consumed, we knew the instruments were running, but no data was being transmitted back. No one could figure out what had gone wrong and the 10 hours' time difference between here and Toulouse (the home of CNES) made debugging the problem very challenging. We debated the wisdom of launching another payload without knowing what had happened to #2 and left for dinner yesterday feeling pretty down. However, during dinner, some in France worked their magic and re-established communications - we checked for data several times yesterday evening and again early this morning. Happily payload #2 seems to be back on line... and payload #3 took off about 2 pm today (Tues 14 Sept).

Above is a map of the path of balloon #2 since its launch. Forecasts suggest
that it will head back in toward the continent soon.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The First Launch!!

I'm really pleased to report that the first Concordiasi balloon was launched yesterday morning (9 September) around 9 am. We woke up to a cold (about -35 oC) but completely calm morning and the French launch team took full advantage of the conditions. The gondola and the instruments are functioning perfectly (I'll talk more about those and post some other pictures in a day or so). The balloon is moving at about 25 mph at an altitude of about 16.5 km (a little over 10 mi).

We are hoping for a second launch tomorrow morning; this will carry one of the University of Colorado instruments, so I am particularly eager to see it go.

The launch site - the bubble of the balloon is visible in the center.

Release!! Notice the shower of blue - that is a soft plastic collar that holds the
balloon in place on the launcher. The little yellow blimp on the right
is used to gauge the wind direction

Climbing. The guys to the right of the balloon are still holding the payload,
waiting for the launch train (the stuff that connects the balloon and payload)
to straighten out.

The balloon rising into the sky. Beneath it are a parachute, a control module and
the gondola with the scientific instruments.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


The past few days here have given us all a lesson in patience. On Monday (not a holiday in Antarctica), things looked pretty good for a launch in the afternoon. The French team took care of a few final details at their launch site (see the picture below) and waited for the winds, which were calming down (they really need wind speeds below 6 knots (nautical miles per hour) = 7 mph). At about 3 pm, they were within 10 minutes of being ready to inflate the first balloon when they encountered a small problem that forced them to cancel. In the end, this was a good decision, because only 30 minutes later, the winds were howling again and they would almost certainly have destroyed the balloon. Nothing to do but wait...

The balloon launch site, including the two "rac tents" (yellow) where the balloons
are prepared. The airport control tower is not part of the launch facility;
it is just "parked" nearby until the Ice runway is ready.
Still, wouldn't it be cool to have your own control tower??

Since Monday, the winds have been out of limits (averaging about 20 mph, with gusts well over 40 mph) except for a brief period at dinner time yesterday. Today there was so much blowing snow that the launch site was under Condition 1, which means no one can go there. Just as well, as the winds in the stratosphere (where the balloon will end up) would have carried a balloon launched today into darkness within a couple of days. Since the balloon systems are largely powered by solar-recharged batteries, this would have meant a flight of only 4-5 days' duration. So, we wait some more...

And, on the home front, we have learned a lot about patience while waiting for news about the wildfire west of Boulder. Two of our colleagues here own homes in the area and both spent most of yesterday on the internet trying to find out any information they could. We all know other people who live in that area and assume that they have been evacuated and are safe. One colleague here heard from his son that he had gotten to the house and picked up the dog before the fire reached there; the other was waiting to know if his tenants got out safely. The good news today is that everyone is safe; the bad news is that one house was confirmed to be destroyed by fire (the colleague's son actually found pictures of the house on fire on a local TV website). We don't know for certain about the other house... more waiting!

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Life at McMurdo can really be very strange! Yesterday, only moments after I finished the previous post, the winds did calm down, so I went for a short (about 3 mile) hike with some colleagues. Along the way, we were commenting that we would probably never consider going for a hike in weather like this at home. The temperature was about -25 oC (-13 oF), but the sun was out and there was very little wind. Nonetheless, that meant (for me) wearing long underwear, my down pants, a fleece jacket, the "Big Red" parka, a hat, a neck gaiter, glove liners and mittens. I did wear my personal hiking boots instead of the ECW pair (which I find hard to walk in), along with two pairs of socks. I was actually very comfortable during the hike - even a bit too warm at times, which meant unzipping the parka and taking off the mittens. Did I mention that it takes at least 5-10 minutes to get dressed for this kind of activity?  You do get used to it after a while....

We hiked the Observation Hill Loop. This is a new trail since the last time I was here and it circumnavigates Observation Hill, a prominent peak (750 ft above sea level) on the east edge of McMurdo. I'm sure we'll have a chance to climb Ob Hill before leaving here - it's well worth the effort on a clear day. In any case, the Ob Hill Loop was very nice - great views of Scott Base (the New Zealand station that is 2 miles from here) and of the Ross Ice Shelf and mountains to the south. In addition, it was extremely quiet on the back side - at one point all we could hear was the wind. Below are some pictures from the hike.

Ob Hill,  looking up from the start of the
loop trail
The new wind turbines; together they provide 1 MWatt of power to the US and New Zealand stations.

Windblown snow along the Ob Hill Loop trail

McMurdo Station from Ob Hill Loop Trail. The helo pad is in
the foreground; the Crary Research Lab is the tan building in the
center of the photograph.

Mt. Discovery and stack of lenticular clouds
My fellow hikers, enjoying the view of the Ross Ice Shelf

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I can hardly believe that an entire week has gone by since my last post. It has been a fairly typical week here, which, to me, means that the work is going OK and the days are starting to blend together. The bad news is that we have yet to launch a long-duration balloon - hence, the title of today's post. The French launch team has been busy preparing their equipment and the first balloon gondola, while the carpentry shop has finished building the "rac tents" for the launch site. Much of this activity was delayed by last week's storm, but all is complete now and ready for use! We are keeping our fingers crossed that the weather cooperates for a couple of launches this coming week.

Meanwhile, we have been testing our instruments, currently scheduled to fly on Flights 2 and 3, to verify that they are ready. Everything appears to be in order, so we will work this week on our spare instruments in case they are needed or other launch opportunities arise.

Outside of work, this has been a pretty nice week. We had four days in a row of spectacular polar stratospheric clouds. No one can remember ever seeing as many or seeing them spread so far across the sky in past years. It has been fun to watch people in the science building (Crary Lab) get excited about this; every day about 3:30, you would see noses pressed to the windows and people running for their coats and hats with cameras ready to capture the beautiful colors. I know I've posted some pictures of these clouds earlier, but I can't resist one more. I especially like this because it also includes the setting sun! 1 September was the first day we saw the sun in town.

So, today is Sunday in McMurdo, and that is the one day off for the staff here - they work 7:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Saturday. Some departments obviously need to have people work on Sundays (the kitchen, for example), so their shifts are somewhat different. Saturday evening is usually the big "party night" here  - there are often private parties held in dorm lounges or other places around station, plus plenty of folks gather at one of the bars (there are two) or the coffeehouse (which also serves wine). There's also usually at least one movie being shown - sometimes at the coffeehouse, sometimes in the galley. Last night there was a little craft show at which people were showing and selling hand-made knit goods, artwork, etc. It was a pretty small affair (there is a much bigger show held later in the season), but a nice opportunity to chat with some of the people working here.

I will sign off now and hope that the winds die down enough to go for a walk this afternoon - if not, I have books to read, videos to watch, etc.  Plenty to keep me occupied while I wait...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Beauty of Antarctica

Since work is a bit slow right now (not that we aren't busy, just not with anything of particular interest to share), I thought I would show you some examples of the beauty of the McMurdo area. This is definitely one of the reasons I am willing to come back here, in addition to this being a place to do good research. McMurdo Station itself is not that attractive a place (you can find lots of pictures of it online) - the land is simply volcanic rock with a light covering of snow (right now - in a couple of months it will be mud and dust). Many of the buildings are left from the Navy days when McMurdo was a military installation, so it resembles an aging, bland harbor town.

The scenery, on the other hand, is quite beautiful (at least in the eyes of most of us; if you like trees and green things, you won't like it here!).  McMurdo is on the southern side of Ross Island - to the south of us is Mt. Discovery (an extinct volcano) and to the west is the Royal Society range of the TransAntarctic Mountains. Both are quite photogenic, especially with the low sun angles we currently have here.

Mt. Discovery yesterday morning. The shadow on the lower slopes is cast by
Mt. Erebus, which is to our north, between us and the sun. The vehicles in the
foreground are working to prepare the ice runway that will be use starting in October.

Of course, the low sun angles this time of year make for some spectacular lighting. It is impossible to capture every beautiful moment, but here are a couple of recent examples. The colors are real - I have not manipulated these images and I think the camera captured them well.
Sky toward sunset - the purple is the very thin polar stratospheric clouds I described in a previous
post. I liked the reflection of the sky colors in the windows of the lab in the foreground.

The western sky after sunset last night, looking toward the Royal Society Range.
The color beneath the mountains is ice fog!

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the awe-inspiring night sky here.  Unlike what we are used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere (when we can see the stars, that is ), the Southern Hemisphere is dominated by the Milky Way. The first time I saw this, I literally fell over. We have been fortunate to have some very clear nights this week. Last night I decided to go out for a look with a colleague. I borrowed a tripod from the lab and decided to experiment with my new camera. You can judge the results for yourself below (and this is just a tiny piece of the sky, so imagine seeing this kind of stuff from horizon to horizon).

Does this need a caption??