Monthly Archives: December 2011

Polar vehicles

There are definitely some funny-looking, unique, vehicles down here… In addition to the snowmobiles pulling sleds that we ride behind on

and interesting planes,

here’s a really good one – a modified van, with tracks instead of wheels!

The tracks help it go over the soft snow, especially early in the season when the “roads” have not been compacted enough by travel.

Finally, here’s both a “lift bucket” (the orange thing) that raises up workers that are doing something up high, in this case taking down some “side shields” from our telescope to make room for a new “guard ring” around the primary mirror… and a crane (the black thing) that is lifting the heavy parts to bring them down to the ground once they’re detached.

The cold weather is hard on all these vehicles – they break down a lot, but there’s a full time shop here that fixes them and keeps them going. It takes a lot of work down here just to supply us with all the things we need to get our job done. All that is taken care of by Raytheon Polar Services, the “contractor” hired by the National Science Foundation (who gave us the grant to do our work, too) to take care of operations and logistics for the US Antarctic Program. So, we don’t have to worry about heating our buildings, getting electricity, finding or cooking food – it’s all taken care of by NSF and Raytheon. (A big thanks to them!)

The Pole(s)

My sister Anna’s husband Shawn asked me how close the station is to the real, geographic South Pole. Well, here’s a picture of me at the Pole marker… with the blue station building in the background to the left. Very close!

The galley windows look right out over the Pole marker, so the Pole is in view at every meal. :)

Interestingly, the Pole marker is re-surveyed (using GPS satellites these days) every year; the 2-mile thick ice sheet that our station rests on is slowly flowing toward the ocean, which means that the station moves with respect to the rotation axis of the earth, the Pole. That movement is about 30 feet/year, so every year when the pole marker is re-surveyed it is moved about 30 feet… to the left in the photo above. I first came here in 1988, 23 years ago, so the Pole marker has been moved about 700 feet in that time!

I’m not sure why, but the NSF also sets up a “ceremonial pole” surrounded by the flags of all the treaty nations. It’s marked by a shiny ball on a barber pole. Here’s a closeup of the ball, with yours truly in reflection.

Many years ago the ceremonial pole was much closer to the station than the actual geographic pole… so it was easier for visitors to get there and get nice pictures… but now the geographic pole is actually closer… 30 years from now the geographic pole will again be further away, unless they move the station!

South Pole Traverse arrives!

As I mentioned before, almost everything we use here at the Pole is delivered by C-130 aircraft. Historically that includes all the fuel that is used to run vehicles here, and to heat and generate electricity for all our buildings. That’s a lot of fuel.

A few years ago they started a “traverse” over land from McMurdo to the Pole, consisting of big tractors pulling “fuel bladders”, or heavy-duty rubber bags of fuel. It’s much cheaper to get the fuel here by that route: in an airplane, for every one gallon of fuel delivered to Pole you burn another 2.5 gallons or so getting it here. By land, it’s 0.5 gallons burned to deliver 1 gallon. (I’m quoting these from poor memory, but will check and correct if they’re off – at any rate, it’s a huge efficiency difference).

They arrived, after 31 days “on the road”, here at Pole early today. By the time I got out to see what was going on they’d unhooked their fuel sleds and parked all their vehicles, but we did talk to a few of the 10 guys (one per tractor) that made the trip. Here are some of the tractors they drove.

They have to be ready for anything along the way – if a tractor or sled breaks, they have to fix it. So, they tow two trailers filled with mechanical supplies and tools, and several of the drivers are heavy-equipment mechanics. Here’s their mechanical supplies/tools trailers:

They sleep in trailers too – here’s the trailer that 8 of them sleep in, which also has a little communications center, a small kitchen and table in it.

Finally, here’s me standing in front of one of the sleds with “fuel bladders” on it. Seeing all this reminds me how odd and unique of a place I’m in – where else gets its fuel delivered like this? 31 days of driving tractors across an ice shelf, up glaciers and across the polar plateau to deliver this to us? This is indeed a place of extremes.

Closed up, telescopin’

We finally, finally, after many hitches, got the optics cryostat closed up. Here is a picture of us flipping the big lid before putting it on:

You may notice two things in that picture – first, I’ve got the funny face of someone taking their own picture with outstretched arm, and second, I haven’t shaved in a week and a half. Beard is growing. :)

Here’s what it looked like inside just before closing:

The shiny wrapping in that picture is a heat blanket that helps the insides stay cold. The copper pipe is a “lightpipe” that we use to send in an optical signal from the outside, through a small hole in the secondary mirror inside this cryostat.

We lowered the lid gently onto the other half and made the vacuum seal, tightened all the bolts and this is what it looked like in the end:

Meanwhile, the night shift crew has been playing with cranes around the telescope, taking off some parts that we’re going to re-do this year. Here’s a picture of the crane swinging into place to take off some shielding. The yellow arm is a “bucket”, which lifts a person up in the air to do work in high places.

Lots of activity, lots of progress! Still cold, though: -24.9F, -47F windchill as I write this…