Winter Science at McMurdo

by wonderfullyrich on July 31, 2013

So we have 141 people down here this winter.  In years the past population has risen to as much as 250, but will probably remain fairly low in near term winters to come.  I could give you a breakdown of what each person does, but what is interesting is how few of these people are doing any science on station.  If you include the 12 at Scott Base there are basically three people doing science.  Two of these people are techs, who although they are capable of doing real science, are hired to monitor & fix long term measurement projects.  One person on station directly works for a institution of learning and is working on a winter science project.

So we have 3.2% of station touching science.  The other 96.8% of the people are keeping this place from being overrun by the environment and preparing it for the wave of people at summer.  It gives you an interesting perspective on how harsh this place is when you realize that your overhead has to be so high.  I admit it’s not exactly a fair representation, as it doesn’t reflect the fact that we are also the logistics hub for field camps and South Pole, nor does it describe the total money spent during the year (NSF grants are something near 10% of the Office of Polar Programs budget).  With that said, it’s a place where numbers alone show how different this place is.  

So what science do the 5 people on station actually do?  Well we have many long term projects.  By far the biggest down here is NASA MGS, then we have McMurdo Lidar Project which is an atmospheric laser and is the only other actively manned science project down here, both of which I’ll talk about later.  There are quite a few others, but it’s been hard to narrow down what is active and not.  You can see a comprehensive list of all the projects (Summer & Winter) on the USAP 2012-2013 Science Planning Summaries page, this is a fairly good list but it’s missing NZ Antarctica’s contributions:

  1. Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which is nuclear explosion detection (science and international law in one package) and it’s using infrasound. Read the wiki article here on CTBT.
  2. Similarly the Air Force (AFTAC) is doing the same thing using a different technique (seismic) at Mt. Newall & Bull Pass in the Dry Valleys.  Here’s an interesting article on a recent visit. (G-078-M)
  3. Mount Erebus Volcano Observation (MEVO) which is more passive during winter, but they still collect sensor data.  They have a facebook page.
  4. Weather data collection, Automated Weather Stations (AWS) & satellite imaging both for local weather and outside study University of Wisconsin (The satellite imaging hardware I directly support and find fascinating!)
  5. UV & Ozone layer research by the NOAA at Arrival Heights (and South Pole).
  6. CosRay Neutrino and Cosmic Ray Detector (not Ice Cube, rather one of its precursors) which will move in 2 years to the new Korean station.
  7. Observations of lightning, a world wide lightning listener at Arrival heights. (Very Cool!)
  8. Studies of solar wind using a Micropulsation Magnetometer at Arrival Heights.  Long term observation, but I really don't know what they do.
  9. Observation of the earth magnetic field and solar radiation (Magnetosphere & Ionosphere) using Broadbeam Riometers, IRIS, and a Auroral Photometers.  Liz the Research Associate tells me these guys have a huge number of instruments, and it's confusing.  They have some cool things though, like an Infrared all sky camera which doesn't like the moon ("Bright light, bright light!")
  10. ANtarctic Gravity Wave Imager Network (ANGWIN) (A-119-M)  I really don't know what these guys do.
  11. SuperDARN Super Dual Auroral Radar Network.  Hugey (say that with a Korean lisp) antennas strung out in a line to detect auroras. (This is a decent top down view)
  12. UNAVCO’s test GPS station here in McMurdo up near the Bore Sight/Observation Hill Camera (unrelated but one of the most publicly visible parts of our station).  UNAVCO offers centimeter or millimeter precise location info to other projects and has a test rig in town.
  13. IGS satellite tracking station in Crary.  It tracks both GPS & GLONASS (russian) satellites to provide reference data for other projects. (G-052-M)
  14. This last one is sort of a question mark to me. Ozone studying/Austral high-latitude atmospheric dynamics sort of tells me it's related to similar things as what McMurdo Lidar is doing, but I'm unsure of it.  In any case it was  cut this year so some stuff was cleaned out.

Back to the big things.  McMurdo Ground Station (MGS) is the busiest satellite tracking station in the Near Earth Network Service (NEN or NENS depending).  They do about 25 support passes per day of weather, radar, solar, earth imaging, oceanographic, atmospheric, and launch tracks.  There’s not another active south polar Ground Station during the winter, and we have a big bandwidth pipe, so many of the Low Earth Orbit satellites prefer to downlink here.  They can and do downlink in Alaska or Norway, but that’s 45 minutes later then what we can give them (half of a 90 minute orbit).  When you are dealing with weather that’s breaking now, that can be a big deal.

They have 2 people full time who are in the same building as where I work and is named for it. the Joint Space Operations Center or JSOC as we call it, aka Building 189.  They occupy the first floor and we just call them NASA even though the two who work there are Honeywell employees. It used to take up racks & racks in that first floor to support the 11 meter dish (in the golf ball up on the hill outside toward arrival heights). Now though it’s 2 rows of about 8 racks and that includes redundancies.  

In a side note they built the JSOC with the idea that the servers & equipment would do the heating (actually a brilliant idea in a way), but the problem is technology marched forward, old bulky equipment got thrown out, and now heating is actually required.

I work on the second floor in the Network Operation Center or NOC, which is also where the Help Desk is and all of our servers.  I often get to talk to NASA about random things going on.  It’s quite useful and fun to have two engineers below.

The McMurdo Lidar project is up in the Kiwi building (this green building) at Arrival Heights.  It’s very cool for science geeks.  WeiChun (our current winterover PhD student for the project) goes up on clear days and spends as long as he can stay awake firing two non visible pulse lasers into the atmosphere, exciting Iron particles in the stratosphere into different energy states.  Once excited they begin to reflect back and he can measure their temperature, concentration, and height. It’s interesting to see how the sunrise affects this along with the auroras, etc.  They can also detect Noctilucent clouds technically known as polar mesospheric clouds, which is of some other apparent scientific interest.  (I’m looking forward to the Nacreous clouds or Polar stratospheric cloud which should become visible in a few weeks.)

The project is based out of UC Boulder where they built it and maintain another two lasers.  They've had this same laser apparatus at Rothera and South Pole as well.  Currently they are using an Alexandrite laser (also used for tattoo removal ironically enough) which they are looking to upgrade in a few years and it'll give them more data retrieving capabilities, such as wind speed.  Fascinating if you are into that sort of stuff.

I've mentioned Arrival Heights several times, but let me expound a little.  Arrival Heights is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) which is unique for several reason, but the most important of which is that an electromagnetic quiet area.  Things like the lightning detector work well because there's so little interference, or did until we put the wind generators at T-site in a few years ago.  Arrival Heights is definitely considered out of town and it requires notification/permission to enter.  It's entirely devoted to science and is protected for its value in that arena.

I mention that because it's where we find our other two science engineers.  Liz is the 4th person who's on station dealing with science.  As the Research Associate she is responsible for everything else in the list above.  Most of it's at Arrival Heights with only a few in town at Crary (the most expensive science lab yet built).  Liz will visit the white building at Arrival Heights every day (except Sunday) to check on the instruments.  During the Winter she's got to do it without headlights past the sign (basically half a mile) to keep from disturbing instruments.  In the past, previous RA's have gotten caught in bad weather so they have it fitted out with a bed, yummies, and a jet toilet (incinerates nicely, but smells horrible).  This is also true for the kiwi building for WeiChun and Tim, but I don't know if any of them have had to sleep up there yet.  

I think of Arrival Heights as Liz's domain but it's also inhabited by the kiwi green building which Tim at New Zealand's Scott Base maintains.  He's the 5th person who supports science.  Of course the kiwi building also has has the McMurdo Lidar Project so WeiChun also visits.  Unfortunately I don't have a list of what science the Kiwi's are doing, but I'm sure they are having fun at it.  I know Tim stays busy keeping track of it all.

Hopefully that gives you decent overview of the science I have been supporting this Winter, being part of the other 96%.

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