July 15th – Day 238 on Ice

Headlamp beam after checking the telescope boom for snow. The moon lights the horizon behind SPT. PC Aman Chokshi

Photo Dump!! (most/all of the pretty photos you’ll see here were taken by Aman Chokshi – my fellow SPT winterover)

According to Googling “Days since April 17th” it has been 89 days since my last update.

I must admit, it’s nice to not have to worry about updating this thing but I think it’s been long enough. So here goes…

Since last update we’ve surpassed the mid-winter solstice (June 21st), which means the Sun is on it’s way back! Slowly but surely. We have had a very windy/cloudy year for the most part but there were a few days of clear and calm in there. We had some amazing auroras early on and some crazy temperature swings (clouds and winds brought 40 degree swings in a few hours!).

Walking to the telescope. PC Aman Chokshi
Not a bad place to work. Checking the boom for snow under the Milky Way. PC Aman Chokshi

We have also had the annual Polympics events which generally lasts 10 days and consists of various sporting events. This year I put together the Decathlon, which consists of 10 events, each of which is to be performed outside in full ECW. These events include 100M, 400M and 110M Sastrugi Hurdles, High Jump and Long Jump, Frisbee Discus, Flag Javelin, Kettleball Shotput, Hill scramble and a 2km Ski.

I also put on a floor hockey event. Along with those, I performed in a crossfit competition, played Basketball, pickleball, soccer, volleyball and have a tetrathlon coming up later today.

Part of the crossfit competition, this event consisted of hand-release pushups and bar-over-head lunges.
Volleyball!! PC Tim Lynch
Flag javelin; part of the Decathlon. PC Aman Chokshi

We also hit the benchmark temperature of -100F yesterday! Unfortunately the wind was still rather high so the windchill was -144F, making for a pretty unpleasant outside experience.

Other than those activities, I’ve been working a lot (or at least trying to). The good satellite comes up at 0230 these days, and I’ve been following the schedule. Trying to decide when to switch and stay up late instead of get up early… it’s getting harder with sports and social events still on the normal schedule (usually starting around 7pm). We shall see. At least the satellite time is getting to coincide with the Eastern time zone work day, which makes things like having zoom meetings easier.

I’ve been doing a lot of data analysis for my thesis, and a little bit of writing here and there. One main project I’m working on is searching for deep solar system objects (out beyond the orbit of Neptune). I’m also working on analyzing the bright asteroids which moved through the SPT-3G observing field sometime in the past 4 years. In a completely different regime, I’m also looking at the variability of active galactic nuclei, to try and better understand the physical processes which contribute to the generation of the highly variable jets we see. I’m also keeping track of any flaring transient events which SPT happens to see while observing the main CMB field. Since the data takes a while to transfer north, I get first dibs on any exciting events!

I think from here on out the winter is pretty mundane. There aren’t many big things to look forward to (except for sunrise, which will be in ~2months!). The winter is flying by and of course there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m still excited for the summer to hopefully see some old friends and stick around helping out for a while. It will be a nice break from the usual grind of getting up at 2am and sitting in front of the computer all day.

And with that, I just realized I have another bug in my automated transients pipeline … time to get back to work!

April 17th – Day 149 at Pole

48 Days since my last post… embarrassing!

Harnessing the power of the Sun near sunset. PC: Aman Chokshi

Well a lot has happened… Let me try to recap and at least post some pretty pictures.

I gave up editing my ultra video. You can find the ‘final’ video here ( I only half recovered the video clips so there’s lots of flaky video and audio in there unfortunately): https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J0CwGQ5PpP5QA4ftgsRkFjxyIGOTf7Xd/view?usp=sharing

We observed black holes with the Event Horizon Telescope!

The South Pole Telescope also houses one of the receivers for the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) which is a set of millimeter/sub-mm wave observatories around the world who all observe the same sources at exactly the same time. This network of telescopes creates a single synthetic telescope with a primary dish (approximately) the size of the Earth, giving us much higher resolution than would be possible by building a big telescope (angular resolution of a telescope is proportional to wavelength/diameter — if it’s diffraction limited).

Fish-eye of sunset from the SPT boom with EHT mirrors installed. PC: Aman Chokshi.

In order to prepare for the observing run, the SPT needs to install mirrors which deflect the light from the SPT-3G receiver and into the EHT receiver (which lives next to ours inside the cabin). We also must turn on all of the EHT electronics and ensure that everything is working properly before the observations begin. Mirror installation went smoothly with calm winds, clear skies, and temperatures near -80F.

Hoth or South Pole?? Heading out to the telescope to do EHT setup. Blowing snow and ice crystals create an interesting sunset. PC: Aman Chokshi.

The observing run is about 1 week long, during which the SPT participates in 5 “tracks”. Each track consists of many observation sets of science targets with calibration sources in between, the total track length may be upwards of 16 hours with individual observations lasting between 1 and 20 minutes. Our jobs is to make sure the SPT is observing all of the targets at exactly the right time, by scheduling the observations and calibrations (time permitting). The data recorders are set to begin recording at exactly the right time, for the right length of time, and don’t care what the telescope is doing so if we’re not on target we are recording crap. This means constantly checking the state of things during the 16 hour track, and quickly transitioning to the next source if things go wrong (which only happened once to us over the entire 5 observing days)!

Not the worst place to work! Doing EHT observing during sunset has it’s benefits since we’re observing over-night and the sun goes across the front of the station during that time.
Photo of Aman and myself after setting up the EHT mirrors during a practice run in February. PC Aman Chokshi.

After finishing the EHT observing run in late March, we switched back to SPT operations and began observing the 1500 square degree patch of sky which we will observe until next summer. As the sky darkens and temperatures drop, we are truly getting into winter and I can remember why I love this place so much!

~180 degrees from the front of DSL. Nice sunset colors and the Earth’s shadow! Weird shadowy things are just my breath getting in the way during the pano.
Can you spot Venus? It is extremely bright this year! This photo doesn’t do it justice.
A frosty Foster after a 10 mile walk at/around -90F.

I’ve been doing a lot of work trying to get analysis done for my Thesis and trying to write things of consequence in the thesis… very slow going. Getting code ready to run / running up north has been pretty challenging, but the analysis I’m focusing on now has been pretty fun and interesting. I’m searching for large solar system objects in our 1500 square degree patch that we’ve observed for the past several years. Some challenges of this is deciding on the parameter space to search and trying to figure out how to optimize the code to be able to run a blind search over many orbits in a reasonable amount of time on a computer with a reasonable amount of RAM. Anyway, it’s kept me busy but I will hopefully be ready to run the search soon.

Aside from work, I’ve been running a bunch and doing all the community sports and events (even started waking up at 5am to watch Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks on the treadmill in the gym). I’m also considering starting an inaugural “South Pole Endurance Triple Crown” to go along with the standard triple crown that happens here… while running outside last night I thought this up and I think it will give me something to challenge myself with this year. It consists of the following three things: 90 miles at 90 South (run 90 miles in under 24 hours, outside of course), Everest in a Day (climb the height of Mt. Everest in the beer can in <24 hours) , and the mid-winter marathon (an outdoor marathon at/below -90F). Two of the three of these things I have failed to complete on my first attempt, and the third I have yet to attempt. I like this because there are things I’ve failed to complete, and things I’ve wanted to do (the -90F marathon would be the world’s coldest!). So that could be fun and something to keep me interested in working out and pushing myself to get better.

We also had our sunset dinner (Aman and I were in the middle of EHT observations, so couldn’t really celebrate) and more recently (as in last night) had celebrated human space exploration with a Yuri’s night party!

Celebrating human space exploration the only way we know how… costumes! Yes, my costume is a white t-shirt with “SPACE” written in sharpie…

It’s getting dark, but the moon is up now (and nearly full), so no good auroras yet. We’ve definitely seen some bright ones, but it’s been to bright out to fully see the colors. It think it’s supposed to be a good year (high solar activity)! I’m also excited to see the Milky Way again! Bring on the winter!!

Feb 28th – Day 101 at Pole

We hit -100F!! ok, ok, not really… but we did get to -100F with windchill! The combination of ~15knt winds and -65F air temp has a feel of below -100F brrr! We are well within the regime of <5min frostbite on any unexposed skin, and getting to more normal winter temperatures. The Sun is now only 8 degrees above the horizon and as the shadows get longer, the temps get colder.

There are now just 3ish weeks until sunset! Time flies!

I’m still working on my little video thingy from my ultra… well that’s a bit of a lie. I haven’t really worked on it in a while, but I think I might try to finish it tonight by just throwing in some images and maybe a song to go over them. I don’t know. but I definitely know I hate editing videos and hearing myself talk 😛

Other than work (both telescope work and thesis work) I have been running both inside on the treadmill and outside if it’s not too windy, playing the variety of sports offered here (basketball, pickle ball, volleyball, etc). Trying to keep up the activity levels and stamina of early winter. I think this weekend, I might try something endurancy and go for an FKT (fastest known time) of the South Pole’s Everest Challenge – which is something like 600 “beer cans” (a beer can is the nickname for the stairwell that runs from the 2nd floor of the station down into the under-ground arches. I did an hour’s worth the other day and estimated it would take me 20ish hours (likely a little longer since I’ll have to take breaks to eat, use the bathroom, change clothes, etc). But that’s another fun challenge to keep pushing myself with.

I should also say that I just finished reading “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, so I’m all about pushing myself past normal boundaries. If you haven’t read it, you should. Maybe it’s just the fact that I have a similar mindset to the author (minus the traumatic childhood), but I really though it was inspirational – and I always liked the mindset of “just do it and don’t bitch about it”, and the understanding that you can do much more than you think.

Anyway, below are some photos from SPT winterover Aman Chokshi. Enjoy!

Three demobilization flights. The last 3 Twin Otters on continent! Two of these left tonight and the last one is scheduled to leave tomorrow. After this we will be isolated for the next ~8-9 months.
Sun glinting off of the tourist company’s snow cat. We keep this vehicle stored for them during the winter (though it apparently hasn’t been put away yet).
Me and Aman at our final teambuilding event… We probably had at least half of the 44 person winter crew wearing onesies. Our “instructor” for the teambuilding is a very understanding man 🙂 .
One of the KBA (Ken Borek Air) Twin Otters, taken with a wide-angle fish-eye lens.

Feb 18th – Day 91 at Pole

Temps are rapidly dropping; we’re now at -50F and rapidly approaching -60F (according to met, we should reach it next week).

Air temp as recorded at the SPT over the past 30 days (in Celsius).

Tonight we partake in the annual watching of ‘The Thing’ (all 3, actually) and really kick off the winter!

We still have several demobilization flights passing through on their way off the continent, so we’re not quite settled into full-swing isolation. This is also the transition period where people are getting used to winter, and the sun drops rapidly in the sky. We only have ~5 weeks until sunset! Hard to believe I’ve been here for 3 months already. Time flies!

It’s also kind of interesting being a veteran winterover… knowing how much things will change over the course of the season and seeing how well everyone gets along now — I do think we have a really solid crew ; but things change, and winter is long. Only time will tell 🙂 As for me, I’ve been busy working trying to get some projects done and have some results to write about in a thesis. There are also a ton of events (sports, movie nights, social events, etc) since it’s the beginning of the season, which I want to partake in, and those all take up time as well! Busy busy!

I’m also editing the clips I took during my ultra run a few weeks ago… I was able to partially recover the videos – lots of choppy video and audio that doesn’t sync up. I want to make the video nice with music and edits, and labeled aerial photos, etc, but I don’t know if I have the patience or drive… I’ll probably just smash the clips together and call it good.

Feb 14th – Day 87 at Pole: 1st day of Winter!

Well it’s been a while since my last post, and a lot has happened. Long story short: I am wintering again!

Two Baslers were needed to take out the remaining 19 summer people… Station is officially closed!

I’m excited, but also feel a bit of a push to get my thesis done this year which means getting a few projects finished that I’ve been working on so that I have results to discuss.

Goodbye!!!

It was (I think) unprecedented to have 2 USAP Baslers in the terminal at once. There was a big push to get the station closed before the bad weather arrives later this week. It was also surprising that 19 people (and their luggage!) could fly out on 2 Baslers ; they generally cap it at 6-8 people outbound from Pole due to the altitude. I heard thought that in colder weather they can take off more easily so being -45F today must have helped.

Here’s to winter number 2!

Feb 8th – Day 81 at Pole

Whew! It has been a busy few days. The EHT summer person came down and is only here at Pole for 9 days, so had a really intense 5 days of EHT setup, observing and calibration. Most of the days ended up being 12-16 hours long because of some unforeseen problems — probably better for the training to have to do more troubleshooting, but very time-consuming.

Everything worked out well in the end and we did some practice very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI) observing, which is where we pretend that all the telescopes participating in the EHT observing season are observing targets at the same time, so we have to also observe them at the same time while doing calibration measurements before, in-between, and after the source observations. This is practice for the ~5days of 16 hour observations which happen during the actual EHT run in late-March. (Unfortunately I didn’t get to participate during my winter because so many observatories were shut down due to COVID).

In other news – the weather is getting colder and the station is getting closer to closing. There is only ~1 week until station close! Temps are now around -30F with windchills approaching -80F (we’ve had several pretty windy days in a row now). I keep thinking though that we’re in the heat of summer and it’s directly analogous to positive temperatures. You can imagine what winter is like by flipping the sign of the temps which might be more what you’re used to — pretend that it’s freezing (+30F) and that it will get up to +100F. Those are the differences still to come! 70F colder !

Unfortunately I don’t have anything in the way of pictures. Maybe next posting 🙂

Jan 26th – Day 68 at Pole

Had some interesting weather recently; from dark clouds to bright sunshine, perfectly calm to gusty blowing snow.

Half super dark and cloudy, half sun dog! It was a crazy walk back from the telescope the other day!

I don’t have much to say but wanted to gloat about some sweet bling, courtesy of Aman and Cheng (SPT and BICEP respectively)! Since I didn’t run the marathon, I didn’t get a marathon medal, but they kindly made me an ultra medal!

Medal front… with some interesting word choice 😛 . The design is AWESOME!
Medal back, using a similar design to the marathon medals, but with a more elaborate description!

And of course, a selfie…

Jan 19th – Day 63 at Pole

Blogy blog blog. It’s time to blog.

This past weekend (Sunday, Jan 16th) was the rescheduled South Pole Marathon. Unfortunately the weather turned to crap again (literally just for the day and then calmed down right afterwards) but 12 people still ran! Only 3 people were to finish the full marathon (out of 7 signed up). I was one of the DNFs …. but my DNF was only 0.1 miles into the race. My IT band said no 😦 .

I did start the marathon… but didn’t get more than 1/10th of a mile before quitting (I’m in the back, behind the poofy hat).

I ended up spending the whole time cheering people on and manning the aid station and congratulating finishers. I spent 8 hours out there doing my cheerleading duties! It’s rewarding to do that, but also damn hard to watch everyone running and not be able to participate :/ . Ah well, there’s always next year.

2021 BICEP winterover Brandon Amat was the full marathon first place finisher with a time of 4h36m (very respectable here!). The first place 1/2 marathon finisher was also a BICEP team member; Cheng Zheng in 3h19m. The final finisher of the marathon came in just under 8 hours.

Although I didn’t run on marathon day, I was still awarded a certificate for my 24hr endurance run. I also made medals for each runner (with the help/design of SPT winterover Aman) which, if I do say so myself, are pretty sweet. I might have to make one for myself for the 24hr run…

My 24hr run certificate… and a marathon one for comparison 🙂
This year’s marathon medal made from bronze. Customized per person/distance. Temperatures listed are average temp and average windchill. Altitude is average physio altitude. We got the textured marker on the back by taping and sand-blasting.

I also crunched the numbers from my run. Average temp was -10F with an average windchill of -28F ; quite a bit warmer than the marathon!

Jan 11th – Day 56 at Pole

Alright; now that I’m more cognizant, I will try to provide a proper run down of my… “run”.

There have been two self-reported ultra marathons run at the South Pole. The first was run by John Fegy in Jan 2016 (https://www.strava.com/activities/879707230) covering 50.8 miles in 13:30. (Neat tidbit was that Fegy also completed the Barkley Marathons and is featured in the documentary, and also went to Penn State). He was actually recognized by the US Antarctic Program and awarded a certificate – which is kind of surprising to me…

The second was last year- Jan 2021, and run by Craig Updegrove — according to some online posts “In a Facebook post on January 16, Updegrove announced that he ran 90 kilometers (55.9 miles) in 13 hours, 24 minutes on Jan. 10.” I don’t know if any GPS recording exists.

In Jan 2022 I set the record for longest ultramarathon at the South Pole ; a distance of 80 miles in 23 hours 11 minutes (https://www.strava.com/activities/6504837534).

Finish photo at the ceremonial pole marker. I wasn’t able to get any good shots; partially because I was too tired to care, but also because the contrast was super low and I only had my phone.

I can hardly call it a “run” since the 2nd half of it was entirely walking :/ so I don’t feel great about that, but I had some severe ITBS start at hour 3 (mile ~15) that just would not let up. I think it was because of the slippery conditions caused by the high winds the previous 2 days; most of the 6.5 mile loop was blown over…. So here’s how the day went:

I had previously planned to run this during the day of the marathon (Sunday Jan 09) but the race was postposed due to weather (winds picked up Saturday and Sunday; sustained at 20knts). I was all prepared to run and the course (a 6.55 mile loop) was groomed nicely so that it was compacted and hard – pristine for running. Since the race was postponed and the winds were uncomfortably high, I decided to wait until the next lull in weather – something the models predicted for Monday afternoon into Tuesday! So I took the opportunity and started running at 3pm on Monday Jan 10th. Below is a plot of the wind speed during the 24 hours.

Plot of wind over time for the 24 hours of my run. The weather models were pretty damn accurate; a slow decline into a steep rise. Y-axis is in meters/second which isn’t really that useful, but 1 m/s is 2.24 mph, so the winds started around 15mph and fell to a light breeze over night.

One good thing about having higher winds is that they mix up the warmer air a few hundred feet above the ground with the ground air; so the temperature was fairly warm for the duration of my run – ranging between -6F and -15F as reported by the weather station on DSL. A plot of the temps (in C) is shown below.

I began my run by completing 4 of the 6.55 mile loops of the marathon course. A lot of the course was pretty well blown over from the high winds the day before so there was a lot of slipping and sliding around and it was pretty slow-going — think of running through sand… very unpleasant. I took my time – thinking of the advice I’ve heard for running ultras: “start slow and slow down” – however that wasn’t good enough and on my 3rd loop I started having IT band issues. Every slip would send shooting pain through my right knee- and there were lots of slips. I think I completed the full marathon (4 loops) in 6.5 hours — probably my slowest ever marathon besides my hotel room run.

After completing the marathon I decided to stick to the nice(er) path between DSL and the station. This is a 1km path and has a hardened footpath from people walking to and from the telescopes often. Unfortunately this path was also pretty well blown over, so there was slipping and sliding here too :/

One of the highlights of this run (and a goal I had) was to run 50 miles in under 12 hours. I think I just barely got it somehow by pushing really hard between miles 45 and 50 — probably not great for my IT band, but great for my mental condition at that point.

After the 50 mile (12h) mark, I decided to take it easy. I fought a lot going back and forth between stopping there and continuing on, but decided “hey, even walking I can get at least 30 more miles”. As with any endurance event there was a lot of highs and a lot of lows; lots of belting songs at the top of my lungs and LOTS of f***-words yelled when I stepped wrong (boy, do I wish I had a montage of my cursing). For the last 4 hours there was extremely low contrast, which made everything a million times harder; I kept tripping over small sastrugi, and that would really hurt my leg, so my pace went down to like 2 miles per hour, and I decided I would get to 80 miles and call it quits.

I have a bunch of little videos and clips from when I went into my aid station. I’m sure most of it is me just rambling, but hopefully I can put them together into some semi-logical series sometime soon. I also have some nice pictures from my co-worker and SPT winterover Aman Chokshi:

All in all, while I’m disappointed that my leg didn’t hold up and I had to walk so much, I’m glad I was able to get 80 miles and I think it is a decent effort. I have a feeling I won’t be running the marathon on Sunday… need to get back to walking first 😛 but that’s ok, I will be happy to just help out and cheer people on!

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