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Dec 20th: T-10 days

Goodbye Cleveland!

I finally got to packing up. It took much longer than expected! Hit the road for Maryland to spend time with the fam for the holiday. Luckily, I got my airport of departure changed from CLE to IAD so I don’t have to fly back to Cleveland on Christmas day.

Packing was a weird feeling. Slightly different than the usual 1-2 month stint. The drive home was weird too. I felt slightly more nostalgic than usual as I made the drive across Pennsylvania, through State College and down rt. 83 to Maryland. It’s a drive I’ve done at least 100 times before, but there was just something different about it. A twinge of anxiety, maybe? The darkness of the drive (around Black Moshannon Forest) gave into some interesting day dreaming about Polar night-time.

I took my camping gear, to store at the CDC (clothing distribution center, in Christchurch) for when I return from Pole, and my large carry-on was bursting at the seams, so I had to use a third bag for bulky things like sweaters. I really only need about 1 week’s worth of clothing, since I can do laundry at Pole, but I also need enough clothes and toiletries to survive the unknown amount of delays after I’ve checked my bag into a pallet destined for Pole. USAP folks get 2 free checked bags so I figure what the hell, might as well pay to check an extra and bring a few extra sweaters :).

Packed up for 11 months abroad. My backpacking backpack is full of camping gear for two people (in hopes of exploring NZ a bit in late November 2020, after Pole). I have my two laptops in the smaller backpack… not sure how to best bring them both down, hopefully I wont have to sacrifice leg room on the long-haul flight!! The yellow bag is going to be my “boomerang bag” which I will live out of in case our flight gets canceled after my large green bag gets palletized. The orange bag is accidentally borrowed from USAP, and has random chunky sweatshirts. Hopefully someone with some packing abilities can help me out while I’m home :P.

Unfortunately, I’m cheap and didn’t want to pay for WordPress and so I can’t upload videos to my blog… but you can check out my first ever timelapse (of me packing) on facebook:

How exciting

Dec 19th: T-11 days

Time to say goodbye.

My fiancĂ©, Polly is leaving today to go home for the holiday. She’s actually leaving 1 day early, for her grandfather’s funeral unfortunately. I don’t think it’s really set in for either of us. Today is the last day we’ll see each other for about 11 months. We’ll be able to talk on the phone (when the satellites behave), but no skype or other streaming video.

Having been to Pole twice before, I am familiar with the emotional rollercoaster of being away from your loved ones. It starts off easy, with all the excitement of travel and being in a new place. After a few weeks, the desire to see that person grows immensely. My longest stint at Pole was about 2 months, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Do we finally accept the distance? Does the longing get worse?

I guess there’s only one way to find out!

Polly and I feeling festive…

Dec 14th (T-16 Days): Posting Photos from Northern EHT Training

The past few days I’ve been in Arizona assisting with an install of a new EHT VLBI receiver onto the 12m radio telescope at Kitt Peak. EHT stands for Event Horizon Telescope (which you’ve probably heard in the news after they released their image of the black hole light ring) and VLBI stands for Very Long Baseline Interferometry.

View from a vantage point near my dorm at Kitt Peak National Observatory. KPNO is home to some 22 optical and 2 radio telescopes, making it ” the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth for nighttime optical and infrared astronomy” according to the KPNO website.

One of my responsibilities, as a winterover (WO) for the South Pole Telescope will be to operate the SPT during the EHT observing run. This will be a ~week long period where VLBI observations are coordinated across many sites, taking into account weather, visibility, etc. WOs are trained at Pole prior to the end of the summer season, but this can be very busy and crammed with information. This year, there was an opportunity to alleviate some amount of information overload by helping set up a new EHT receiver on a 12 meter dish at Kitt Peak.

The 12m dish (an ALMA antenna) in which the EHT receiver was being installed. The South Pole Telescope is only 10m in diameter, but the ground shield probably makes it a contender to the size of this one. The rotating dome is a pretty impressive structure, and has an infra-red tracking system which keeps the dome opening aligned with the telescope as it observes.
Inside the receiver cabin of the 12m. Unlike SPT, the EHT receiver is a single pixel detector, and so it can be quite small. The receivers sit on a suspended rack in the cabin, and in the case here, there is a 4mm, 3mm and 1mm (the EHT) receiver. The 2mm has yet to be installed. Different receivers are swapped in and out of view of the primary beam via a pickoff mirror that can rotate above the receivers (not visible here). On the left is the electronics rack for EHT’s signal digitization.
Inside the telescope’s control room, and an unfortunately timed photo of Professor Dan Marrone, who is in charge of this installation. The other WO candidate, Maclean, was more fortunate. The daytime telescope operator is at his desk on the far-right. The large slanted windows reminded me of some Death-Star-like control room you might see in a movie. Since we were just installing the receiver and checking the signal path, we didn’t have much of a need to be in the control room, but instead mostly crammed into the receiver cabin.

Though we worked past dark most nights so I couldn’t get many good sunset photos, I did manage a few nice sunrise photos! I will post them all below. Enjoy!

Top Left: The author outside his dorm in early morning. Some optical telescopes in the background include the 90″ (white dome) and the 4m (silver dome). Top Right: A quick pick I took during a sunset. Bottom Left: The radio telescopes in early morning from outside my dorm (which was quite a bit higher above the radio sites). Bottom Right: Sunrise behind my dorm, the shadow of Kitt Peak can be seen on the horizon, and the full Moon shines brightly (in fact the moon ruined both observing nights for many telescopes and my own star-gazing ).

Dec. 12th, (T-18 days) – Good Morning From Kitt Peak

Moon during sunrise from Kitt Peak

Barely made it up to Kitt Peak before dark last night (with all the optical telescopes up here, it’s a no-no to have your car’s headlights on). The photo above is the nearly-full moon during sunrise looking out west-ward from the patio of our 70s era duplex apartment. There are so many telescopes up here… I don’t know which one that is in the photo!

December 10th: T-20 Days

Saguaro National Park East, view from the parking lot of the visitor’s center… didn’t get much further than that.

I arrived in Tucson, AZ. Stepping off the plane was surreal — it was 65 degrees F and sunny! Weird to experience so close to Christmas. Didn’t get to a National Park Service center until too late to request a backcountry campsite, so it’s an AirBnB for the night. Going to do a little hiking tomorrow before heading to Kitt Peak.

December 9th: T-21 Days to the Ice

Finishing up work, trying to document code, write up analyses, pack and plan for 10 months at Pole…. It’s been a busy past few weeks. Heading to Arizona to do some northern training with the Event Horizon Telescope at Kitt Peak. Since we’ll only have ~1.5 months of training on the ice before the summer crew leaves, this extra training helps us get familiar with the EHT receiver system and setup before going down to Pole.

About the Author

As of the writing of this introduction (Dec 2019), I am a 4th year graduate student at Case Western Reserve University in beautiful Cleveland, OH. I’m a PhD candidate in Physics working for Dr. John Ruhl on the South Pole Telescope.

I will be taking a break from grad school between January 2020 – November 2020 to winter over at the South Pole. I will be one of about 40 people wintering at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and one of 2 people in charge of operating the South Pole Telescope for the winter.

I have been to the South Pole twice before, but only during the Summer months and I’ve never had a blog before, but I figured this would be a good way to document my time as a winter-over, and to explain the experience as best I can.

Being a member of the South Pole community is something special that I can’t really explain, but I hope that this blog gives insight into what it’s like to live and operate in the most remote, inhospitable place on Earth. Cheers!