Sunday, November 27, 2005

The QUaD Telescope, Part 1: Purpose

I have already briefly mentioned that I am at the South Pole right now in order work on a telescope and that this telescope has something to do with measuring microwave radiation. So, let me be a little more detailed in explaining both the purpose of the telescope and how it works. In future posts, I’ll detail my purpose here and how I work too, but let’s save that until later. In the following, I am taking many liberties with my use of technical jargon and being somewhat sloppy with detail. I’m doing this to paint as simple a picture as I can and reach as many people as possible. If there are any strong objections to any statements here, let me know and I’ll try to fix them.

Why microwaves?

First, microwave radiation should be familiar to you if you have microwave oven. Microwave radiation is very similar to radio waves in frequency and wavelength, so you are even familiar in detecting them if you have ever had to adjust your radio to a certain station or move the antenna to get better reception. In fact, your cell phone uses microwaves in order to send or receive phone calls! Yet, cell phones, ovens and radio stations are not the only sources of this radiation. Nearly everything that has any energy gives off some radiation, and the hotter the object, the more and the more energetic the radiation. For example, your 100 degree Fahrenheit body (roughly 40 degrees Celsius) gives off quite a bit of infrared light (so red you can’t see it) while the Sun at roughly 6,000 degrees Celsius gives off yellow/green light. Well, you and the sun, the atmosphere and even the snowy ground here give off microwaves, which are “redder” than infrared light.

There are many reasons one might want to study microwave radiation. Stars, gas and dust in the Milky Way Galaxy give off plenty of microwaves. In fact, some galaxies like those with super-massive black holes in their centers, give off huge quantities of microwaves. QUaD isn’t interested in these astrophysical microwave sources. The source QUaD is interested in is the whole universe itself. These microwaves are the remaining radiation from the ancient universe. Big bang theory, the basis of modern cosmology or the history of the universe, claims that once the universe was very dense and hot and then expanded until now. That means everything was squished together much closer than now. When you squeeze something together, it heats up and 13 billion years ago the young universe was very hot indeed.

In fact it was so hot and dense that it wasn’t filled with stars and galaxies spread out like they are now but instead a thick gas, in some ways like the air you breathe (for analogy) spread out all over the place, everywhere. This hot gas that filled the whole universe shone very brightly. That light traveled through space and time and continues to do so now. Yet, as it traveled the universe also stretched out causing this hot bright radiation to “cool” down to microwaves. Now, since this is radiation that originated from a continuously spread out gas, it should be coming from everywhere at once. This is exactly what we see when we look out into space; in every direction we see the same microwave radiation all with the same temperature. This radiation fills the universe, like a bath, like a microwave oven. It passes through you and me and everything around us. The microwave radiation is commonly called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This is because it fills the universe and exists as a background temperature bath.

So, if the radiation is uniform and all around us, what else is there to learn?

Ok, the thing is that if the universe were once perfectly smooth, with no bumps and all at the same temperature, it wouldn’t ever clump up. If it was so smooth, there would be an equal pull from all directions on any patch of it and the net result would be that the patch wouldn’t go anywhere. Well, that’s obviously not true, there are tons of clumps all over the place. There are millions of stars in each galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the universe, and even the galaxies tend to clump up into groups. Where did all the clumps come from? Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer and the current answer lies in the theory of inflation, which I don’t want to talk about here and now. Inflation tells us a way to make the clumps. Inflation is a special case of universal expansion, one that last a very short time, is very intense and happened very early on in time.

So, if the clumps are there even in the early universe, then we should see clumpy parts that look a little hotter than less clumpy parts; remember the denser the hotter so clumpy parts will be hotter. This means that while the microwave radiation is mostly smooth and the same temp, if you look really carefully you should see some parts hotter than others. Well, guess what, we do. The CMB was discovered nearly 50 years ago, the clumpiness about 30, the details of the clumps were worked out by 10 years ago. Now, the CMB is some of our best evidence for big bang theory and universal expansion. Well, we can see the expansion of the universe by looking at galaxies; the CMB was a PREDICTION or CONSEQUENCE of expansion and big bang theory. Its discovery was a great affirmation.

This is a map of the Universe at microwave frequencies with a temperature resolution of about a kelvin. The map is a projection of a sphere onto a flat plane, so this really represents the whole sky in coordinates where our Galaxy is along the horizon. The radiation is allmost of equal strength in all directions creating a smooth background. You can see the milky way as a brighter than the background strip running along the horizon.

If we turn up the contrast, so we look for fluctuations or devations from smoothness at finer and finer levels, we see that what originally looks smooth with bad temperature resolution starts to look a lot messier. You can clearly see clumps of hot matter and void of cold matter as the red and blue spots. This map has a temperature resolution of a few micro kelvin, or 10e-05 K or less. The Milky Way has been "removed" from this image for aesthetic purposes.

Another representation of the CMB clumpiness, this time as a true sphere, of course this way you cant see the whole sky at once.

So, its clumpy, that’s still not good enough?

The best feature of science is that it is never settled. The goal of science is to find natural evidence to support a hypothesis, or equally as important, to find natural evidence that contradicts a hypothesis. The CMB certainly supports the hypothesis, but that’s not enough. It never is. We could be wrong, even if not about the whole picture, possibly the details. There is more we can look for in the CMB, evidence that this is indeed radiation from gas in the early universe, not some other source we are mistaking it for. The clumps are good evidence of this, very good! Still, there is another piece of evidence that would help put the nail in the coffin, the polarization of the CMB.

Polarization is a little difficult to explain without an understanding of exactly what constitutes radiation. The basic idea is that every microwave we receive has an orientation to it. It’s kind of like a football. A football can be described by how fast it is going, what direction and which way the laces are facing. When you throw a good pass, the laces spin around as the ball spirals to the receiver. So, we will call the direction of the laces, the polarization. Radiation can come like a spiral pass, with the laces spinning around, or it can come with the laces just in one direction. It would be hard to throw a football so that the laces didn’t move, but radiation can be made to move this way.

Now every time radiation bounces off of something the direction of its polarization can change. If you have a lot of radiation, bouncing off of a lot of gas, the end result is that all of the radiation has different, or randomized polarization. If you dropped 100 footballs from a tower, with all the laces the same way, after they bounced the laces of each ball would point in completely random directions. Well, it turns out that some special situations can cause a lot of the radiation to line up, like a 25 of the 100 balls all having their laces face the same way after the bounce and the rest random. It turns out that this can happen to the CMB radiation as the universe expands early on, shortly after it is produced. Well, QUaD’s specialty is to figure out the direction of all the laces it gets and figure out if there is a pattern, like 25 out of 100 footballs. QUaD is a CMB polarization experiment.

This is a zommed in view of the CMB clumps, but this time, the direction of the polarization has also been added. These are the sort of maps QUaD is trying to make.

Now, let me explain the name. QUaD stands for Quest and DASI. DASI is a very famous (among astrophysicists) CMB experiment. Their main focus was to get really detailed measurements of the clumpiness. Yet, they also managed to find that not only was the CMB clumpy, but it was also a bit polarized … just as predicted! Now the DASI experiment is finished, but it left behind a very well designed mount. A mount is what holds and moves the detector or receiver of the radiation. Quest is a new receiver that uses special sensors to detect radiation. In my next post, Ill have some pictures of the DASI mount and the Quest detector.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Antarctic Climate and South Pole Weather

Antarctica is perhaps one of the harshest climates on all of Earth. There are a number of factors that influence its very extreme climate, but most important of all is its very unique location. As I mentioned in the previous post about time, the South Pole is a special place because it is one end of the Earth’s rotational axis; like the center of a merry-go-round. It’s also an important fact that the Earth’s axis is tilted in such a way that at different periods during the year, the poles (north or south) point towards or away from the sun. These two factors have a strong influence on the atmosphere, weather and temperature of the continent.

Before we get in any more detail, lets understand the difference between the north and south poles (besides that Santa lives on one not the other). The North Pole is located in the Arctic, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and is surrounded by the continents of North America, Europe and Asia. Around the location of the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean remains frozen with about an average of 12-14 feet of ice. So, the North Pole is located on a floating patch of ice. There are a number of species of mammals that live in the Arctic climate, mammals like polar bears, foxes and deer (but no penguins).

The South Pole however is a completely different story. The South Pole is not located on water but instead on the continent of Antarctica and is surrounded by seas and oceans like the Pacific. That means below the ice at the South Pole is solid ground. The ground is quite a ways down though, instead of about 12 feet of ice, the South Pole sits on top of about 9000 feet of ice! That’s about 10 of the tallest skyscrapers stacked up on top of each other! The animals that can live on Antarctica have to be very well suited for the cold and able to travel large distances out into the ocean to find food; animals like penguins, seals and sea birds (no polar bears).

Now, the first thing you notice when you get to the South Pole is that it’s COLD! I mean, its really really cold. It’s so cold that my breath freezes to my eyelashes and clothes! It’s so cold that on a 20 minute walk to work the other day, my water bottle froze half way. During the last week or so I have been here, the temperature has been about -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically, it will start to snow back at home when the temperature reaches about +30 degrees. That’s 60 degrees more than the temperature here! That’s like the difference between a beach day and a snow day. Compared to the temperatures here, winter back home feels like summer! This isn’t even the coldest it can get though, in fact right now its pretty warm for the South Pole because it is summer in the Southern HEemisphere. In the winter, the average temperatures are about -60 degrees. The coldest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole was -117 degrees, and the coldest on Earth was at the Vostok Antarctic Station, -128 degrees!

So why is it so cold down here? Well the main reason both poles of the Earth are cold is because they get the least amount of sunlight of any place on Earth! First of all, both poles experience 6 months of the year with the sun completely below the horizon, in complete darkness for nearly 3 of those 6 months. For the other half of the year that the sun is above the horizon it never gets very high. You might know that at noontime, especially during the summer, the sun is almost directly over your head. This never happens at the poles, the highest the sun ever gets is about a quarter of the way up.

Why isn’t it so bad on the North Pole? The main reason the South Pole is so much more an extreme climate and is over so much more ice and snow has a lot to do with the fact that it is on an actual continent. The oceans are a really good distributor of temperature, so ocean currents can balance the cold temperatures of the North Pole. This keeps the ice from building up too thick. Aside from the coast, the Antarctic continent is isolated from ocean currents. Antarctica is about the size of the US and Mexico combined. The South Pole lies approximately the same distance from the coast as say Chicago.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the weather in Antarctica and at the South Pole is the precipitation. You might think that since there is so much ice and snow at the South Pole, it must be snowing all the time. Absolutely … not! In fact, it snows very little at the South Pole, almost not at all! Most of the interior of Antarctica receives less than 2 inches of snow (water equivalent) per year. That’s less snow per year than a typical Chicago snowstorm. In fact, this is so little precipitation that it technically makes most of Antarctica a desert! The South Pole is one of the driest deserts in the world. Yet, being so cold and isolated, the snow never melts and after millions of years can accumulate.

Still, this doesn’t mean that snow won’t pile up at the South Pole during the course of just one year. There are strong winds that blow from the high altitude interior of the Antarctic continent outwards towards the coast. There winds have a special name; the Katabatic winds. Since most of the continent is a flat plateau, this wind blows snow right across. Wind blown snow slowly piles up and builds into thick glacial ice. At the South Pole, wind driven snow accumulates at a rate of about 12 inches per year. This has a very noticeable effect; the buildings here slowly disappear from year to year as the snowdrift buries them! One building housing a telescope project named ASTRO is being evacuated and demolished this year before it is completely buried. In fact, it is expected that the new South Pole Station will also be buried within 30 years.

These extreme climactic and weather features of the South Pole, and Antarctica as a whole, are major factors that make it such a unique, dangerous, and scientifically interesting place!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Update to "Getting to the South Pole"

Hello, I've updated my previous post on getting to the south pole. I have added some pictures to go along with the narrative, so make sure to go back and check that out again!

Getting to the South Pole


South Pole People

Alec, one of the apparently few readers, had asked me if there are a lot of international people and languages spoken here. The short answer is not really. Both McMurdo (MCM) and South Pole Station (NPX) are U.S. operated facilities. Most of the personnel here hail from the States, or some from New Zealand. The bulk of the international presence, is through academia, professors and researchers from universities. Yet, most research activities at NPX are sponsored or administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a U.S. government institution. So, the international members of the science community are generally collaborators (partners) with U.S. researchers, or just foreigners at U.S. universities.

Still, the range of people here is very interesting. Although most people come from the U.S., they come from all over the country. Not surprisingly, many are from states like Colorado and Alaska, but the other day I spoke with a really cool guy from Montana that was wearing a cowboy hat on the way down here. He was here to do carpentry work on an experiment called “Ice Cube” (speaking of which, I guess I’ll post a “Science at NPX” discussion sometime soon).

There are really two groups here, Raytheon Polar Services Company (RPSC) employees and “Grantees”. Raytheon is a government contractor that runs all the basic construction, administrative, and accommodation services here. An RPSC employee might be putting up walls in the new Station, or wiring the network out at one of the outside labs, or serving food at the galley, or landing planes on the airstrip. The other group, of which I am a member, is the “Grantees”. Grantees are the researchers here; they have received grants through the NSF to come and work at NPX on various experiments ranging from atmospheric, to geological to cosmological sciences.

NPX lack one group, tourists. This I believe is a good thing. Life down here is not as harsh as one might expect when you are warm indoors, but it’s a whole other story outside. I don’t think the U.S. government needs to devote resources to track reckless adventurers. Also, many of the experiments here are sensitive to disruption from human motion or radio devices. So if you want to see the South Pole anytime in the near future, I’d recommend getting into science or carpentry ;)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Vitrual Tour

Wonder what its like getting around the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station? Well, follow me as I walk to work today …

Lets start at the South Pole!

This South Pole is a ceremonial one. The actual South Pole is located at 90 degrees south latitude, just a few hundred feet from the ceremonial one. It is constantly moving as the snow and ice slowly shift around; its exact position is remeasured every year and a new placemarker is posted.

The flags surrounding the pole represent all the countries that have signed an international treaty to keep Antarctica a free land, with no official owner. Behind the flag, you can see the new South Pole Station. This station replaces the last one, called the “dome” built in the 1970’s. There is another station too, built in the 1950’s. It has been long abandoned and now lies buried under ice and snow. Lets go inside the new station shall we? The closest entrance from the pole is this tin tower …

The first stop once inside and on the 2nd floor is the galley (well, you really should take off your gear first, but we’re just passing through). This is the cafeteria where you can grab a bite to eat any time of the day and night.

Now, lets step out into the hall and walk further into the station.

As we walk down the hall, we pass the medical clinic on our right, dubbed “club med”.

Everything we have seen so far is in the “A-pod” section of the station, now we’ll go into the “B-pod”. They are really very similar places, and are connected as one building. The main reason they have separate identities is in case of emergency. I live in the “B-pod” so lets head towards my room. On the way, we pass through the game room and lounge.

Then moving along a little further, we pass the bathroom. One thing that makes living at pole hard is the lack of water. Sure there is plenty of ice and snow, but to melt it all so you can use it and drink it is hard and time consuming. For this reason, we are limited to 4 minutes of showers per week! Also, because the area we live in is so small, and so many people are put close together, germs spread fast. So its super important for everyone to be even more careful and wash his or her hands very often down here.

Now we are in the bedroom area of B-pod … my room’s 216, come on in!

All right that’s the second floor, lets go down stairs and see if there is anything else that might be interesting. The first cool place on the first floor is the green house. Here occupants of the station grow their own vegetables under artificial sunlight. They have lettuce, tomatoes, scallions and a bunch more!

So what do you do when you run out of soap? Or you want to watch a new DVD? Or you’re looking for the perfect souvenir for you friend? Well, you come to the station store of course. Its located in the mailroom. Of course, people here also receive mail just like everyone else back home! Mail day is very much like Christmas, when you wake up in the morning, the halls are lined with boxes and care packages from home!

That’s enough of the station, lets gear up and head on out. Don’t forget to put on your undies, long underwear, undershirt, long sleeve pullover, sweat pants, fleece jacket, insulated overalls, thick socks, boot liner slippers, extra thick boots, glove liners, wool mittens, leather mittens, neck fleece, hat, and your goggles are very important. The sun down here is very strong, and when it reflects off the snow it can hurt your eyes! Now pull on your hood and lets go out!

We just stepped out of the Zulu exit/entrance. Now, lets hit the path to the MAPO building where my telescope is located. As we walk out, the first thing you see is the old base, the dome. The dome covers an underground facility. There are a number of separate building which take cover from the weather under the dome. There are also some barracks in the distance where some people still live. Those aren’t as comfy.

As we leave the station, we can see MAPO in the distance, about a half mile walk. With all this stuff on, its going to take us at least 15 min.

As we move away from the station, its nice to look back and see how cool it all looks. If you haven’t noticed yet, the whole thing looks like its made of plywood, that because the station is still under construction!

Ooops, I forgot to warn you. When w walk to MAPO we have to cross the runway where the Hercules planes land and take off. Make sure to check and see if the beacon is flashing and look both ways before crossing to the other side. We don’t want to get hit by a plane do we?

Ah, we’re getting close, that big wooden bowl in the air behind me is the surrounding ground shield for the telescope. My telescope is named QUaD (it stands for QUEST and DASI, two telescopes that have been combined). Before we go see the telescope, I thought Id first point out the bathroom. That’s right, its an outhouse! The black paint and solar panels help keep it warmer inside than out, but that doesn’t mean the toilet seat isn’t freezing anyway!

All right, now that we’ve gotten to the roof, we can go inside and check out QUaD. Before we do, let me explain it a little first. QUaD is a special type of telescope that looks at the universe through microwave light. Microwaves are very common in our universe and in fact, there is a lot of microwave radiation left over from when the universe was young, after the big bang. These are the same microwaves that your oven uses to cook food, but they are not nearly as strong. Microwaves are so common in fact that most anything can shine in microwaves, you, me, the building, especially the ground. The big bowl around the telescope is actually the back of a mirror. This giant mirror reflects microwaves we are not looking for away from QUaD, this way we can focus on what we are interested in only! So, lets walk inside the “ground shield” and see exactly what I mean.

See what I mean, that last photo was a picture of my reflection, you can see the telescope behind me. Since QUaD is looking at special microwave light, it doesn’t look like the type of telescope you might be used to when you look at stars at night. The telescope you would use is good for regular or visible light. The microwaves require some special equipment to see. QUaD is a big radio dish, kinda like the ones you might use for satellite T.V., but we’ve covered it with a special foam cone. This cone is invisible to microwaves, but you cant see through it. So when you look at the next picture (not taken by me) you can see the ground shield mirror, then the telescope with the foam cone on top.

Here is a closeup with the cone and me!

QUaD is not the only microwave telescope at the Pole. There have been many before it and there are still more to come. On the other side of MAPO we can see the VIPER telescope that most recently housed the ACBAR experiment. In the distance is the Dark Sector Lab (DSL). There is a new telescope being installed right now, similar to QUaD, its called BICEP.

Ok, well I guess I’m gonna stay and do some work, but you should walk back to station …

Enjoy the weather! Bye!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Getting to the South Pole!

Today I finally arrived at the South Pole, 90 degrees south latitude, the bottom of the world! It has been a very long journey and a long time has passed since I first left home.

My trip began on Thursday November 10th in Chicago, Illinois at the University of Chicago. I left Chicago at 3:00 pm on that day from O’Hare Airport (ORD). My first flight brought me to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles, California and lasted about 4.5 hours. The actual time I reached Los Angeles though was 5:30 pm. This is because there is a 2-hour difference between the time in Chicago and the time in Los Angeles. Like my last entry explained, this is because the sun rises in Los Angeles 2 hours after it does in Chicago.

So, I packed up a ton of stuff ...

Good Bye Chicago!!!

We flew over the Rocky Mountains and Las Vegas. I got a few great photos of the Rockies from the plane window. Here is a sample!

I left Los Angeles at 8:30 that night aboard a flight bound for Auckland Airport (AKL) in Auckland, New Zealand. New Zealand (NZ) is a small country, about as big as an average American state. NZ is actually two islands, a smaller northern one and a larger southern one. The country is located close to the country Australia, in the southern hemisphere, west of South America in the Pacific Ocean. The reason I was traveling to NZ was because it is one of the closest countries to Antarctica. The flight to Auckland was approximately 12.5 hours. This time though, when I arrived in Auckland, not only was the time different, but it was actually a day later!

Of course I hadn’t traveled into the future, the only reason it’s a day later is because the time difference is so great! Basically, New Zealand’s day starts 19 hours before Chicago, so when its 9 am in Chicago on say Monday, its 4 am in NZ on a Tuesday. There is actually a longitude at which this change of day is recorded and this longitude is called the International Date Line. It’s located in the Pacific Ocean just east of NZ. So when I left Los Angeles it was 8:30 pm on a Thursday, 12.5 hours of flying would make it 9 am on Friday, but because of the Date Line, it was actually 6 am on Saturday, crazy huh? Believe me, this stuff gets so hard for your body to keep track of after a while!

My final flight was at 8:30 am from Auckland, NZ to a small city in the south of the country called Christchurch, NZ. The flight there was short, only 1.5 hours and I finally reached there at 9:50 am. After the big change at Auckland, there were no more time zone changes. So I had left at 3 pm on Thursday from Chicago, and arrived at 9:50 am on Saturday in Christchurch, NZ. Since the time difference between NZ and Chicago is 19 hours, this was about 2:50 pm in Chicago. I had been traveling for almost 24 hours and there was this change of day too! Still, I wasn’t even on Antarctica yet, forgetting even the Pole.

Views of Southern NZ from my flight to Christchurch.

Here are some selected pics of Christchurch. A view down Worcester Blvd. with Christchurch Cathedral visible in the background...

A sculpture located in Cathedral Square right outside my hotel. It was erected to celebrate Y2K.

Another view of the Christchurch Cathedral …

I spent 2 nights in NZ before I boarded my first flight to Antarctica, so I finally left NZ on Monday the 14th at 6:30 am. The flight to Antarctica is a very special on because unlike my other flights that had been with commercial (public) airlines, there are no companies that fly to Antarctica. The only planes that do fly there belong the Air Forces of the different nations that work on the continent. So my flight to Antarctica was on a special United States Air Force C-17 Cargo Jet. The plane was super huge and inside it there were no rows of seats, only a big open space lined with tons of tubes and pipes and equipment on the walls and filled completely with all sorts of cargo bound for scientific research and construction. The passengers had to sit on little seats that were up against the inside walls of the plane. I was lucky to sit next to a really nice air force pilot who told me all sort of interesting info about the plane. For instance, it was designed to carry one of the biggest U.S. tanks, the Abrams Tank on board!

This is the USAF C-17 cargo jet we flew on to Antarctica, its massive.

We all climbed on board, but first we were handed bagged lunches by the catering truck to the left. It was awesome, all sorts of sandwiches and goodies. The folks down here are awesome.

Once inside, we piled up against the walls. Check out the cargo and the bare bones look of the plane.

This is another view of the inside, this time from the front of the plane looking back.

As we approached Antarctica, the first feature we could really see was the Ice Sheet. At this time of year, as summer approaches the southern hemisphere, many of the ice sheets beginning to break up and melt. This is the time that naval icebreakers begin to move their way into the continents seas and bays, slowly. In particular, we are crossing the larges of such sheets surrounding Antarctica, the Ross Ice Shelf. McMurdo is located on Ross Island, set inside this sheet.

So here are a bunch of pictures of the ice breaking up below us. Some of them are super cool, when I was able to catch the reflection of the sun in particular.

It’s an iceberg, man that was probably the coolest thing I saw.

The shadow of the plane is visible on the ice as we fly over!

The destination of my flight to Antarctica was McMurdo. McMurdo is a small town located on Ross Island in the Ross Sea on the coast of Antarctica. Its home to many researchers and scientists as well as all the important people who make it possible to live there. People like plumbers, automobile mechanics, cooks and construction workers to name a few. The exact spot where McMurdo sits is a pretty mountainous region of the coast, so the only way to get there was for the plane to land on a special ice runway on the ice that covers the Ross Sea for most of the year. This ice is actually part of a very important system called the Ross Ice Sheet.

This is a view of McMurdo from the runway. As you may be able to see, its a sizable operation and looks like some kind of strip mine facility or logging camp.

This is a typical view from McMurdo, looking out over the Ross Sea Ice Shelf. The Ice Shelf never completely melts, the point at which the melting stops is right about where McMurdo is, in the McMurdo Sound.

This is a view of the Ice runway where we landed.

After a short hike, from near the peak of the surrounding ridge, I looked back and saw McMurdo in the distance. This is also a good close view of the terrain. As you can see, lava rocks litter the landscape. It’s a view that so closely resembles pictures sent back from Mars.

Finally, today, Tuesday the 15th at 8:30 I left McMurdo aboard another special U.S. Air Force aircraft and arrived at the Amundsun-Scott South Pole Station at about 11:30 am. This time we took a different plane, a LC-130 “Hercules” cargo plane. This aircraft is not a jet like the C-17, instead it’s a prop plane, which means it uses propellers to fly. So, Tuesday 11:30 am at the South Pole is really Monday 4:30 in Chicago! It took me exactly 4 days to get to the South Pole from home.

We came back to the runway around 8am, this time I had a bit more opportunity to snap some photos. This one is a great shot of the local active volcano, Mt. Erebus.

We boarded our flight, a LC-130 "Hercules" cargo prop plane.

I spent a little too much time with my camera and was the last to board. It turned out they were a little short on seating so me and a colleague working on a separate CMB telescope project got bumped up to the flight deck. From there we had a great view of everything the pilots got to see, including the runway as we took off and landed.

The views from 2000 or more feet above the Ice were nothing short of spectacular, here is a shot of the ice throwing some sun back at me ...

Looking out the side window, you could see the propellers of the plane in action, it was an amazing thing to watch.

This ridge was very interesting for a number of reasons; I believe it might have run along the coast. If you look closely, you can see more "ice waves" as the ice either moved along or into the coast. Also along almost the entire length of the ridge there is a series of clouds, bilious. Lastly, there are a few clouds that cover the higher peaks of the ridge, they seem to be caused by wind blowing over the ridge. These clouds were really cool cause the reflected the sun’s light back in really cool colors, reds blues and greens although this is hard to capture.

This is another view out the side of the plane, catching the propeller in the foreground. The propeller fins are actually not visible during the flight, but the camera can capture them in a particular instant during their revolution.

If you look carefully between the two mountains in the foreground, you should be able to see what looks like the mouth of an ice river flowing out between them. This was the first major glacier I caught a shot of.

Here is a beautiful shot of mountain peaks and the gigantic snow drifts which form along them. You really get a sense for the scale of the ice and snow cover here.

In the next picture you can very clearly see two glaciers moving around a series of mountains. There is a lot of evidence for ice flow here, and you can see where the two glaciers meet and continue together.

Well, I guess that I still have it much better than the first explorers who came to the South Pole, like Amundsen (who was first to reach the South Pole) and Robert Falcon Scott (who was second, and whose crew perished before they could return). Their voyages took months, and that’s just from New Zealand! They had to travel by boat from NZ just to reach Antarctica and then by pony and sled dog to reach the South Pole. Having felt the temperatures here, I cannot imagine walking outside for weeks to get from the coast to the Pole!

Well, that’s enough for now. In the next few posts Ill tell you more about life at McMurdo and the South Pole, temperatures, clothing and gear, some of the science here and more!