Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Still in Alaska

Well I never thought I'd be up here this long. At least I'm learning a lot from Hans! We came close to launching the other night even with all the remote sights clouded in. But Poker was clear and they were planning to launch, except the substorm never really got started properly. There was a good bit of aurora all night long up in Kaktovik, seen as weird green light through the clouds. And there were several negative Bz spikes showing, but just little baby ones, small releases of energy but nothing to write home about. We waited and waited until 2:45am, but no substorm. Kristina must be going a little nuts down there in Poker. On the nights where we had great events, there was either no optics at Poker or they were down for high winds. Then when the atmospheric wind settles down, we're not getting the solar activity. The geophysical and meteorological muses are not communicating well. Kristina Lynch, by the way, is the PI (principal investigator) of this mission so it's all on her shoulders. She is also one of my new personal heroes since she is a successful, smart woman in the same field as me, but she's also quite chill and friendly and interesting. Sometimes I meet women scientists and they are either over-compensating for being a woman in a predominantly male field so they are bitchy and stuck up or they are the most awkward, asocial people ever. So hooray for awesome women scientists everywhere.

I had to get out the other day - this place is suffocating. Anytime I feel like things in my life are really really getting to me, I go walk somewhere alone and try to find a little bit of beauty out there in the world. So here are some pretty pictures I found that day:

The ripples of snow look like sand dunes. The wind that creates them is constant here.

The observatory is the closer building, with the base in the background. The snow fences help(?) keep the snow drifts from getting too unruly near the base. At least that's the theory, but they still have to plow practically every day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Amazing Aurora

The night before last (Friday night) was rather exciting up in Kaktovik since the skies were finally clear and we had a beautiful breakup around 11:30pm local time. I got good footage of some flickering aurora and just enjoyed the show. There was not a chance to launch into it, since they were down for high winds at Poker.

But last night was the real show! The first breakup was a bit of a surprise. A sort of diffuse arc had formed earlier on and moved slowly southward, but we lost track of it in our allsky imager as it moved too far the the south. We had been waiting several hours at the observatory, no call lately from the other stations and naturally we were staring off at walls or lost in our thoughts. All of a sudden Jim says, "Hey, there's something going on." Indeed, there was an intense brightening in the south east on the allsky. And within seconds we saw the breakup come rushing north. I barely had time to run outside and get my camera pointed at it before it was all over us. The sky was totally alive for the next 20 minutes. I got some great shots of the coronal aurora with intense flickering, and managed to grab a few minutes to just stand outside and stare up. It was like nothing I've seen before in my life, there were so many colors at one point it was practically a rainbow: red, violet, blue, green, white. It was quite dynamic, with lots of shear motion, whorls and flickering. Again, we couldn't launch since Poker was still out for winds. It was a surprise attack; the folks at Poker didn't see it coming at us. So that was quite the adrenaline rush and one of the most beautiful sights of my lifetime. If that wasn't enough, soon another arc formed and headed south and hung out above Fort Yukon then disappeared in our imager. We were watching to the south east and waiting for this one, so we saw it coming and got our cameras pointed. The second breakup was not nearly as spectacular, though magnetically just as powerful - both events reached 400 nT strengths. It dissipated quickly but soon reformed as a bright arc overhead and revived itself for about 5 more minutes. Watching the aurora outside is wonderful but I found myself spending half my time outside and half my time inside just watching the images through my camera and seeing the plasma motions more clearly. It was fascinating. Poker was still too windy, but they did a practice count for the second event, which turned out well I believe.

I didn't attempt to get any color shots of aurora with my personal camera, since the tripod has the larger Xybion imager on it. But it wouldn't have captured the beauty very well anyway. We all went home excited and tired at 2am. Hopefully the winds in Poker will have died down by tonight. This is supposed to be an optimal night tonight since at the right time, we'll have a conjunction with the Themis and Cluster satellites so it would really be a good time to launch. We'll see...

I do have new pictures though!

My banana bread I made the other night was a hit with the staff! That's Randy on the left and Milton on the right. Milton left yesterday to go back to his family in Texas and prepare to move to Anchorage. We all miss Milton... *sniff sniff*

Hans always has great stories. It's a common after dinner habit to sit around and talk and tell stories of past adventures. (Note that Star Trek in on in the background)

This is our normal "lost in thought" mode while we're waiting for news from Poker or activity in the sky. In the background is Hans' setup: the three monitors are all showing the view from his narrow fov camera on the tracking mount (which is up inside the plastic dome located in the closet to the left). He has a little joystick that moves the Az El mount to wherever (minus a tiny forbidden region). There are multiple DVD recorders set up to record the footage, and Hans also has a laptop in the dome room to do some other kind of recordings straight to the hard drive.

Here is the Kaktovik allsky and magnetometer rack. It reminds me of the main Borg lady with all those wires that fed into her head from a conduit that followed her around. Just the way the cables look coming out the back... This is the screen we stare at all the time waiting for signs of arcs and so forth.

My little station! The monitor and Hi8 recorder are linked up to the Xybion camera outside with cables through the wall. As cold as it is outside, that little camera does quite a good job. Haven't had any problems with it yet and it captures some beautiful images.

Hans had some wicked red eye in this pic, but it's a good one, so I transformed it to look old-fashioned.

Polar bear attack! He's coming through the window, run for your lives!!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Come on, weather.....

Well, yesterday we were socked in thoroughly with clouds for as far as we could see, so was Poker Flat and Toolik. We went home at midnight, after the Poker folks realizing there was no hope for launch. The day before was even worse, with -50 degree weather and 40 mph winds at Kaktovik. I thought the building was going to blow right off it's foundation - it was rocking and swaying along with the rumbling sound of the wind slamming it. A few times, I caught myself completely losing my bearings and thinking we were in the hull of a ship! (A normal reaction to a swaying building or isolation insanity, perhaps?) We stayed that night until 1am or so. Leemacher (the other group with rockets at Poker) launched his squadron of 4 missiles. They were doing some atmospheric study that didn't require aurora, so they were good to go, and now they're out of our way so we can launch without coordinating with them. Hanna down in Toolik got to see the TMA deposit trails (chemicals expelled during flight), but Kaktovik is too far north, so we didn't even get to see the show.

The solar activity has been deader than a doornail lately, but it's predicted to pick up this weekend. Precisely the time that Kaktovik and then Fairbanks are expected to clear up. Come on, aurora... Come on, weather... Everybody start whistling...

For now, let's take a little tour of my living quarters and a tiny bonfire we had the other night:

My bunk. I know, I know, so luxurious, isn't it? But since I'm the only lady here, at least I get the whole room to myself! Which means I don't have to worry about coming home at 1 in the morning without waking someone up and I can sit and listen to the Sirius XM Classical radio station on the TV all day if I want to (or sometimes the bluegrass station, for motivational homework music).

My studying area. This is where the magic happens, people. At least I have photographic proof that I brought textbooks to the arctic.

Here's me and the adorable bonfire that Randy constructed from old food and empty cardboard boxes. We got a whole shipment of food that day on the airplane, which only happens every 3 weeks or so. After putting it all away and moving the rotten stuff out of the fridges, they came up with a scheme to get rid of everything - burn it! Alas, the rotten heads of lettuce, the melon and the one onion didn't burn much. But Randy decided to leave it out there in a pile after the rest burned away, since he thought it might attract foxes and then I could see one out the window! I never saw a fox at the pile, and the next day the 40 mph wind blew the old singed produce to who knows where.

A candid shot of Milton, in the middle of doing a hard day's work here at the site. He's leaving tomorrow! So sad... But doesn't the building look like a submarine? Told you.

I love this subtle reminder at the bottom of all the airforce-issue calendars. Gee, I was about to sexually harass someone, when I just happened to look up to check the date...

And here is but a taste of the whimsical decorating style that is showcased all throughout the Kaktovik Long Range Radar Station.

Today we went to town again to find Tylenol, a Kaktovik sweatshirt for Hans' daughter in Boston and a few postcards for me. The grocery store was hard to find, but we stopped by the post office where I asked the very friendly postmaster how to get there. Everything is located by colors. The post office is green, the town hall is grey. And the grocer is bright pink. "Can't miss it" said the postmaster. No, no you can't. The other day when I stopped by to mail some things off, the very same postmaster spent 15 minutes telling me the tale of the big freeze in Kaktovik. There was a bad blizzard several years ago that took out the power station and the electricity to most of the entire village. He had stories of how people kept warm, and how you could walk up the snowbanks all the way to the roof of the school. I think the army eventually airlifted some electrical engineers to a nearby town and they snowmachined into the blizzard to help restore power.

I think I'll post this now and go check on the state of the banana bread that I just made! Yum!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Farm and Observatory

Yesterday and today have been especially trying. This isolation is a hard thing to bear. Today Hans and I drove into town just to do something. We passed a native girl in front of her house playing with a dog and I sat up and waved wildly at her as she just stared, realizing later how desperate I am for outside human contact. Hans, Jim, Milton and Randy are great, don't get me wrong. But there's a LOT of alone time, believe me.


More pictures? I think that is in order. How about a lovely tour of the little sardine box where I spend my time off and the even smaller one where I spend my working hours.

Here's my little chair in the observatory where I sit all day (or night, depending on the shift). At first, things were more exciting because we had to haul all the equipment up the stairs to this room and then set it all up and troubleshoot and improvise. Now it's all working well, thankfully, but that means nothing for us to do .... but wait. At least the word came down that we were cleared for the mission! There has been some uncertainty this whole time that NASA would close the mission due to an ACS (Attitude Control System) issue that has to do with the ACS on earlier missions failing somewhat. And we're using the same parts. But we got the go ahead yesterday due to the effort of many. The launch window officially opened last night but we were socked in with fog and clouds, as was Toolik (the other site with ground imagers) and the actual launch range outside Fairbanks. So that was more than a few hours of sitting, waiting, calling, and eventually going home. The good news is that my camera is working quite nicely, getting focused (although we need to see stars to focus it completely and the damn clouds won't go away) and even kept up it's performance after being outside and on for a couple hours. Granted, it wasn't that cold yesterday, almost up to zero at times.

Here is Hans on the other side of the room. Now, keep in mind where the wall was in the last picture, just behind the rack of equipment. This picture was taken from my little chair... that's how gloriously spacious the room is. There are two "closets" with doors also attached but those each hold a large clear dome in the ceiling and all-sky cameras so those remain closed to keep our humid breath from fogging the plastic. And this is where 3 people somehow manage to spend 7 hours or more a day. And if you want to stretch your legs, you can always head outside into the biting wind and freezing temperatures!

The picturesque drive to the observatory and then the tiny sardine can itself! We are on the upper floor of this structure, you can see the door on the balcony that leads into our little room. The bottom is a huge 2-story open garage with an iron spiral staircase that leads to the room above. They used to deploy balloons here for weather purposes and other things. You can also see the tripod on the left side of the balcony where my camera sits all night. And the cute little wooden ladder that leads to certain death on the roof. I've only been up there once, and the wind wasn't strong. But I certainly felt more than a bit uneasy! There are straps and caribiners inside to wear in case the wind is really bad, so that instead of plummeting to your death, you hang on the side of the building to be slammed by winds and freeze to death. Not sure which option I'd choose.... Honestly, your colleague is always just inside waiting to hear you fall so they can go hoist you up. I'm exaggerating a bit on the danger factor.

This is our sweet ride, loaned by the overly accommodating base guys. Their bosses decided they didn't want us walking back and forth from the base to the observatory at night with the polar bears around, so we get to use this bad boy!

Here's "the farm" (as Hans calls it) from the viewpoint of driving back from the observatory. There's a large vehicle maintenance garage on the left end (with some nice heavy machinery I covet) and the rest is a long line of train cars end to end with the big white radar dome on the right.

Thermal analysis of my room. More pictures from inside "the farm" next time. Stay tuned!

(P.S. I forgot to mention that the septic had been full (no showers in 4 days!) - but the guy finally came to empty it today! Hallelujah for showers!!!)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Roly Poly

I'm convinced! The army is trying to fatten me up so they can eat me! With 3 huge meals a day and lots of time on my hands in between, I feel like I'm growing heavier, despite the strict exercise regime I've put myself on. I'm doing 50 sit-ups and 30 push-ups each day along with 30 minutes of gentler yoga in the morning and 45 minutes to an hour of kick-your-ass yoga each night. Is it a metabolic reaction to the extreme cold (keep the fat, don't burn it off)? Probably it's just the fact that usually I don't have time in normal life for 3 large meals a day. But what else can you do when stuck in a metal cage all day long? And speaking of eating.... I will now share the pictures of the lasagna bake-off from my last night in Fairbanks a week ago.

As I mentioned before, Meghan and Steve had a running bet as to who could make the better lasagna. I threw in the towel with a no-meat cheesy version of my own, but both meat lasagnas were preferred to mine, as I suspected. At least I had plenty of leftover lasagna to bring to Kaktovik.

This slightly blurry picture was taken while laughing at Steve's quite formal introduction to the contest and his insistence on the rules.

Breaths are held as the final count emerges. This one show of hands decides everything...

Meghan stands victorious! Her sausage-something lasagna takes the evening! Must not giggle so much while trying to take pictures...

And one of me looking pleased at the turnout of the bake-off, thus satisfying the request for "more pictures of myself"

I also just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha, which had me teary-eyed by the ending. But that means I've read 3 of the 5 fiction books I brought. Not a good sign, considering our launch window just opens tonight. I'm probably stuck here for at least another week. And all I have left is a short novel by William Gibson and a book of short stories. I may have to raid the base library which is little more than loads of Nora Roberts and Dean Koontz. Blah. Of course, they do have a pretty sweet Calvin & Hobbes anthology... Wish me luck!

Friday, February 13, 2009

my neighborhood

Here's life on the base: wake up 6am, shower, breakfast at 730, leave for observatory building (1/2 mile away from main building), work until 1145, lunch at 1200, back to work, dinner served at 1700, either back to work or hanging out watching tv news/reading with army guys. There are usually only 2 guys stationed here, and they rotate of course. When we arrived we met Jessie and Milton holding down the fort. On that very day, 2 more army people (one guy, one lady) and 2 contracted tech people arrived to stay for just a couple days and do testing of equipment and such. They were fun and livened up the place. They regaled us with stories of recent plane issues (flat tire while landing, abrupt turn-arounds, one engine blowing up, etc.) and old army stories of other Alaskan bases. Hans, by the way, is a walking encyclopedia, has the best stories and, as far as I can tell, he has been in multiple wars, on every airforce base in the world and on every type of plane imaginable. My favorite story of his so far was the battleship-shaped boulder out at another base on the northern Alaskan coast that fooled an entire navy into bombing the hell out of it for days for fear it was a Russian ship. The visibility wasn't all too good, so they spent a couple days wondering how the hell the Russians could withstand the fire so well.

Anyway, one day we all went into Kaktovik for the grand tour given by Milton.

First, we stopped off at some equipment by the airport (more like ice-covered landing strip in the middle of nowhere) so these army guys could check something. And for those of you who are excited by this sort of thing, this is the most Hoth-like picture yet!

Here is the travel headquarters in Kaktovik. Frontier Airlines is the plane I flew in on. Almost every single building, with exception of the Elder's house and a few others, are made of rusty box car looking things. They're just pre-fab trailer things - doesn't look pretty but gets the job done. Well-insulated walls, no wood to rot out, simple to patch up and add on to.

Imagine about 5 square blocks by 7 square blocks of these type houses and buildings and that's your town of Kaktovik. There's a grocer, airline, a (bright green) post office, a town hall and a school. A number of other "businesses" are just run out of people's homes, but that is IT. I didn't know what to expect, but contrary to a nice, romantic notion of the northern Inuit people, there are no native families sitting around a fire, making handicrafts and recounting stories of their ancestors. A few crafts were for sale in town hall (painted whale baleens and beadwork) alongside the sweatshirts and t-shirts with the Kaktovik crest on them. The most of the native people I saw were a couple of Inuits in the town hall sitting in front of the secretary's desk with a full-size industrial trash can, buying book after book of pull-tabs (like a lottery) and slowly filling the can with useless, non-prize-winning tickets. It was quite sad actually. They both looked forlorn and the man was missing part of his left arm. It's a dry town but the folks are so desperate that you can't even buy full proof isopropyl alcohol here or the residents will buy it and get drunk.

As soon as the last house in town ends, this is what you see for miles around. In the summer, it's the sea, which actually sounds like it would be quite pretty. I think I'll have to come back someday in my life during the spring/summer. Some tour company has a deal - for a thousand bucks or so, they will fly you up for three days in the springtime and guarantee that you see at least one polar bear. Right now, they're all mostly far out on the sea ice, a long ways from shore, where the seals are a-swimming.

The cemetery. Looks just a little ominous. But again, it's hard for anything to not look ominous out here in this vastness.

After the Kaktovik tour, the army guys and I hiked out to the edge of the Arctic ocean and took turns taking pictures of each other. I am technically on the "beach" with the ocean spread out behind me, though it's all very thick ice this time of year of course.

And, since I was asked for more pictures of myself, here is me at my little post where I spend my days in the Barter Island Long Range Radar Station Observatory building. Oh, and I'm sporting my Kaktovik pride with a sweet sweatshirt bought from town hall.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Kaktovik (aka The Top of the World)

Or at least the top of the US...

The airplane ride here on Monday was on a tiny little propeller plane, that could seat maybe 20 people.

You could even see the cockpit the whole time! They didn't have a curtain or nothin'. But that actually made me feel better about the whole thing. I think half the reason that I'm a nervous flier is that with every bump I always imagine the pilots up in the front freaking out and pushing buttons or strapping on a parachute. Since I could really see that my pilots were happy as clams, even with all the bumps, I felt far more secure.

Here is the view before we took off. I got the seat with the perfect view of the propeller thing. I also got the seat with the heater for the whole plane apparently. So, while the plane itself was quite cold and all the other passengers kept their coats and mittens on tight, by the end of the flight I had removed my boots, hat, jacket and anything else I could get to and they were all staring at me like I was crazy.

I flew here with Hans and one of his engineers, Jim. Hans is awesome and he is also a professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He brought a huge high speed imager and all-sky camera to photograph the aurora as the rocket flies overhead. I brought a little Dartmouth UNH camera to do the same, but with a medium field of view. His cameras are wide fov and narrow fov. When we landed at Kaktovik, we were (in Hans' words) "uncerimoniously dumped out on the ice." We left the plane onto a big sheet of freezing white and some army guy in a truck was there to collect us and the bags the pilots had thrown off before taking off again. I guess the plane ices over if they sit too long, so they have to get out and back up into the higher atmosphere.

Here it is: the town of Kaktovik in all its glory. Mostly it is just a collection of old rusted train cars patched together in ways to form homes with narrow hallways and weird layouts. More pictures of Kaktovik later since I went on a mini-tour with the visiting army guys the other day... Now it's 5pm Alaskan time and that means dinner. At least in the army world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Even More Pics from Fairbanks...

Oh, and by the way, I saw my very first Northern Lights! Haven't tried to take pictures of it though.... And a bunch of army guys left today so the base is quite lonely...

On top of the world at Poker Flat, such wonderful landscapes...

I'm very cold but very happy.

These two are pictures of inside the telemetry building. This is where all the trajectory and systems info is fed to from the rocket while it's flying. Also, all the science data comes through here as well. Some people who work this stuff are NASA but I guess the work is also privatized out to a group called NSROC who employ programmers and EE guys to run this building.

Those magical Alaskan sunsets... And, hey, this time of year, it's almost always sunset or sunrise.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More Pictures from Days 2-5

I'm having a blast with the army guys, driving around Kaktovik, (doing work too of course) and going outside in -35 F degree weather! More pictures later, for now I wanted to finish the photo tour of the rocket range back at Fairbanks... And I also figured out how to remove the annoying red time stamp in the bottom corner of every photograph, so this is the last you'll see of that.

Loading crates into the payload assembly building at Poker Flat

Brent and his really cool cooler. Basically just an ingenious idea to cool the CCD chip on the rocket imager without spending much cash to do it.

View from halfway up the hill at the range. Alaska is mighty beautiful.

A big radar dish, I think it's the telemetry dish. Pretty skies in the background.

More radar dishes, for various purposes, not really sure. But they make for a cool looking skyline.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Day 2-5

Well I've just had a whirlwind of a few days, with little sleep and lots to do. But I'm in the arctic circle now for the duration, so things have slowed down and I have time to blog about the recent adventures.

Thursday through Sunday were spent in Fairbanks. Thursday was the day I spent at the University hanging around, making final travel plans, buying a new camera and getting over jet lag. Friday I went out to the rocket range near Fairbanks (called Poker Flat) and took all the pictures below. Poker is where the rocket my group worked on will launch.. (within a week or so, hopefully!) They are still working out some kinks and working on final assembly. I spent Friday and Saturday helping with random things where I was needed and spending the down time working on homework. I also got the grand tour of the facility. Imagine a big hill with a winding road cut into it and blue buildings or clusters of buildings every so often. There is the payload assembly building and the blockhouse buildings (right where the rocket launches) and the telemetry building and at the very top of the hill is the science center building where all the top people in the project will sit and determine when to launch the rocket. There is a cool observing balcony with a glass ceiling and walls so they can watch the aurora and see the rocket launching below.

Another thing that happened Friday is that I went to my first every contra dance! If you haven't heard of this before (I hadn't before Friday), please refer to YouTube. Meghan, a Dartmouth grad student also here to work on the rocket, invited me along. She does it all the time back in NH. It was loads of fun and the Alaskans were so cute... I don't think they get random out-of-town people coming to their Contra dances, they all wanted to dance with us and wanted us to come back again. My feet hurt a lot and I was sweating madly by the time we left, after 3 hours of dancing.

Sunday was the "day off" for the rocket range scientists and technicians. They get one of those every so often so people are not overworked. So we stayed in town that day and I went to the University with Brent to work on homework and go grocery shopping for my trip to Kaktovik. Also, there was a lasagna bake-off at my hotel room Sunday night! I was bumming a couch bed from Kristina (main scientist of the rocket), Meghan and Hanna (grad students). Meghan and a Cornell scientist, Steve, decided one day that they each could make a better lasagna than the other, so the bake-off was born. I also participated, but lost of course because mine was non-meat. Meghan's won over Steve's by quite a large margin I think. It was fun and lots of people from the range came, I think 30 people showed up over all.

Monday morning I left to come here, to Kaktovik and the Barter Island Long Range Radar Station. More about that in the next episode....

Pictures!! (Click to see really big versions)

Payload for Cascades2 (the rocket) in the payload assembly building

More payload

Brent standing with payload - you can see the UNH imager in the end there, the lens is covered with the white cloth

Meghan, Eric, Steve and Wallops guys working on something(?)

I think they're about the stand the payload up on end...

Up, up, up

Almost there... It's slightly important to do this slowly and carefully

It's vertical! I love Paul's expression in the background, very thoughtful.

Ta da! Meghan shows off a job well done.