The overnight train arrived back in Helsinki early on Sunday morning after a long week up north in Lapland. There wouldn’t be any time to rest, however, as this was the start of a week of fun in northern Europe. I left the train station for a hotel a few blocks away to meet my friend Steve, who had agreed become my travel buddy for the rest of the week. I had last seen Steve 4 years ago, but after only a couple hours together it quickly felt like we had seen each other a week ago.
Our first destination was the island fortress of Suomenlinna, off the coast of Helsinki. Originally built in the 18th century as defense against the Russian military, the fortress has evolved quite a bit over the years. The island is now a living community and historical monument to the relatively short history (by European standards) of Helsinki. Many locals visit the island in the summertime to have a picnic and enjoy the water.
After dinner in Helsinki and with the help of some friends from ISR school we happened to run into that night in the city, we made a last minute decision to explore outside of Finland. We hopped on a ferry the next morning and made the 2.5 hour trip across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.
Visiting Tallinn was absolutely the correct decision. Tallinn is one of the oldest capitals in all of Europe and their Old Town is a beautiful, well-preserved medieval city. We only had about 3 hours (enough to check it off the list of countries I’ve visited!) but we could easily have spent a couple days there. We hustled through a quick loop of the city in the drizzling rain to catch a glimpse of as much as we could, but there wasn’t even enough time to sit and enjoy a meal in one of the charming little squares. Before we knew it we had to board the ferry and head back to Finland.
The next morning we had plenty of time left in Helsinki to finish exploring the city. The city is very clean and quite modern, and is also extremely walkable. A few cathedrals and one more taste of Finnish cuisine (e.g. salmon, reindeer, moose, etc.) at the seaside market square wrapped up our first couple of days.
That afternoon we caught a very short flight to Stockholm for the remainder of the trip. I’ll save the rest of our journey for another post.
Since the experiment night was such a late night, the organizers were merciful and put together a short excursion Wednesday morning that didn’t require much brain power. We were shuttled down to a nearby park for a little nature walk, stopping once or twice along the way due to stray reindeer in the road.
After spending a few hours outside on a short treasure hunt it was time to head back to Sodankylä and get to work. As it turned out, the previous night’s experiment hadn’t turned out quite like we hoped. The data from our “Plan C” was a little disappointing; imagine a storm chaser getting 2 hours to run an experiment at a world class facility but having only clear, blue skies to look at. Fortunately for us, the radar facility in Sondrestrom, Greenland was operating very similarly to our “Plan A” experiment idea. Mary McCready and the rest of the Sondrestrom crew were extremely helpful by providing us with a backup set of data to work with.
Before we got completely lost in data analysis, we found time to have a little more fun Wednesday night. In Finland, saunas are a very integral part of the culture. Some polls have reported that there is a sauna for every 2 people in Finland. Our hosts wanted to make sure we got the opportunity to share in this bit of the culture, so they invited us out for a night at the sauna, which even included a floating sauna!
Thursday and Friday were spent working like crazy to get ready for the final presentations on Saturday morning. The mornings were typically spent in lecture learning more about the radar systems and the afternoons/evenings were spent in group work cranking through the data as fast as possible.
Our original experiment idea involved looking horizon to horizon, north to straight up to south, in order to map the region in the atmosphere where aurora appears, typically called the auroral oval. The data from the Sondrestrom radar was a little more complicated than our original experiment. It performed similar horizon to horizon scans, but slightly tipped away from the vertical (local meridian). The Sondrestrom mode produced data profiles that look like a fan waving back and forth. The good news: we saw aurora!
In the video above the green regions indicate elevated electron density in the ionosphere (~100-400+ km altitude). The occasional blips of red indicate regions of increased electron density, which is one way we can identify aurora even when the skies are too bright to see it visually.
Several days and long nights later, we were ready to present the results of the experiment to the rest of the school. After a lot of hard work we had something we were confident to share and the presentation went well. Just like that, however, the school was over and it was time to pack up, load the bus, and head back to the train station for our trip back to Helsinki.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we cross the Arctic Circle (~66° N latitude) on the way from Sodankylä to the train station in Rovaniemi. Perhaps more importantly, we drove right past Santa’s Village, though we weren’t allowed to stop and say hello to the Big Guy. Once back at the train station we took the same overnight train back to Helsinki.
The next morning once I arrived in Helsinki, I immediately started a week of travel through more of Scandinavia. That will be the subject of another post (or two) in the near future. Thanks for reading. Until next time…
Addendum: For anyone who would like to see what we presented, I’ve uploaded our presentation here: ISR2016-Group4. A lot of it may not make sense without someone to talk about it, but it at least has some pretty pictures!
I arrived in Sodankylä, Finland on Sunday with a group of about 50 students and instructors. The group of students was incredibly diverse, with men and women from all over the world. Aside from the handful of American students, people had come from Peru, China, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, England, and Canada, just to name a few. As a result, by the time we arrived most people were too exhausted to do any work. Instead, we unpacked and went for a walking tour of the area.
The town of Sodankylä is fairly small, only about 6,000 people live in the town proper. It’s a quiet region in Lapland (Northern Finland) with lots of wilderness. The mosquitoes weren’t quite as oppressive as I had feared and the fresh air was a nice break from 2 days of traveling in confined spaces.
Monday morning we started the week of school. The first couple of days were mostly classroom lectures. By the end of Tuesday, we were split into groups of 6 students to devise an experiment. Tuesday night we ran experiments using incoherent scatter radar (ISR) facilities across the globe.
On Tuesday night we were to execute the experiment we had designed that afternoon. Facilities in Alaska, Massachusetts, Peru, Greenland, and Norway would all be operating simultaneously and available for us to use. Our group had decided to use one of the Norway facilities to study aurora, but when we arrived for our scheduled time we were notified that the radar was having issues and would be unavailable.
Our group had about 2 minutes to throw out “Plan A” as well as “Plan B” that we were advised to come with and come up with a new idea. We were able to cobble together something on the fly and moved forward anyways because, hey, that’s life. Our group immediately set to work gathering data and ended up coming out OK, so it turned out not to be an issue. It pays to be flexible.
For the sake of brevity I’ll finish the rest of the week in another post. The week at ISR school was long and work-filled, but we found ways to have some fun too. Until next time…
It felt like I was overdue for a new adventure, so here I go again. I have the opportunity for some “on site” training at a scientific radar facility. The perk of the training? It’s in Finland!
After an easy red eye out of Boston and a quick connection in Amsterdam, I arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I had half a day to wander about before meeting the school group that night, so I explored the city a little bit. I have a couple days planned to really enjoy Helsinki after the week of work is over, so I’ll wait to go into detail when I have better photos to share.
Our school is way up north in Sodankylä, Finland, just north of the arctic circle. Not surprisingly, there is no easy way to get there. The next step of the journey was a 12 hour overnight train ride to Rovaniemi, Finland. When the train arrives in Rovaniemi, we have another 2 hours on a bus to the facility in Sodankylä. I’ll share more details about what I’m up to for work throughout the week, so stay tuned.
Hey if it were easy, then it wouldn’t be an adventure, right? To the north!!!
After five and a half weeks on the road, including about three weeks in Longyearbyen, there are a handful of things I found interesting but never managed to make it into blog posts. I thought today would be a good day to share some of the rest of the photos from my trip.
One of the first things you notice in Longyearbyen are the polar bears. In my experience this just meant signs and statues, but no one leaves town without proper protection. Cross-country skiers don’t leave town without a rifle slung across their backs (origin of the biathlon, perhaps?).
I never saw a live polar bear while I was up there, and I’m fine with that. I think if you can see a bear you are probably too close. I will happily live with just seeing the stuffed version.
There wasn’t much to see in the dark, but the Global Seed Vault is located just outside of town, along the drive up to KSAT, a massive satellite tracking facility. Some say that the seed vault is preparation for re-starting society after a potential global doomsday scenario.
Most of the economy on the island revolves around the coal industry. In recent years tourism and research facilities have begun to supplement the production of the mines.
The complex system used to move coal around was interesting, but it took a while to figure out what the goofy shaped building on the edge of town was used for.
Svalbard is technically a part of Norway, but is governed by many of its own laws. Russia lays claim to the island as well, and a few towns are primarily Russian in culture.
Part of the Norwegian influence on the culture is the cuisine. There are a few things I got to try on my trip that you won’t find in the grocery stores back in the U.S.
I tried seal steak but forgot to get a photo. That was the rarest thing to find on a menu. I saw whale at several different restaurants, but it was also not available everywhere. Only a few countries still serve whale, including Norway, Iceland, and Japan. Reindeer was a little more common, but still not something I’m used to seeing as a dinner option. All three were delicious!
I did manage to see reindeer outside of a restaurant. I heard stories of years past where reindeer were seen all over town in Longyearbyen. This year I only heard of a few sightings while we were there, including this one on my way to the store. I only had my phone on me at the time and didn’t want to get too close, so the picture is a little fuzzy.
Christmas is huge in Norway, the whole town was decorated by the time we left. They have to get their trees shipped up from the mainland since no trees grow on the island, but that doesn’t dampen the spirit of the locals.
I had another amazing trip this winter and am extremely grateful for the opportunity to see another corner of the world. Although I am certain Christmas in Norway would have been quite an experience, I am happy to be home after a successful mission.
In case you haven’t heard yet, we finally launched the rocket!!! RENU 2 successfully launched on the morning of 13 December 2015 at 0734 UT. I had a good feeling from the moment I woke up that morning that it was going to be the day. A quick look at the space weather conditions from my room were very promising from the start.
A light snow was falling that morning but the winds were fairly calm, so the drive up the mountain to the observatory was uneventful. The larger concern was the snow moving through the region around Andenes. Several cells of precipitation were forecast to move through that morning, each bringing gusts of wind that pushed out of limits.
As soon as the launch window opened we began to see the ideal aurora conditions. Arcs of aurora that have strong signatures in the red wavelength began moving north over our heads. These are what we call poleward moving auroral forms, or PMAFs. They are an indicator of what is called cusp aurora.
In an ideal case, the cusp will launch several of these PMAFs over head in a very predictable manner. We watched an arc go over head and Marc made the call to bring the count down to T – 15 minutes and hold (15 minutes away from launch). We then watched another PMAF go overhead and the count was brought down and held at T- 2 minutes. After the third arc passed overhead, that was all we needed to see.
After the experience with CAPER just a few weeks prior, no one celebrated quite yet. We all waited as word came over the radio about each stage of the rocket’s flight. 1st stage separation successful, then 2nd stage successful.
After the 3rd stage a small deviation was detected and our stomachs dropped… The rocket was veering off several hundred kilometers to the east. The fourth and final stage kicked it a little further off to the east.
The good news it that the path was well within the safety margins NASA had designed into the mission, so no people or other living things were in danger. The other good news is that the rocket actually ended up hitting a brighter part of the arc than what we saw overhead!
Even after we realized that the rocket hit a good target, the celebrations were limited. The next question we had to know was, “Did the instruments work?” Everyone got busy immediately checking the state of their instruments, looking to see if good data came in. All initial indications were that each instrument worked like it was supposed to, a HUGE relief. Finally it was time to take a deep breath and smile a little bit.
The excitement continued to build throughout the rest of the day and we celebrated that night. This rocket campaign is such a huge collaboration of effort from literally hundreds of people and we can’t thank everyone enough for their tireless dedication through all the long hours and early mornings. It took a combined effort from all over the world to make this mission a success and we are all extremely grateful.
Until next time…
…well I hope there’s a next rocket, I LOVE THIS JOB!!!!
It’s been a really exciting past few days, we have been VERY close to launching this rocket. Science conditions were almost ideal yesterday but surface winds at Andøya foiled our attempt once again. Weather is finally starting to cooperate a little bit so we have been able to go through a more typical routine.
The launch team at Andøya is on station every day by 3:00 AM local time to start getting the rocket ready. They perform diagnostic checks for about three hours prior to the launch window opening for the day.
Once ground checks are done, the rocket is ready to elevate into launch position. At this point the official countdown holds at T – 45 minutes, or 45 minutes away from liftoff. Before the rocket can go vertical, the winds need to cooperate. Weather balloons are sent up every 30 minutes or so to measure wind profiles up to 10 miles above the ground. If the winds are really strong (4o+ mph) the rocket won’t even come out of the building in order to protect the styrofoam box.
If the winds are calm enough, the door opens, the building slides back on rails, and the launcher moves to the vertical position. The launcher orientation is constantly adjusted as trajectory for the rocket flight is re-calculated every few minutes based on wind measurements. If the wind speeds are too high in any given direction or vary too wildly from minute to minute we have to wait for conditions to improve. If calm enough, the launch facility is evacuated of any non-essential personnel and the countdown continues, holding at T – 15 minutes.
At Andenes and here on Svalbard, the science teams begin monitoring solar wind conditions around 4:00 AM each morning. It is important to watch the general trends of activity like any weather forecast. The NASA satellite, ACE, orbits between the sun and earth and gives measurements of solar wind conditions that typically hit the earth between 45 minutes to an hour later. With practice the team is able to predict when the aurora will begin to appear overhead. Once things start to look interesting, the science team gives the go-ahead and the countdown continues.
Often the count will hold at T – 2 minutes while the science team makes its final determination. Yesterday we got all the way down to T- 2 minutes and held for nearly 30 minutes. As we began to get close to the 2 minute mark, winds began to vary too dramatically, even though the aurora overhead was just about ideal. While waiting for the winds to behave we literally ran out of time in the launch window and we had to call it a day.
We only have about a week left in the window with a chance to launch so the whole team is starting to get a bit antsy. We keep our fingers crossed for the weather conditions to come together one of these mornings. I really hope the next post I share will have details about a successful launch!
The solar wind has been the most cooperative we have seen since we arrived in Svalbard. Temperatures are dropping so skies are starting to stay clear which has opened up views for some spectacular displays. Yesterday we woke up to find the sky covered with aurora — we couldn’t get up to the observatory fast enough!
We are here to study a specific type of aurora called “dayside aurora,” so-called because it only occurs on the side of the earth facing the sun. We are able to see it because we are way up north where the sun don’t shine. Dayside aurora is often dimmer than the brilliant substorm displays more commonly seen at lower latitudes.
The dim aurora requires a 30 second exposure to reveal the colors seen above. I captured the substorm arcs over UNIS using 8 second exposures.
Besides seeing the aurora, the other perk of clear weather is that we can get a better view of the landscape. We can see Longyearbyen from the observatory as well as the incoherent radar facility down the hill, EISCAT. EISCAT is one of the most important tools we use in addition to cameras to monitor ionospheric conditions overhead during the launch window. The crew in charge of the facility was kind enough to show us around.
Dayside aurora is only possible for a short time each morning and we plan our launch window around it. Toward the end of the window each day the sun starts to lighten the sky, just barely, even though it never rises over the horizon. Fortunately for us it never really gets so dark that we can’t see aurora in the sky.
We only caught the tail end of the substorm last night, but the general activity level has continued ever since.
Sadly, despite such seeing such fantastic aurora up here we have not yet launched because of the high ground winds at the launch site in Andenes. The launch crew hasn’t even gotten the rocket out of the housing and elevated into launch position. So now we still wait for the ground weather to cooperate and hope that the conditions overhead continue to cooperate.
First, I should mention that the rocket is currently on hold again for a technical issue that was found during the vertical checks yesterday. A faulty pressure regulator in the attitude control system was discovered during the daily checks. Replacing the part means taking half the system apart, and that whole process takes a couple days. It’s a little bit frustrating because the solar wind is looking pretty good, but it sounds like high winds would have prevented us from launching anyway, so we likely are not missing any real opportunity.
While the range team is working their butts off down in Andoya, we are stuck up here in Svalbard with nothing to do. Nothing except finding a new adventure of course… One of the professors teaching a course in Longyearbyen invited us to join his class on a dog sledding trip after their final exam, and we happily accepted the invitation.
We show up at the facility, immediately get changed into the suits they provide and head out to meet the dogs. We pair up, two to a sled, and take turns driving. The dogs follow the team in front of you so the navigation is easy, we were primarily responsible just for starting and stopping our own team (not easy, these dogs want to run!).
The guides helped us pick out a team of dogs and hold them in place while the rest of the teams got ready. If you have ever seen a dog get excited to go for a walk, just imagine 170 dogs begging for their chance to stretch their legs. We could barely keep them in place, they are natural runners just itching to take off.
With all of the action and snow it was hard to fully capture the experience with photos, but Meghan managed to get a pretty good video with her phone while she was riding in the sled.
When we got back we had to help break up the teams and put the dogs back at their homes. The dogs get fed after the run and most of them seemed to relax pretty quickly as we were leaving. With their thick fur, you can bury these dogs in snow and they’ll just curl up to take a nap.
Hopefully the rocket is back online tomorrow, I am starting to get anxious!
Days 7 and 8 of the launch window were lost due to gale force winds at the launch site. Fortunately things were pretty quiet overhead in the ionosphere, as predicted, so we likely would not have launched anyway.
Conditions are starting to pick up in the solar wind but sadly another day has been lost. This morning during the initial daily checks a pressure regulator in the attitude control system failed and had to be replaced. It requires enough work to take the rocket down and replace the part that we completely lost the day and tomorrow may be in doubt as well.
The ground conditions at Svalbard have been much better than at the launch site. The break from the wind has been nice since it had been pretty nasty on top of the mountain when we first arrived (the video above is one of the better looking days). Luckily for us we have a pretty sweet ride to the top. We drive our four wheel drive van up about 2/3 up the side of the mountain to a coal mining outpost, then rendezvous with a familiar mode of transportation.
The bad news about the mostly cloudy and windy weather we keep getting on Svalbard is that it really limits visibility. Technically we could find the right conditions to launch without seeing the sky, but we all would feel much better if we could see what we were launching into!
Once again we wait, hopefully we have some good news soon.