Longyearbyen tidbits

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.

You see the influence of polar bears is all over the town. This sign is the first thing you see once you step out of the Longyearbyen airport.  Watch out for bears!

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?).

This guy guards the hallway in Mary Ann’s restaurant in Longyearbyen.  I’m not sure who tried to box this bear but I think the bear would win.

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.

The Global Seed Vault is located just outside of town up the side of a mountain. It holds more than 10,000 seed samples of over 300 different species.

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.

There are coal mines all over the island. This mine on the side of the mountain slope is just above the town but hasn’t produced any coal for years.

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.

Many of the mines would transfer their coal down to the docks via a cable car system, similar to a ski lift. The town of Longyearbyen is dotted with towers that would transfer the cars loaded with coal to a central location.

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.

Three different mines would shuttle coal to this building perched on a ridge at the edge of town. The coal would then go from this building down the slope to ships waiting in the dock.

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.

Russia lays claim to Svalbard in addition to Norway since both are interested in the resources on the island. Although Longyearbyen is primarily a Norwegian settlement, you can see the Russian influence in town, like this bust of Vladimir Lenin at the restaurant Kroa.

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.

Top left: Minke whale on a pizza. Bottom left: Reindeer stew (those are cranberries on the stew, not Rudolph nose) Right: Pizza Hut ad at the Tromso airport for Reindeer pizza.

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!

Svalbard reindeer are a unique breed found only on the island. They are specially adapted to surviving the harsh climate. You can see them in the middle of town just going about their business.

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.

If you ever wondered where all your letters to Santa went, I think I’ve found the answer. As the northernmost civilized settlement (only 800 miles from the North Pole), I think this is where the big guy gets his mail.

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.

Until next time…

Day 38 – Launch!!!!!!

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.

Aurora was active overhead all morning during the launch. A little bit of snow obscured many of the domes slightly, but the team at KHO worked hard all day to keep them clear. This image was taken by the ZWO Allsky Camera provided by KHO.

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.

The EISCAT radar kept us informed in real-time about the conditions in the ionosphere. We were looking for signatures of electron heating and the signals from EISCAT were clear that the ionosphere was indeed heating up overhead. (Photo from the EISCAT website)

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.

Marc Lessard, the Primary Investigator of RENU 2 (and my boss), has the final call to launch. He can’t believe how ideal the conditions were that morning.  He made the call just minutes before the next snow squall moved in.

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.

3… 2… 1… FIRE!!! In this image take just after ignition you can see the payload breaking through the top of the styrofoam box that housed the rocket on the pad.

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.

RENU 2 after it has left the rail. The bursts coming out the side of the rocket are the “spin-up” motors that put the rocket into a stabilizing spin at several rotations per second.

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.

Image showing the ideal flight path of the rocket (blue dotted line) and the actual tracked path (red line).

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!

All sky camera data from the middle of the rocket flight. The image on the top left shows the location of the red aurora relative to the map of Svalbard. The black line is where the rocket was supposed to go, and the darker red part (i.e. brighter aurora) just to the right of the track is where we actually hit. Score! (Image from University of Oslo)

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 team at KHO looking for the rocket in the sky. Pictured left to right: Meghan Harrington, Bruce Fritz, Mikko Syrjasuo, Noora Partamies, Pal Gunnar, Marc Lessard

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!!!!

Day 36 – Launch Window Day 15

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 experiment teams are in place early each day and spend the launch window monitoring their instruments throughout the launch window. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

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.

Umbilical connectors provide power, nitrogen purge, and other diagnostic connections to the payload while on the rail. The connections are cut or broken off at the time of launch and the bungee cords pull everything out of the way as the rocket flies by. Believe it or not, most of the umbilical system is actually re-used from previous launches — way to be eco-friendly NASA! (Photo: Brent Sadler)

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.

The styrofoam box is important for keeping the motors warm while waiting to launch. The box is light enough that it does not hinder the flight of the rocket, but that means it is susceptible to damage from strong winds. Here you can see the box shatter moments after CAPER (the other sounding rocket this winter) leaves the rail. (Photo: NASA)

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.

RENU 2 on the rail
There has been a lot of excitement the past few days, mostly because it is the first time in a while the rocket has gone vertical with any chance to launch. (Photo: NASA)

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.

The science team at Andøya sits in their control room monitoring a large amount information, all of which helps to determine science conditions overhead. The Svalbard science team sits together in a room watching the same conditons but without the fancy large screens and countdown clock. (Photo: Brent Sadler)

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!

Until next time…


Day 33 – Launch Window Day 12

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!

The skies have been alive with activity the past couple days and the skies have been clear enough for us to see — FINALLY! You can see several other domes on top of the observatory at the bottom of the image.

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.

A spectacular substorm display greeted us last night when we walked outside after dinner. The building at the bottom of the image is the University Center at Svalbard (UNIS) where students can come to learn first-hand about substorms, aurora and other geophysical topics.

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.

View of the valley below the observatory. In the bottom center you can see Longyearbyen with the fjord behind it. In the bottom right corner you can see one of the radars at EISCAT.

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.

EISCAT antennas pump megawatts of radio waves into the ionosphere with 32- and 42-meter dishes. The radar measures the emission reflection to determine electron density, electron temperature, ion temperature, and ion drift velocity in the ionosphere.  Here an EISCAT scientists gives us a tour of the power systems responsible for operating the beams. (Photo by Marc Lessard)

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.

When activity is high enough the aurora remains visible, even the dimmer red aurora that we are interested in for our launch.  The streak on the left is a satellite that passed through the camera frame during the 30 second exposure.

We only caught the tail end of the substorm last night, but the general activity level has continued ever since.

This arc appeared overhead today after we got back from the launch window…at noon! The progression of the waves through the arcs was clearly evident over the span of minutes, sometimes even seconds. This was a bright enough arc that I only needed an 8 second exposure.

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.

Until next time…

Day 31 – Dog Sledding in Svalbard!

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.

Frigga, a recent mother and Qunniq, her puppy. The dogs are all extremely friendly and LOVE the snow.

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.

The guide teaching us about the dogs and how to handle the sled. His advice? “Don’t fall off the sled, the dogs won’t stop for you.”

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 dogs run in teams of six. First you put the lead dogs in place and someone has to hold them because they are so excited to go. Then you have to carefully select the rest of the team because some of the dogs don’t get along very well.

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.

When not driving the sled you sit in front of the driver. The ride is smooth and quiet, all you hear is the jingle of the dog collars and the crunch of the sled on snow.

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.

Everyone was all smiles after the trip, including me. We stayed plenty warm in the suits they provided, even with all the wind and snow.

Hopefully the rocket is back online tomorrow, I am starting to get anxious!

Until next time…

Day 30 – Launch Window Day 9

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.

Most days visibility is almost zero on top of the mountains outside Longyearbyen. (Photo: Noora Partemies)

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.

You may remember seeing a vehicle like this last year when I was at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Turns out these Hagglunds (a.k.a. belt-wagons) are useful vehicles at both poles!

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!

View from atop the observatory during one of the rare moments with a break in the clouds. There are over a dozen different domes with different cameras set up to watch the skies here at KHO. The moon is in the upper right corner doing its best to ruin visibility for the cameras.

Once again we wait, hopefully we have some good news soon.

Until next time…

Day 27 – Launch Window Day 6

NASA officials gave us the thumbs up to proceed again today as normal, so we are good to go after the unfortunate scare caused by the CAPER launch. A combination of factors, like using a different motor than CAPER and review of our own assembly procedures gives us confidence that RENU 2 will not suffer a similar fate as the other mission this campaign.

Marc Laughing
The mood for the launch team was much lighter today after a couple stressful days dealing with the CAPER anomaly. Even the boss found time to laugh (who knows what was funny…)

Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate today.  Winds on the ground were not a problem, but weather balloons launched throughout the morning indicated shear winds in excess of 100 mph at roughly about 5 miles altitude.  It turned out to be no big deal, however, since the space weather conditions were not very cooperative either.

The sun rotates on average once every 27 days. It rotates left to right as viewed from Earth. Solar wind from two active regions (in the red circles) is currently on either side of Earth, leaving us in a quiet window. (Photo: GOES X-Ray Imager)

The Earth is in a short lull for solar wind conditions.  The solar wind is always blowing because the sun is really hot and hot gases expand.  The effect is the opposite of why you need to add air to your car tires in the winter when the temperatures drop.  Really active regions on the surface of the sun will produce short bursts like gusts of wind.

Plasma in the solar wind traces out a spiral pattern like water from a sprinkler. Since the solar wind takes a few days to reach Earth (green dot), active sources on the sun (yellow dot) may be almost out of sight by the time we feel the effects on Earth. This diagram is from a NOAA space weather forecast model that illustrates how dense regions of high speed plasma form a spiral after leaving the sun. (Photo: WSA-ENLIL, NOAA)

Typical gusts of solar wind take days to travel the 93 million miles to Earth.  Predicting exactly when they will hit is about as reliable as tracking a hurricane in the ocean (often close to correct, but not always spot on).  Larger events that come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, like in the picture in the header, are a little more extreme but that is a subject for another day.  NASA’s SDO has been tracking solar activity for five years now, and has a good history of activity on the sun, including for the solar maximum that is currently winding down.

Tomorrow the weather at Andenes looks to be extremely windy so we are planning to take the day off since a launch is extremely unlikely.  Hopefully the weather will cooperate when we get into the next stream of solar wind.

Until next time…