Helsinki & Tallinn

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.

SteveOnFerry
Steve stretches out on the ferry ride to Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki. Relaxation would not always come often on our trip; we walked nearly 10 miles each day.

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.

SuomenlinnaCollage
TL: Parts of Suomenlinna Fortress looked an awful lot like the Shire, I kept waiting for a hobbit to stroll by. TR: The final resting place of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the man responsible for construction of the fortress in the 18th century. BL: Vesikko, the last remaining submarine of the Finnish military, retired at the end of WWII BR: Much of the island is filled with park areas, many locals visit the island just enjoy nature.

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.

Helsinki-Tallinn-RouteMap
Perhaps some of my readers know their eastern European geography better than me when I first started planning my trip, but this map shows the short route between Helsinki and Tallinn and the relative location compared to other parts of northern Europe. Google tells me it takes 3.5 hours by car (?) to cross the Gulf of Finland, so I guess the ferry was the quicker option.

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.

TallinnCollage
TL: One of the gateways to Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia TR: Aerial view of Old Town. It was a drizzly day but the city was still beautiful BL: Monk statues guard a small courtyard below a cafe overlooking Old Town. BR: A fairly common view down any street in Old Town of Tallinn.
TallinnArchery
Perhaps we didn’t leave time to sit and enjoy one of the squares in Tallinn (left) but there’s always time for archery competition in a medieval town (right?!). Steve won the competition.

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.

HelsinkiCollage
Just a few highlights of Helsinki from our last half day in the city. Left: Me standing out front of the Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral with a statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in between. Right: The Three Smiths Statue in Helsinki.

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.

Until next time…

ISR Workshop Pt 2

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.

Reindeer
I was never quick enough to get a snapshot of the reindeer in the road that forced us to stop the bus as the reindeer ran off into the woods. The driver did, however, slow down long enough for us to get a photo of domesticated reindeer.  Not exactly wild animals, but you get the point.

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.

SDYradar
The Sondrestrom Research Facility is located along the west coast of Greenland just north of the Arctic Circle. The site is operated by SRI International and the National Science Foundation. (Photos courtesy of Mary McCready, SRI)

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!

FloatingSauna
While most of the evening was spent in a traditional sauna along the shore, we each got a chance to experience the floating sauna. It’s very refreshing to open the sauna door and jump into the river and cool off, literally just a step away. (Photo by David Koronczay)

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.

ISRpresentation
Our final presentations on Saturday morning were a total group effort, everyone contributed. Here I am presenting some of the introductory material while the rest of my group waits patiently for their turn. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

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.

Arctic_circle_santa_village
Santa’s Village is outside Rovaniemi, Finland. Just to clarify, he still *works* at the North Pole, this is just his offseason home. (By Ruslan0202 (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17033018)

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.

SunsetFinland
The side benefit of super long days near the Arctic Circle is an extremely long sunset. This sort of view lasted for the better part of an hour during our train ride back south. It was a very nice way to cap off a long week of hard work.

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!

ISR Workshop Pt 1

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.

SodankyläRiverview
A walk around the town of Sodankylä was a great way to stretch the legs and get a feel for the local environment. The rivers that surround the town are beautiful.

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.

ReindeerHusbandry
This statue in downtown Sodankylä commemorates the long history of reindeer husbandry in Lapland and all over Scandinavia. The reindeer are semi-domesticated and have been herded for well over a thousand years.

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.

ConfusedBruce
When we arrived for our experiment at the radar facility we were told to come up with a “Plan C.” My look of confusion as to what to do next might be apparent here. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

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.

ISRexperiment
This computer terminal allowed us to communicate with the radar technicians at the actual facility as well as visualize our results in real-time. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

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…

Planes, trains, and automobiles

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!

20160723_170953_Richtone(HDR).jpg
A view of the harbor in Helsinki.  My first day in Finland was grey and overcast.  I’m hoping for better weather when I return to Helsinki next week.

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.

FinlandTrainView
This is what the view from the train looked like for most of the ride one we got out of Helsinki.

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.

FinlandMap
Just a quick snapshot of where I’m headed. It’s not quite as far north as I was in Norway, but at least this time the sun won’t disappear!

Hey if it were easy, then it wouldn’t be an adventure, right?  To the north!!!

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.

LYRsignpost
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?).

PolarStuffed
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.

Seedvault
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.

LYRmine
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.

CoalCarTower
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.

LYRcoalBldg
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.

LeninBust
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.

NorwegianCuisine
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!

Reindeer
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.

Mailbox2
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 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.

MomAndPuppy
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.

Guide
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!).

SledPrep
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.

ViewFromSled
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.

OnASled
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 23 – Launch Window Day 1

We arrived safely a few days ago in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island of Svalbard.  Where are is that exactly? The short answer is we are way up north. More specifically, we are about 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. With a permanent population of around 2,000 people, Longyearbyen is the northernmost substantial settlement in the world.

PolarTravelView
A view of Earth from over the North Pole helps illustrate exactly where Svalbard located. At a latitude of 78° N, we are 711 miles away from the Geographic North Pole, which is less than the distance from Chicago to New York City (790 miles).

The town of Svalbard is located in a glacier-fed river valley that empties into a fjord. The town was established by coal miners over a hundred years ago, and the mines are still active today.

LongyearbyenView
The mountains that line the valley around Longyearbyen are beautiful in the daylight. With the right lighting you can get an idea of what they must look like.
LongyearbyenDowntown
Longyearbyen has a fairly active downtown with shops and restaurants. Cruise ships will stop here in the summer and dump thousands of tourists into the town, but things are a little bit quieter this time of year.
UNIS
The University Center in Svalbard, or UNIS, is one of the major centers in Longyearbyen. Researchers here study biology, ecology, and geology of the Arctic in addition to the space research that our crew is interested in. Students may visit and take courses in any of these subjects as well.

We spent the first couple days in town at UNIS meeting with our hosts and finalizing plans for during the launch window. During the window, however, we are up on the mountain ridge at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) to monitor conditions in real time with local access to data. We monitor the conditions with ground based and space based measurements.

KHOcontrol
The Svalbard science team sits in the control room at KHO, patiently waiting for acceptable conditions to launch into. We have cameras, magnetometers, and radars all working in unison to monitor the local space environment.

It has been 4 days since I’ve seen the sun, though I hear stories that it’s still up somewhere. Weather conditions have been poor so far, both on the surface and up in space. There is little evidence that the aurora we want to see has been present since it’s been cloudy for the past couple days, but winds at the launch site have made a launch unlikely anyway. Now we just have to sit and wait for the sun to send some activity our way and hope the winds cooperate at the launch site.

20151128-GOESxray

X-Ray images of the sun show several active regions that could provide some good aurora over the next few days.

Until next time…