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 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…

Day 15 – Payload Assembly

This week has been busy preparing the range for launch and getting the payload ready to attach to the rocket motors. The work for the experimenters on the payload has been slow but the NASA crew is working like crazy to get all the other bits and pieces in place.

RENU 2 Payload in pieces
All the payload components are lined up and ready to put together once we verify that everything is working properly. The nose cone is sitting next to the main payload and will cover the forward portion of the payload.

The payload is almost ready to put together into one piece. Before we put it all together, we do a launch simulation to make sure everything turns on like it’s supposed to. This is called a sequence test, because it involves turning everything on in the proper order as it should both before and after the launch. Before launch certain instruments and systems are tested one last time. After launch, all the experiments come on while the rest of the payload keeps working.

Andoya mountains covered in snow
A little bit of snow hit Andenes last night. When we woke up this morning the mountains were covered with a layer of snow. This is a view of my back yard while at the space center.

In the small amount of downtime we do have, I took an opportunity to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight I will likely see for a few weeks. I walked outside, looked up and thought I might get a pretty good view from the top of the mountains behind the space center, so a couple of us decided to hike to the top during our lunch break.

Bleik, Norway
Bleik is a tiny seaside village, just a few miles south of the launch facility. It’s protected from the weather and the launch facility by the mountains that surround it.

We were right, the views from the top of the mountains were impressive. There was just enough of a break in the clouds to get some bright light, even though we never got a direct shot of the sun itself. The sun never gets high enough in the sky to peek over the mountains further south of us.

Andenes, Norway
This is a view of Andenes, the town I flew into that’s only a couple minutes northeast of the Andoya Space Center. It’s a quiet town, especially this time of year, when residents barely see the light of day.

The mountain range we climbed is high and narrow, so we were able to see the coast in all directions pretty easily. To the south was Bleik, the next town down the road. To the north is Andenes, the largest town on the island. West of us is the space center with the rocket range. East is a little bit of the town but mostly empty coastline.

Andenes lighthouse
With a good zoom lens I could see the lighthouse that is crucial this time of year. There are tons of fishing boats that keep the town in business throughout the year.

Days keep getting shorter, we lose around 10 minutes of daylight each day. This nice sunset photograph was taken just before 1 PM local time.

Sunset over Andoya
I made it to the top of the mountain range I set out to climb. It made for a nice lunch hour while I had a break from work.

We keep making progress on the rocket so it’s time for me to get back to work. I’ll share some more about the rocket and what we’re doing here in the next post.

Until next time…

Day 10 – Paris of the North

The pre-launch assembly has been going well enough to this point that we got an unexpected day off of work. With the surprise 2-day weekend, I decided to hop on a flight with a friend and head to Tromsø for the weekend, considered the northernmost city in the world of any substantial size (50,000+ people).

View of the area around Andenes from the plane just after takeoff.  The day was pretty gloomy and overcast, but the mountains were spectacular when we got brief glimpses through the clouds.
View of the area around Andenes from the plane just after takeoff. The day was pretty gloomy and overcast, but the mountains were spectacular when we got brief glimpses through the clouds.

The first thing we did was catch a cab to the edge of the city and hiked up the ridge to get a better aerial view.

Most of the city of Tromsø is situated on an island in a fjord set back several miles from the open ocean.  We didn’t have enough daylight to hike to the top of the ridge but we got up to a break in the trees to get most of the island in one shot.
Most of the city of Tromsø is situated on an island in a fjord set back several miles from the open ocean. We didn’t have enough daylight to hike to the top of the ridge but we got up to a break in the trees to get most of the island in one shot.

We hiked back down to the coast and across the bridge into the city.

The nickname “Paris of the North” dates back to the 19th century for reasons that are unclear, but apparently people still take the name seriously.  There were padlocks all along on the bridge fences just like in Paris, albeit much fewer in number.
The nickname “Paris of the North” dates back to the 19th century for reasons that are unclear, but apparently people still take the name seriously. There were padlocks all along on the bridge fences just like in Paris, albeit much fewer in number.

The city is beautiful, even on gray days like while we were there.

The view of the bay in front of Tromsø is a view I don’t think I would ever get tired of.
The view of the bay in front of Tromsø is a view I don’t think I would ever get tired of.

One of the most iconic sights in Tromsø is the Arctic Cathedral, a modern church built in the 1960s.

The architecture of the Arctic Cathedral makes it look almost like an iceberg on land.
The architecture of the Arctic Cathedral makes it look almost like an iceberg on land.

As the sun started to set, we hit one of the indoor attractions, a polar wildlife center where we learned about the local wildlife and watched the trainers feed the seals. Some of the best outdoor views were after the sun went down as well.

The Arctic Cathedral gets lit up at night and is visible from many places in the city.
The Arctic Cathedral gets lit up at night and is visible from many places in the city.

The main tourist attraction in the winter is the northern lights, which we didn’t get a chance to see because of the weather, but we weren’t disappointed since we’ll have plenty of opportunity for viewing the aurora the rest of the trip.

Sunday was a quick flight back to the range to get ready for a busy work week coming up. There is still a lot of work to do to get ready for the launch window, so the fun stuff may be over for a while but I’ll update when something is worth sharing.

Until next time…

Day 7 – Nose to the Grindstone

Once we got down to business, things started to move along pretty quickly. The NASA folks have put in some long hours up to this point, but the rocket is coming together nicely.

By the end of the second full day, the experiment teams had all of the instruments mounted back on the payload structure.  This is how the payload looked when I left it behind in September during integration.
By the end of the second full day, the experiment teams had all of the instruments mounted back on the payload structure. This is how the payload looked when I left it behind in September during integration.

When I arrived at the integration facility the whole payload structure was in pieces. By the end of my second full day, the whole thing was ready to bolt together into one structure as it will fly.

With the full payload lines up, you can see the imager sticking out the bottom of the payload and the rest of the instruments at the top.  The sections in between contain the power, attitude control, and telemetry systems.
With the full payload lined up, you can see the imager sticking out the bottom of the payload and the rest of the instruments at the top. The sections in between contain the power, attitude control, and telemetry systems.

Everyone is working hard, but they do let us out occasionally, fortunately. The nearby town of Andenes has a few restaurants so we go out for meals to get away from the facility for a little bit.

This photo was taken while out for lunch on my first full day in Andenes, approximately noon local time.  It felt more like sunset...
This photo was taken while out for lunch on my first full day in Andenes, approximately noon local time. It felt more like sunset…

The days just keep getting shorter. My first day here we had five hours of “sunlight.” A week later there will be less than four hours. By the end of the month this whole area will be in full 24 hour darkness. This really cuts down on the nature sightseeing opportunities, but that is just fine with me because the real scenery comes out at night.

#TauridMeteorShower
There wasn’t much structure in the aurora at the time, but one of my favorite shots from the first night was focused on the big dipper when a meteor streaked through the frame. What a lucky shot!

Until next time…

Day 5 – Back to Work

I had one more day to spend in Oslo so I decided to explore a bit more of the regional history. The first stop was the Viking Ship museum.

There are three Viking ships over a thousand years old that were discovered in Norway, two of which are remarkably well preserved.  They should have been full of gold and weapons but had been looted shortly after burial because, you know, they’re Vikings…
There are three Viking ships over a thousand years old that were discovered in Norway, two of which are remarkably well preserved. They should have been full of gold and weapons but had been looted shortly after burial because, you know, they’re Vikings…

Next was a much-longer-than-anticipated stop at the Fram Museum which is dedicated to the history of polar exploration. Most interesting was that I learned more about how incredible Roald Amundsen was.

Not only did Roald Amundsen lead the first team to the South Pole (remember the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is jointly named after him), he also was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage above Canada and the first to fly to the North Pole. (Photo from Wikipedia)
Not only did Roald Amundsen lead the first team to the South Pole (remember the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is jointly named after him), he also was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage above Canada and the first to fly to the North Pole. (Photo from Wikipedia)

The museum is named for the Fram because it was originally built around a ship with the same name. The ship was designed and built to explore the North Pole and was first used by a couple other Norwegian explorers. The ship was later captained by Amundsen on his journey to the South Pole.

They literally built the Fram Museum around the ship.  They even let us onto the ship to explore above and below deck.
They literally built the Fram Museum around the ship. They even let us onto the ship to explore above and below deck.

After three hours reading about polar exploration I was burned out on museums. I wandered through the city a bit more and eventually headed to my hotel by the airport before my flight the next morning.

This map illustrates the first two legs of my travel that took me from Boston to Oslo and up to Andenes.  (via Google Maps)
This map illustrates the first two legs of my travel that took me from Boston to Oslo and up to Andenes. (via Google Maps)

Day 5 was nothing but a travel day. We hopped a puddle jumper and flew up to Andenes. Where exactly is Andenes? It’s way up on the northern coast of Norway, just north of the Arctic Circle.

I have a nice view out my window of the front sign.  The center is situated on the few acres of land between the mountains and the ocean.
I have a nice view out my window of the front sign. The center is situated on the few acres of land between the mountains and the ocean.

The Andoya Space Center is right next to the airport, so within minutes of landing at the airport we were at the facility to check into our lodging and get to work.  The first job is unpacking all the equipment to prepare to reassemble the rocket. The NASA team is currently working hard to get caught up due to a late shipment, so right now I’m mostly waiting my turn to get on the payload and install our instruments. While unpacking, I got a pleasant surprise my first night here.

I was busy unpacking when someone stepped into the building and just casually mentioned the aurora happening outside.  I tried to play it cool for like 5 seconds, then grabbed my camera and ran outside.  The clouds set in shortly after so I didn’t see much more, but this was an exciting start less than 5 hours after getting here!
I was busy unpacking when someone stepped into the building and just casually mentioned the aurora happening outside. I tried to play it cool for like 5 seconds, then grabbed my camera and ran outside. The clouds set in shortly after so I didn’t see much more, but this was an exciting start less than 5 hours after getting here!

We should hopefully get very busy very soon, so I’ll try to keep you as updated as I can with new developments.

Until next time…

Day 3 – Fjords and back again

Day 2 started with an early train ride out of Oslo. It was a good day I suppose to spend on the train, though since the weather was foggy and cloudy when I left and was rainy when I got to Voss five hours later. There were still some interesting things to see and learn in town.

For you Gold Domers out there: Voss, Norway is the birthplace of Knute Rockne.  Also, this region of Norway seems to have quite a connection to trolls, they are everywhere!  This guy met me as I got off the train.
For you Gold Domers out there: Voss, Norway is the birthplace of Knute Rockne. Also, this region of Norway seems to have quite a connection to trolls, they are everywhere! This guy met me as I got off the train.  A little bit ironically, it reminds me of a movie I watched last winter with the SP crew, Trollhunter, about Norwegian trolls.  Check it out if you have a few hours of your life to waste…

The sun set early behind the mountains and it rained almost all day, so I didn’t get to do much that second day. The next morning I felt compelled to make up for the lost day, so I got going before dawn and got rewarded with a beautiful, clear morning.

A sliver of moon greeted me as I walked out of the hostel on the morning of the third day.  The lake was calm and the sky as clear as I’ve seen it since I got to Norway.
A sliver of moon greeted me as I walked out of the hostel on the morning of the third day. The lake was calm and the sky as clear as I’ve seen it since I got to Norway.

I had a few hours before boarding a bus so I took a hike out to the edge of town to Bordal Gorge (passing the Troll Museum along the way, closed on Sundays, boo!). It was nice and quiet all morning, which meant it felt like I mostly had the town to myself. I also made sure to check out the Voss Church, Vangskyrkja, along the way back to the bus station, which has been standing since 1277!

The gorge was impressively deep and narrow, and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the origins of Norwegian troll mythology.  The church in Voss is incredibly well preserved for being almost 800 years old, but as many attractions in the country it was closed for the season and I was unable to see what it looked like inside.
The gorge was impressively deep and narrow, and I’m pretty sure the caves that line it have something to do with the origins of Norwegian troll mythology. The church in Voss is incredibly well preserved for being almost 800 years old, but as many attractions in the country it was closed for the season and I was unable to see what it looked like inside.

Eventually I had to join the lemmings on the bus and head north for the highlight of the day, the boat tour up one fjord and back down the other. The boat started in Gudvangen…

A Viking warrior stands guard over our ride for the fjord tour.  Everybody grab an oar!
A Viking warrior stands guard over our ride for the fjord tour. Everybody grab an oar!

…and we made our way out to sea.

The sheer size and verticality of the fjords was absolutely incredible.  It felt like the ocean could have flooded the US and we were riding a boat up the middle of Yosemite National Park.
The sheer size and verticality of the fjords was absolutely incredible. It felt like the ocean could have flooded the US and we were riding a boat up the middle of Yosemite National Park.

Eventually our arms got tired and we turned around…

#GoHawks
Just kidding, I’m on a boat! No work required, just a little bit of cold tolerance. The chilly wind scared away most of the tourists eventually but the unobstructed views were worth waiting out the crowd.

…and slowly cruised back down around to Flåm. To get back up to the main Oslo-Bergen train line, I had to get myself back up into the mountains somehow. This was done via the Flåm railway, climbing several thousand feet in elevation over the course of just a dozen miles.

The train ride was definitely a pleasant surprise.  I was not expecting such a scenic hour ride up the mountains, but it was also spectacular.  I’ll spare you the additional pictures of mountains, so here’s the Flåmsbana train, inside and out.  Very modern on the outside, classic on the inside.
The train ride was definitely a pleasant surprise. I was not expecting such a scenic hour ride up the mountains, but it was also spectacular. I’ll spare you the additional pictures of mountains, so here’s the Flåmsbana train, inside and out. Very modern on the outside, classic on the inside.

Once back up in the mountains, I caught the main train line back to Oslo. I sit here on the train again typing this on the way back to where I started yesterday morning. Tomorrow I plan to finish exploring the city and then Tuesday it’s back to work. I’ll catch you up on tomorrow’s noteworthy events but it could get slow after then, stay tuned!

Until next time…