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…

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.

ZWO_Allsky_T+6
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.

EISCAT
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.

DSC00515
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.

R2-Launch1
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.

R2-Launch7
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.

RENU-2_flight_path
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!

lyr_T+7
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.

DSC00545
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 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!

Aurora-KHO2
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.

Aurora-UNIS1
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.

ViewLongyearByen
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-tour
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.

Aurora-KHO-Sunrise
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.

NoonAurora
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 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.

20151202-GOES-Xray
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.

20151202-WSA-ENLIL
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…

Day 38 – Last days at South Pole

Our last few days at the South Pole have gone by pretty fast since we returned from the field. The first day back we mostly just slept to recover. Once we were well rested, we had to re-install a system outside the station since we were unable to get out to the field for a second trip as planned.

After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.
After spending several days before Christmas digging this system out of the snow, we dug new, shallower holes and put it right back into the snow outside the station.

We’ve had plenty of practice so the installation was done in about a day’s worth of work, even with extra components for the newer model.  We made a slight change this time, however, by stringing the sensor cables a couple feet above the ground so they will hopefully be easier to recover whenever someone returns to retrieve it.

Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.
Hopefully by stringing the sensor cables above the surface we will have saved a future group many hours digging them out.

The last part of the station I had heard about but I hadn’t gotten to see yet was the ice tunnels. Most of the infrastructure for water and power is buried underground in ice access tunnels. As long as you ask one of the facilities workers nicely they will show you around, so that’s what we did.

Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.
Building and maintaining the tunnels is difficult work so the tunnels are a tight fit.

This tour was actually the coldest I’ve been since we arrived on the continent.

Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels.  Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.
Temperatures hover around 50 degrees below zero in the tunnels. Some folks spend all day working down here to keep the station operating normally.

Super low temperatures and dry air mean that any water vapor that gets released into the air crystallizes very easily. Above some of the release points in the system where water vapor is allowed to escape you see can see crystals on the ceiling like this.

The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate.  A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.
The ice crystals are fascinating to look at but can pose a risk if too many are allowed to accumulate. A close eye must be kept on the tunnels to prevent any danger.

The tunnels are by no means a danger free area, however, which is why we were required to find an escort. The tunnels are an average of about 30 feet below the surface.  Since the ice is always moving the tunnels must be constantly watched and maintained.  If things are not monitored closely enough, tunnels and even escape hatches can fill in.

People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.
People who work regularly down in the tunnels know which ways are safe and accessible, helping us tourists avoid unnecessary risk.

Other facilities buried under the surface include the power plant and fuel storage area. Tunnels always need escape routes for safety and the rear exit out of the fuel storage area is the escape hatch I’ve had my eye on since we arrived.

I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.
I think if Super Mario ever built an Antarctic Station it would have tunnel entrances just like this.

With our work at the South Pole now complete, we now just have to wait for a ride back to McMurdo. Logistics are always a challenge here and no one is immune. Dealing with the harsh weather conditions causes delays every season, it’s just a part of working on the continent.

Until next time…

Day 37 – Field Camp, Part 3

After letting the system run for a day we discovered we had some difficulty keeping the sensor level. In order to fix this problem, we decided to anchor the sensor by turning the base to solid ice.

Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.
Peter gently poured water around the base of the sensor, spoonful by spoonful, to freeze everything in place.

With the sensor level and firmly in place, we had a couple days remaining before the plane could pick us up.  This meant we had some time to kill so we found lots of ways to keep ourselves entertained. The first and most important was grooming the ski-way for the plane.

With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the skiway as smooth as possible for the plane to take off.  With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.
With nothing but our shovels we tried to make the ski-way as smooth as possible for the plane to take off. With all our gear loaded the plane needed a lot of space to accelerate.

We also decided to take advantage of the skills we learned at happy camper. By that, of course, I mean we built an igloo.

The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.
The work was divided into quarrying the snow into blocks and shaping the blocks so they fit together snugly.

Building an igloo requires excellent masonry.  A solid base is necessary to support the weight of the rest of the structure.  Once the dome was capped we excavated the interior of the structure.

By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.
By digging down into the snow we made the interior of the igloo tall enough for me to stand up inside.

The igloo made a nice addition to camp. Plus moving all that snow around is an excellent way to keep the blood moving.

With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete.  It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.
With a doorway arch for a finishing touch, the igloo was complete. It was a little smaller than the last time but still pretty good for three of us working an afternoon.

Another way to keep warm and pass the time was to simply go for a walk. Getting away from camp was a great reminder of just how isolated we really were.

Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp.  The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.
Those little black dots on the horizon are our camp. The rest of the view was nothing but flat, white horizon in every direction.

Once we got word on the radio that the plane was on its way to pick us up, fun time was over. We quickly got to work dismantling camp. Everything except the main tent came down until we sighted the plane, just in case something went wrong and the plane had to return the South Pole.

We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.
We worked quickly to pack up almost everything once we got the good news that the pilots were on their way.

The Twin Otters in Antarctica are extremely busy and we were lucky our plane and its crew finished their other commitments a day early.  The pilots were very generous working a long day to come get us.  Finally, late on day five of our camping trip, we spotted a very welcome sight on the horizon.

We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up.  We didn't have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.
We were all pretty excited to see our ride show up. We didn’t have time to celebrate, though, since we had to take down the main tent and load up the plane.

Very quickly the main tent was down, packed up and ready to go. All that remained of our camp was a couple wind walls, an igloo, and the solar panel sticking up out of the snow.

The only signs of our work were the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.
Soon all that will remain of our work will be the tower sticking out of the snow and a handful of flags marking the buried equipment.  The snow walls and igloo we built will not last long.

Everyone was exhausted as we headed back to the station.  We were all pretty satisfied with the result of the trip. The system is in place and running well, and we made it back safe and sound. Our trip wasn’t quite over yet at that point but it was certainly a good job done.

Until next time…