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…

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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 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 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.

GettingToKHO
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.

BeltWagon
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!

DomesOnKHO
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 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…