Wednesday, August 27, 2008


There are two primary factors that mark life here at pole as completely different from life in the real world. The first of these is the year-long day, with only a single sunrise and sunset per year. The second is the cold. I've gone on at length over the past four months about the night, but haven't delved too much into the many effects of the cold.

By and large, no machinery works cold. Anything with moving parts takes oil or grease, and there doesn't appear to be any grease which won't freeze solid by -90F. We aren't allowed to take vehicles outside below -80F, not for fear of damage to the engine - running keeps it warm enough - but because if stopped for any length of time they tend to freeze solid to the ground.

As far as SPT goes, the telescope's primary motors are kept warm inside the building (which is heated by waste heat from our electronics, supplemented with heat from the DSL furnace), while the smaller ones sit in the receiver cab on the end of the secondary arm, kept warm by a battery of electric heaters. Without heat, the telescope is dead in the water, just like everything else down here.

With that as preface, at 3am this past Sunday, the telescope lost power. The alarms failed, and Sunday is the one day of the week both Dana and I tend to sleep in a couple of hours. The telescope was without power for 6 hours before we discovered the problem, by which time, it was cold. Very cold. The building and main motors were slightly below freezing, while the entire receiver cab had dropped to -80F.

At that point, simply restoring the power wasn't an option - motors would turn back on and seize, hard drives would fail, fans would stall - in essence, everything breaks if powered up cold.

Instead, the cab needed to be reheated before powering anything back up. That set up a bit of a catch-22 - the heaters are electric, but we couldn't restore power until things were warm again. Worse, the fans on the heaters were all frozen, so powered heaters were likely to melt or catch fire.

Well, after much crawling in and out of the emergency hatch on the back of the cab (the main doors require the cab to be docked against the building, which in turn requires that the motors in the cab be functional), flipping breakers, disconnecting electronics, and fiddling with heaters, we finally got things warming up. Six hours later, the cab was up to freezing, and we were able to begin turning stuff back on.

Several systems came online relatively easily, while others did not. Some metals' resistances drop precipitously when deep frozen, with the result that several of our external heating systems cannot be turned on cold - if you try, they draw too much current and trip a breaker. They work fine once warm, but again, that makes for somewhat of a catch-22. Many of our electronics failed to initialize properly cold, and had to be reset several times as they gradually warmed up from different systems coming online.

Last night at 3am, fully four days after losing power, we finally got everything back online and were able to resume normal observations. It's been a hectic week, all because an alarm didn't go off, and the temperature outside was so cold. This is the sort of thing that makes life and work down here so different from the real world.

With everything back online, it's been amazing to look up from our work and suddenly realize how bright it's been getting outside. The sunrise is starting to feel rather imminent.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First Light

For the past couple of weeks, the it's been fairly windy down here at pole. In addition to building impressive new sastrugi and several enormous (>10 foot tall) snow drifts, the wind-driven snow does an excellent job of obscuring the horizon.

Because of that, we haven't been able to see the glow from the sunrise growing day by day. Well, on Friday, the clouds and wind finally cleared, and everyone on station was fairly shocked to see not just a faint glow in the sky, but a strong band of pink light along the horizon.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't quite believe my own eyes. My mind couldn't quite accept that sunlight was returning, and somewhere deep inside I assumed it was some sort of trick. (What sort of trick, or why or how such a thing would be done, I can't imagine, but at the time, it seemed more plausible than the sun returning.)

On Saturday the weather turned foul again, and by the time it cleared Sunday morning, the pink band had expanded into what passes for a rainbow of colors down here - a glow, orange through purple, covering a quarter of the sky.
A conveniently timed lunar eclipse momentarily stole away our surrogate sun, and the true sunrise shone out over the darkened landscape. I've been thinking of the moon as a temporary sun for months now, but the sheer quantity of sunlight spilling over the horizon has left me marveling lately at how blindingly bright the real sun must be. Of course, it is - quite literally - blindingly bright, but that's the sort of thing you forget after months and months in the dark.

If I didn't quite believe the Friday's pink band, Sunday morning convinced me. Something very primeval took over when I saw the full colorful glow of a sunrise, and millions of years of evolution kicked in to tell me that the day was dawning - to my mind it would be light out in a matter of hours. It's a month yet before the sunrise, but there's no reasoning with your instincts.

By now, half the sky is aglow with sunlight. The moon is gone, but it's bright enough to see the major features on the path. With the exception of overcast or windy weather, my days of stumbling blindly to work and back seem to have passed.

Things are changing in our world, and both light and color are returning. It'll be nice (if slightly surreal) to have them back.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Colors

Winter at pole is without a doubt visually spectacular, but it does lack one thing: colors. Sure, there are red lights wandering about the landscape, and the auroras cast a pale green glow over the snow, but by and large color is something we don't get much of.

Last week, just before sunrise, all the lights at DSL were turned on (why, I'm not entirely sure). All that red was enough to make my eyes - and camera - see the stars as a lovely shade of electric blue, the first natural blue I've seen since... New Zealand, I suppose, back in January.
Beyond tricks of the eye, however, we've been getting some genuine color the past couple of days. The auroras have been remarkably bright lately, and have started to include the red and yellow fringes that only show up in the strongest storms.
Auroral activity is strongest at the equinoxes, which are sunrise and sunset here. Of course, once the sun is up (or close to up), the auroras are completely invisible, but for the next couple of weeks, we should get bright, colorful displays complementing the growing glow on the horizon. I haven't quite figured out how to photograph the really active ones yet, but I'll keep working on it.

On a sidenote, I should probably point out that, despite all my talk of how bright it is outside with the moon up (and it really does seem bright), the photos I've posted in the moonlight are kind of a cheat. They're all long exposures, much longer than the camera's light metering thinks is appropriate. The photo to the right is a more realistic portrayal of the lighting outside under a full moon - plenty to move around and operate by, but I wouldn't want to try reading anything in it.

From now until sunrise is probably the most colorful time of year at pole. Between the newly invigorated auroras and the ever-growing glow of sunlight, we should get the better part of a rainbow, and after months of black and white (ok, and green) existence, that'll be a pleasure.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


It's been 6 full months since we've had any direct contact with the outside world. No visitors, no planes, no airdrops. There is no new "stuff" to be found anywhere on station - we're developing the ultimate anti-consumer culture.

Having said that, you can't begin to imagine the thrill which comes with the discovery of something new.

Back in December, my mother put together a series of small care packages, and shipped them all down before station close. They're each labeled with the month they're meant to be opened in, and I keep them carefully squirreled away at the bottom of my closet. The past couple of months, I've been looking forward to the first the way a 7-year-old looks forward to Christmas, giddy and excited for the ~$5 worth of stuff I'll be getting.

Those packages, along with others send by friends, are wonderful, and all give huge boosts to my mental well being, but a couple of days ago, I got a true surprise.

An email came from one of my collaborators (also a good friend) asking me to phone him because he had to locate some of the holography equipment used to align the panels on the telescope. I gave him a call when the satellites came up later that morning, and he described the package he needed me to find and look inside.

A couple of hours later, I managed to track down the "Sensitive Holography Equipment" tucked in the back of one of the many closets used to store spare parts for the telescope and equipment for summer work. It was an oddly wrapped bundle, which I'd come across earlier in the season but never gave another thought.

On unwrapping it, I was surprised and delighted to find - not sensitive holography equipment, but a bottle of excellent scotch which several friends had conspired to hide way back in the summer! A little bit of luxury to help me get through the toasty months. After reading of my recent illness and practical incarceration in my room, it was decided the time had come to unveil the present.
Just to be clear on one point, it's not the alcohol which is so nice to receive. There's plenty of liquor on station, and if I really wanted to get drunk, it wouldn't be a problem.

There has been no new food or drink on station since February, and while the galley staff is certainly talented, after 6 months the limited flavors of frozen food start to get old. A bottle of Lagavulin is such a nice surprise because it's such a wondrous luxury to have a new consumable, a fine scotch to sip.

Somewhere along the line, I did something right in choosing my friends.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Returning Light

At 10am this past Friday, we officially re-entered twilight, leaving behind the full darkness of night. There's not a hint of discernible light anywhere on the horizon, but with the sun now less than 18 degrees below the horizon, we're technically in astronomical twilight. In a couple of weeks, it'll be bright enough to be nautical twilight; in a month or so we'll hit civil twilight, and so on.

That means the end of the spectacular sky shows we've been getting day after day, but I'm completely ok with that. For a couple of days now, I've been mentally quite finished with the darkness - it no longer holds enough interest to justify the difficulties it brings. I'm sure my recent spike in toastiness is playing heavily into it, but over the last few days the walk to DSL has become sufficiently frustrating and hazardous underfoot to overwhelm the stars and auroras overhead.

Sastrugi and snow drifts are now thick enough on the ground that it's essentially impossible to take even a single step without stumbling. Some are aligned almost parallel to the flag line, catching and subtly deflecting feet onto awkwardly angled slopes. Ankles twist and knees jam as the ground falls away suddenly, and the body is repeatedly jolted as you stumble in slow motion through an invisible obstacle course changing daily.

The moon rises tomorrow, bringing with it the end of the darkness. By the time it sets two weeks from now, the sun will be casting a clear glow across the horizon, easily enough to navigate or tell time by. We'll still get a couple of weeks of auroras, but the galaxy and the millions of fainter stars are more or less done with.
We had some good auroras today - one last hurrah in the dark.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I've been experiencing many of the rarer events down here (yukimarimos, halo crosses, etc), and can now check off another. It's not supposed to happen at this point in the season, but for the past week I've been really sick.

It's not supposed to happen because there are only 60 of us, and by now, we should all have been exposed (and developed immunity) to any infectious diseases on station. Quarantines do just as good a job of keeping bugs out as in, and we've got a perfect quarantine situation; this ought to be among the most germ-free environments on earth.

My previous medical difficulties - the stone that led to an infected salivary gland - wasn't all that odd because it was my own bacteria that infected me. People have a large bacterial flora, and it's not all that uncommon for some portion to go a bit out of control. Some of the bugs in my saliva got trapped and did just that.

Well, this time was different - I got a legitimate infectious illness, which for several days had everyone on station (doc included) quite confused.

It started last week with a sudden fever - alternately shivering under dozens of blankets, and lying in a cold sweat. I went to see the doc, and after a quick check, he told me it couldn't be viral, all viruses having long since been cleared out of the community. My white blood cell count was normal, so if it was bacterial, it wasn't too serious. He told me to drink lots of fluids and sent me on my way.

Three days later, still feverish, I returned. My throat and tongue had become covered in (very painful) open sores, and I clearly wasn't improving. As it turns out, there is a single, highly communicable virus still on station, and about 2/3 of the US population carries it: Herpes simplex 1, the source of cold sores. Apparently I've never been exposed, or at least I hadn't, until sometime a couple of weeks ago, probably from taking taste of someone's drink.

My immune system hasn't had anything to do since March, and looks to have gone on vacation. I was caught without defenses, and within a day or two, I had full blown viremia, viral presence in the blood. That's what was causing the fever, and by the time we caught it, I was pretty much doomed to a long and painful illness. I've been on antivirals for several days now, and things have finally started to heal.

For the past week, eating has been nightmarish experience, so I've more or less stopped. The last three days I haven't even been able to talk. I've been generally locked in my room, surviving off mug after mug of tea, and watching every movie the store can loan. It's been a long week.

Stuck in my room, my toastiness has been growing unchecked. I went to DSL today for the first time since the fever started, and the whole walk out I was angry. On the return trip I caught myself swearing at and kicking a lump of snow on the path. I mentioned this to someone, and they pointed out that it is now Angry August; I've just been catching up with the rest of the station.

Looks like it'll be an interesting last couple of months.