Astrobites on the Ice, Part 2: Touchdown Pole!

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And I thought Boston was cold.

The ceremonial South Pole

Greetings from the South Pole!  After 126 hours of travel — 35 of which were spent in the air — I’ve finally arrived at the bottom of the world.  It was amazing to step out of the plane and actually see the telescopes I’m working on, which have just been pictures for the last year and a half.

The journey from Christchurch to Pole was decidedly less mainstream than the first half of my trip.  The day started bright and early, with a checkin at the US Antarctic Program Passenger Terminal.  After orientation videos about Antarctic preservation, weather, and security, the 25 of us traveling to McMurdo station took a bus to our waiting military transport plane: an Air Force LC-130 Hercules.  It’s well-equipped for Antarctic operations, sporting both wheels and skis.

The US Antarctic Program passenger terminal

An Air Force LC-130 Hercules













The Herc is slightly less comfortable than commercial airliners!  Passengers are lined up neck-to-neck with cargo, and the engines are loud enough that you need to wear ear protection for the whole flight.  Restroom facilities are less than ideal — only a thin curtain separates the toilets from the main cabin.  But after a grueling 8-hour flight, we finally touched down on the ice runway at McMurdo Station.

The cramped innards of the Hercules

With the Hercules on the ice










The first view of Antarctica

The airfield is on the ice shelf, while McMurdo is on actual land.  We hopped into our heavy-duty transport, Ivan the Terra Bus, for the 1-hour trip to the station.

Ivan the Terra Bus

McMurdo Station from Observation Hill










McMurdo Station, or Mactown, is the largest base in Antarctica with a summer population of about 1000 people.  Tons of projects are headquartered there — I met scientists taking soil samples in the Antarctic dry valleys, measuring minute changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, and counting penguins in nearby colonies!  Of interest to astrophysicists is the nearby Long Duration Balloon facility, where experiments hoping to get above most of the atmosphere (but not spend the money on a space mission) launch balloon-borne telescopes that float around the continent for a month.  This year, three experiments are in progress: EBEX, BLAST-Pol, and Super-TIGER.

Since I was traveling to Pole, my time in McMurdo was rushed.  After finding my temporary 3-person dorm room, I spent the next day and a half watching monitors waiting for my southbound flight to be scheduled.  I did find time to hike out to Discovery Hut, one of Robert Scott‘s settlements during his Antarctic explorations (he was the second to reach the South Pole, but died on the return journey), and to climb the local Observation Hill.

Captain Scott’s Discovery Hut

Observation Hill from McMurdo










Finally, my flight to Pole was announced and I boarded another truck back out to the runway, and got on another Hercules.  This  flight was much less crowded, and about halfway through we had some incredible views of the continent:

Scenery from McMurdo to Pole

Scenery from McMurdo to Pole










3 hours later we descended to the polar plateau, and landed on the 10,000-foot thick layer of ice at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.  Stepping off the plane, I was greeted first with a blinding expanse of white, second with an ice-cold shock to my lungs, and third by my BICEP2/Keck Array teammates.  Then, I saw the reason I had made the trip in the first place: our telescopes in the distance!

The BICEP2/Keck Array team


The Keck Array, BICEP2, and SPT









Of course, before getting to work, I had to visit the Pole(s), located a few hundred feet apart.

The geographic South Pole — Earth’s rotation axis!


The ceremonial South Pole









In the next installment: a tour of BICEP2 and the Keck Array!


About Kirit Karkare

I am a third-year graduate student in the Astronomy Department at Harvard University, and am interested in cosmology and instrumentation for radio telescopes. I work with John Kovac on several telescopes at the South Pole designed to detect the signature of inflation in the cosmic microwave background. In 2011, I graduated from Caltech with a degree in physics. I worked with Tony Readhead to build a Ku-Band polarimeter for the 40-Meter telescope at the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, and with John Johnson on M Dwarf Metallicities.

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  1. Really cool Kirit! Will you have a chance to join the 300 club?

    • Traditionally the 300 club happens when the outside temperature drops below -100 F, which is only in the middle of the (austral) winter. That isn’t to say, however, that you can’t pump the sauna above 200 degrees and get an approximation to, say, the ~260 club, even during summer!

  2. Enjoyed the article! I’m quite jealous! I will visit Antarctica one day.

    I also enjoyed the link to Robert Scott’s Wikipedia and the article’s gratuitous use of “bungle”, haha!

  3. Awesome. Want to drive Ivan. Glad the south pole is going well!



  1. Astrobites on the Ice, Part 1: Halfway to Pole | astrobites - [...] In the next installment: the trip from Christchurch to Pole! [...]
  2. Astrobites on the Ice, Part 3: A Tour of DSL and MAPO | astrobites - [...] Astrobites on the Ice, Part 3: A Tour of DSL and MAPO By Kirit Karkare ⋅ February 4, 2013…

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