Airdrop and Ice Cube

That hazy blob is a C-17

Yesterday I promised glorious pictures and stories about the airdrop: a C-17 flying in from CHC to push tons of palletized supplies out the back, hoping that most of them land softly under parachute rather than take the traditional Antarctic ice embedding trajectory.

In a word: underwhelming. At least from my vantage point. Wind had kicked up, and no one who wasn’t explicitly responsible for retrieving packages wanted to venture out to the south end of the skiway for a close up. The haze had moved in, so visibility was marginal. About half an hour after the scheduled drop time, it made a “low pass by the station” at about 2000′, starting its turn away still a mile or two south. Another 20 minutes passed before it came by again, again barely discernible in the haze, and we thought we might have seen things flutter out the back.

That was it. They were probably coming back for another pass, but I decided that another 20 minutes of freezing my posterior off on the skiway wasn’t outweighed by the prospect of missing hot dinner in the galley.

I heard this morning that only one pallet “streamered in”, but that it was a royal pain getting all the chutes furled in the wind.


Was an uneventful day other than that. Until…

On my way to the coat closet to put my gear on for the evening’s slog back to Summer Camp, passed Christy in full ECW clomping her way to DA.

“Headed somewhere fun?”

“Yeah – Freija’s going to give us a tour of Ice Cube. Wanna come?”

Clomp! clomp! clomp! clomp!

I’ve mentioned Ice Cube before. It’s the biggest of the Big Science projects down here at the Pole. They’ve drilled holes down into a cubic mile of deep Antarctic ice to embed optical sensors to detect neutrinos coming halfway across the universe from the beginnings of time.

Neutrinos are pretty amazing particles – they take an incredible amount of energy to generate, so they’re good indicators of big cosmic events. But they don’t interact much with anything, so even though we’re bathed in trillions of them per second, 99.9999999[you get the idea]% of them pass through us and the earth without pausing to say “hi”. If you pelt a cubic mile of matter with neutrinos, you’re only going to get one particle collision every, oh, every once in a very long while. And then, it’ll just be a single subatomic particle going “ping!” and letting off an itty-bitty little flash of light.

So, to detect things like this, you need a huge pile of mass (to maximize the chance of an interaction), that is transparent (so that you can see the tiny blip of light) and far away from any light source (again, so when you see the blip, you know it’s a neutrino). Hence the non-intuitive idea of drilling down into a cubic mile of deep Antarctic ice.

The science is pretty cool, but the engineering is even more so. The “drills” pump superheated water at something like 1000psi down a 25,000 pound hose 1.5 miles long to melt a hole in the ice about 3 feet in diameter, drilling about 4 or 5 feet per minute. The amount of energy they use is stagger­ing – drilling each hole burns 4800 gallons of fuel to melt 200,000 gallons of ice (puts the “2 minute shower rule” into context, doesn’t it?)

Once the hole is drilled, they lower a string of 60 “DOMS” – digital optical modules – down into the ice along a 2400 meter cable to pick up the precise timing and direction of any light flashes that happen deep in the ice. The thousands of ice-embedded DOMs relay anything they see back up to the array of computers topside that do the spatio-temporal integration to figure out whether they can be interpreted as a neutrino event.

Anyhow, that’s the background. They’ve been drilling for four or five years now, and are drilling the last couple of holes at this very moment (each hold takes about 48 hours to drill). I’d been trying to find an excuse to get out to Ice Cube to see what it all actually looked like, but you’re not allowed to go without an Cubie as your escort, and as you might imagine, they’re pretty busy.

So when Christy let on that she was headed for a tour with Freija, I clomped along as fast as my bunny boots would let me. Freija is one of the veteran beakers (scientists) with the project, and a great person to have as your friend. In any heterogeneous group, there’s always going to be grumbling about who’s not pitching in on community projects. Well, no one ever grumbles about Freija – she’s always one of the first to volunteer when there’s work to be done. She’s on the emergency response team, she shows up for almost every mail pull and freshie pull I’ve seen, and always seems to be helping out in the dishpit on weekends. I assume she takes time to sleep on occasion, but you wouldn’t guess it.

Freija piled us into one of the uh… I don’t know what you call them – tread vans? – and drove me, Christy, Haley and Nate out. Out past MAPO and the South Pole Telescope to Drill Camp. The ride is every bit as smooth as you’d think, which is to say bone-rattling.

First stop was Hole 84, where they were about halfway done lowering the DOM string. Peered down the hole, holding on to our hardhats (I understand that if you drop something in the hole you owe the team a case of the beer of their choice. Considering how hard it is to get any beer down here, that’s a daunting proposition).

Each DOM has its own computer and a name chosen by the drill team for the hole and is networked up the string back to the surface. The riggers asked if we’d like to sign a couple of the DOMs as they were strung together and lowered. Obvious answer: YES! So I’ve now got my personally-identifiable graffiti on the side of a plexiglass-encased computer frozen a mile down in the Antarctic plateau. You wanna talk about embedded computing?

Next stop was Hole 85, where they were about 100 meters into the penultimate hole of the Ice Cube array. Got to peer into the depths (hold onto your hardhat again) and watched as Freija signed some of the drill tape. When they pull the drill out, the local custom is that the tape is all pulled off and fashioned into three-dimensional art of questionable taste.

The wind was still up on the way back to station, but the blowing snow made for gorgeous sundogs and sunbows over MAPO and the SPT. We thanked Freija profusely for the tour (she’s getting my last bar of Guittard 91% Nocturne).

While Haley and I were walking back to Summer Camp, we reflected on how lucky we were to have been in the right place at the right time. The Cubies have been at this for years, and the final hole (#86) should be completing within a few hours. We’d all been wanting to visit Drill Camp and see them in action, and this really was the last chance any outsiders were going to have.

Our conversation turned to how lucky we were just to be at the Pole – we each had our story about how chance turned a sequence of improbable events into an adventure at the bottom of the world. We reflected on how lucky – and how crazy – our respective lives had been (Haley, by the way, wins both on the ‘lucky’ and ‘crazy’ fronts). We wondered if that was responsible for our attitudes – people here apparently tend to describe us both with the same phrase: “relentlessly cheerful”. Well, with a life like this, how could I not be?

Access? Yes. Comfort? Not so much.
Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory

Drill Building. Big cable is hose, small one is computer control.

Drill reel. 1.5 miles of hose.

Stringing a DOM into the line

DOM down the hole

Each DOM has its own name, themed by the drill crew.
This guy is “Omicronian”

Still waiting to go down the hole.

Doooon’t drop the DOM!

One more down the hole.


Looking down the drill hole. Don’t. Drop. Anything.

Each of these wrenches is as long as my arm

A message for the drillers

Christy’s message

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Drill Camp – creating insane amounts of superheated water,
 smack dab in the center of the coldest, driest continent on earth.

Drill Control Center. Where all the Ice Cube Data goes

Sunbow over the South Pole Telescope

Happiness is the Station filling your windshield on the way back

Haley apparently never stops smiling.

3 responses to “Airdrop and Ice Cube

  1. @Jackie – yeah, thanks! That one turned out really well, especially at full resolution, where the sparkles from airborne ice look like mid-day stars. There was enough ice in the air that there was even a second, fainter sunbow further out, but I couldn't get it to register on film.Lemme know if you want a copy of the full res version.


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