The journey starts on Monday, the 5th of January, when I take a plane in Frankfurt. After going through Dubaï and Melbourne, I finally arrive in Christchurch, New-Zealand. The local date of my arrival is the7th of January. My flight to McMurdo, a station of about 800 people on the coast of Antarctica, is scheduled for the 11th.
The 10th, I get picked up together with some other people at my hotel to go to the Clothing Distribution Center where I can try on my Extremely Cold Weather gear. The most important parts of this outfit are a big red jacket, trousers with extra protection against the wind and two big boots called “bunny boots”. Once the bags are ready, we go back to the hotel to wait for the note that would announce our departure.
That evening, someone slips a note under my door. The departure is still scheduled for the 11th. We’re lucky; I’ve met people who’ve waited for days in Christchurch, their plane getting delayed for 24 hours again and again …
On the 11th we take off in a U.S. Air Force C130. It’s impressive to be in such an airplane but the discomfort makes you long for a commercial airplane pretty quickly. After six hours, we land on the ice, at William’s field, the “airport” of McMurdo. Some huge vehicle takes us to the station, which is so big that it looks like a small city.
We’re supposed to take off to the pole the next day, but our flight is cancelled. My companion and I had already dropped our bags off and we couldn’t get them back. At that point I realised, when going to the South Pole, keep as many things as possible in your carry-on. Anyway, while we’re waiting we get to walk around in McMurdo and look at seals on the frozen bay.
The next day, on the 13th, we’re taken back to William’s field where we’re told our plane has a mechanical problem but we can take another one. Just a few hours later, we arrive at the South Pole where we get a warm welcome from our IceCube colleagues. It’s a strange feeling to get out of a plane and suddenly be at an altitude of 3000 meters in the middle of the driest desert on Earth with a temperature of -30°C. On the first day you feel light headed, but drinking a lot of water helps and by the second day that feeling is gone.
My life at the station
Life at the station is nice. It’s built for 150 people and has, amongst other things, a basketball court, a green house, some lounges with a pool table and TV screens (not that many channels available in the South Pole though …) and a little shop. The time is the one of New-Zealand but outside, it’s never night. We get our water by melting snow, and to conserve the little water we get from that we can only take two showers of two minutes per week.
I have two jobs at the pole. The most important one is calibration work for ARA. ARA is composed of a set of antennas detecting the radio waves that high energy charged particles emit when they travel at great speed through a material, in this case ice. So it is a neutrino detector for neutrinos of higher energies than IceCube. I am supposed to go around two ARA stations, at precise locations and use a portable pulser to create a certain radio wave that will be detected by ARA. Knowing both the time and the location of this radio wave, it should be possible to calibrate the detector.
The pulser I am supposed to use, needs batteries … that didn’t make it to the South Pole. So while I’m waiting for those batteries, I start working on SATRA. SATRA is a set of antennas buried in three IceCube holes that were installed for astrophysics purposes. That experiment didn’t work however, and now the plan is to use the antennas to localise radio noise sources. The system hasn’t been used for 5 years and no one seems to remember how it works. Luckily a professor from Israel, who used to work on it, is able to explain to me what to do. We eventually manage to make it work and after a few days I can detect the weather balloon flying over the station that emits radio waves.
Leaving the South Pole
Finally, the batteries arrive one week after I did. By that time the other “IceCubers” are supposed to leave (on the 20th) but their plane is cancelled. They miss their plane in McMurdo which was supposed to bring them back to Christchurch and have to wait to the 24th to finally go back to Christchurch!
My IceCube companion and I went to the ARA stations a few kilometres away from the main station. It’s interesting to go so far away and to drive where no tracks can be seen. To avoid getting lost, we follow the flags. All the “roads” around the South Pole are defined by coloured flags. We need 3 days to complete the calibration work. The batteries don’t like the cold (-30°) and from time to time we need to warm them up.
On the 27th, my IceCube friend leaves the pole. I’m supposed to leave with him but for some reason I’ve been rescheduled for the plane on the 31th from McMurdo to Christchurch. To make sure I wasn’t going to have any more delay I ask to leave the pole on the 29th. Waiting to leave, I update the documentation on SATRA so that the next person working on it, won’t have to start from scratch.
As suspected, my plane to McMurdo on the 29th gets cancelled due to mechanical problems. The first plane on the 30th is cancelled as well, for the same reason. Eventually, a plane comes in the evening. I spend 6 hours in McMurdo and take another plane to Christchurch. I finally arrive on the 31th happy to have had the chance to live such a unique experience, but also happy to make it Christchurch on time to start my holiday!
Op 18 maart kunnen leerlingen van het zesde middelbaar alles leren over de neutrino detector in de IceCube Masterclass!