Shakedown flight


Part of the ROSETTA crew walking out to the plane at Williams Field.
Kirsty is the Field Principal Investigator whose job is to keep the thirteen of us working like a machine. Here she gives some last minute instructions before the flight.
Tej manages the Icepod console.
Output on the Icepod control panel. This particular display shows readings from the magnetometer.
Nick and Dave monitor one gravimeter while Fabio and Grant monitor another. We have two onboard in order to compare a new one with a well-established and well-understood one.
Gravity anomalies in real time.
The NY Air National Guard crew is very friendly and helpful.
Back on the ground we start to dig into the data to see what it means.

Gravity and magnetism

The IcePod focuses on properties of the ice shelf.  We also measure tiny variations in the earth’s gravity and magnetism to learn about the surface of the earth that lies hidden beneath the ice shelf.

The gravimeters in the tent. On the left is the ZLS gravimeter, in the middle is the IMAR, and on the right is the DGS gravimeter.
A forklift moves the pallet holding the gravimeters out to the LC-130.
Dave surveys to determine the precise position of the gravimeters in the hold of the plane.




Time to install the IcePod!

We finally get the word that we will get an airplane dedicated to flying the ROSETTA mission!

There are 4 LC-130 Hercules transport planes here. We are assigned to tail number 91, the City of Alba

The LC 130 have a SABIR (Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response) arm, which allows attachment of specialized instrumentation packages like the IcePod.

Dave, Nick, and Tej position the IcePod beneath the SABIR arm.
Nick looks out of the bubble window to check on the progress of the IcePod installation.

The IcePod is controlled by electronic equipment that is installed in a custom-build rack that fits perfectly against the curved inside wall of the airplane.

Nick checks the installation of the control equipment inside the plane.

So what does the IcePod do?  It provides a top-to-bottom view of the ice shelf.  First, it has visible and infrared cameras that take images of the surface of the ice shelf.  It has a scanning LIDAR, which shines a laser beam on the surface of the ice shelf and measures the time it takes for the laser light to reflect back, which allows us to measure the height of features on the surface of the shelf.  It has a shallow ice radar, which emits a powerful radio signal that penetrates into the ice, and it listens for the reflections, which tell us about different layers of snow and ice in the upper part of the ice shelf.  There is also a deep ice radar, which is at a different radio frequency, and penetrates to the bottom of the ice shelf, telling us where the bottom of the ice shelf is in contact with seawater.  Finally, there is a navigation system to tell us very precisely where we are so that we can make accurate maps of the ice shelf.

The Ob Tube

The Observation Tube (usually called the Ob Tube) is a gateway to another world.  It is a vertical metal pipe, or tunnel, through the sea ice leading to a small (one person at a time!) glass observation platform about 10-15 feet below sea level.

The Ob Tube is located just a couple hundred meters offshore of town, but, because it is on sea ice, safety procedures must be followed to visit it.  The rules require that one travel with a buddy, perform a safety sign-out at the firehouse, and carry a VHF radio.  After dinner one night a small group of us went to check it out.

Dave climbs down the Ob Tube.

I went last.  We had to tell each person when their 10 minutes was up.  Everybody wanted to stay in the tube for longer, partly because it was much warmer underwater (just below freezing) than on the windswept surface of the ice.  Mostly, though, they want to remain because it is really fascinating.

It was late evening, but the sunlight shone through the ice with a pretty greenish light.

Late evening sunlight filtering through the sea ice.

Besides looking at the sea ice, I enjoyed looking at some large but delicate ice crystals that formed on the outside of the tube, and a large school of small fish that stayed just a little too far away to see very well.  The most interesting thing, though, was hearing the pinging sound made by seals as they swam nearby.  I did not see a seal underwater, but some people have.

Pressure ridges near Scott Base.

Sea ice gets compressed against the shore near the southern tip of Pram Point sea ice is forced into the shoreline and crumples and breaks in features known as pressure ridges.

Aerial view (3000 feet) of pressure ridges near Scott Base.

I took an interesting guided tour of this area. (Secretary of State John Kerry toured it a couple days after I did and pictures from his tour appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post.)


To a certain extent Ice can flow and bend but if it is stressed beyond a certain point it breaks.

Sea water pools on the surface during high tide.

The dramatic ice features are certainly very interesting, but there is more to the story.  Weddell seals swim from the Ross Sea under the sea ice to find the gaps and holes around the pressure ridges.  They haul themselves out on the ice, which provides them safe refuge from their predators (leopard seals and orcas) that swim in more open waters.

Adult Weddell Seals resting on the sea ice.

The relative safety of the sea ice makes this a good place to raise seal pups, and we came across several on our tour.

A seal pup and mother.

Weddell seals live further south than any other mammal (except for the few people who live at the South Pole) and Scott Base is the southernmost point in their range.

An office on an ice shelf

In some ways, I start my work day like a lot of people:  I ride in a van pool about 9 miles to my office. But my public transportation is a snow-worthy 15 passenger van,

Public transportation in and around McMurdo is often in 15 passenger vans.

and my office is a tent on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

The “office” tent at Williams Field.

The tent is heated, has electricity, and even has a (slow!) computer network connection.  The front half of the tent is a rather typical office space; people working on computers.

Inside the tent we are busy working on our data analysis procedures.

The back half of the tent is for maintaining and storing our scientific instruments.

In the left foreground are the gravimeters and on the right are the control systems for the Icepod. These will be moved onto a C130 plane. Barely visible on the left are crates containing the ALAMO floats.

Our tent is at Williams Field (“Willie Field”), which is an airport with runways on packed and groomed snow.  The planes that take off and land here have skis rather than wheels on their landing gear.

An LC130 Hercules (or “Herc”) lands on skis at Williams Field. The runway is a groomed snow surface on about 8 meters of snow lying on the McMurdo Ice Shelf.

We work at Willie Field because our scientific study relies on the use of C130 transport planes, and we need to be near them to load and unload our gear and personnel for two flights per day.

When it is time for lunch, we walk about 5 minutes to “Willie Town”.

The ROSETTA crew walking to WIllie Town for lunch.

Willie Town is a small collection of portable buildings. Two important buildings are the galley (cafeteria) and the bathroom!  The other buildings support airfield operations.

Downtown Willie, taken from in front of the galley (cafeteria). The red building on the left is the bathroom facility. The checkered building at the end of the road is the control tower for Willie Field.

At the end of the workday a van picks us up and takes us back to McMurdo Station.

In and around town

McMurdo Station is the largest settlement in Antarctica.  It is like a tourist town in that its population swells in summer, but the summertime visitors are scientists, not tourists.  As the research season gets into full swing the population can grow to over 1000, and right now it is 910.  Some scientists are just passing through town on their way to Deep Field Camps.  Some stay longer.  Our group will be here about 5 weeks.

View of town from the sea ice.

In some ways it resembles any small town — it has a fire station

An ambulance in the firehouse. Fire is a major concern due to the extreme dryness and strong winds.

, a medical clinic, a chapel,


two bars, a coffeehouse,

The Coffeehouse serves coffee in the morning and becomes a wine bar/movie theater at night.

a fitness center, a library, a power plant, a sewage plant, and so on.  There is even an ATM (cash machine), although there isn’t much to spend money on.

The architecture is strictly practical — most buildings have metal siding and shed roofs, although some are “quonset hut” style.  The only building that is architecturally distinctive is the Crary Lab (mostly because it steps down a steep hill), and it’s not going to win any awards for exterior aesthetics. Most buildings are labelled with nothing but a number, which is pretty confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to become familiar with every building you are likely to ever go into.

The busiest building in town is Building 155.  Perhaps because of its importance, it is painted bright blue, which makes it stand out from the dull earth tones of all other buildings.  Building 155 is the home of most administrative offices and the galley, where everyone eats all of their meals.  The galley serves 4 meals per day — breakfast, lunch, dinner on a normal schedule, plus an additional meal called “midrats” (midnight rations) for people on the night shift.  In fact, at 7 am most people are eating breakfast, but people on the nightshift are eating dinner.  Similarly at dinnertime, the night shift people are eating breakfast.  One is not supposed to eat the breakfast food at dinnertime unless one is on midrats.

By the way, the food is actually pretty decent — I especially like the fresh baked bread. There is a good variety at lunch and dinner and it is possible to assemble a reasonably healthy meal and, at least for now (while there are still frequent flights to and from New Zealand), fresh fruit and vegetables are available.

There is not a lot of snow in town as we head into summer.  Ross Island is a collection of volcanoes, and the ground in town is red-brown volcanic rock.  As long as it remains cold (say below 15 degrees F), the rock stays frozen in place.  When we have warm weather (as we have had lately), the snow melts and the ground becomes a muddy mess.  There is no asphalt or concrete pavement.

Arriving at McMurdo Station

Our ground transportation meets us at Pegasus Airfield.  Top speed: 25 mph.
Despite Ivan’s impressive size from the outside, it carries about the same number of people (56) as a city bus.
Finally we reach our destination after almost an hour.  Vehicles must travel slowly to reduce damage to the ice road so that it can be used for as long as possible into the summer.

Upon arriving in McMurdo Station, we immediately attend our first orientation meeting.  It is the first of many meetings to educate us on how to live in the potentially dangerous yet fragile environment of Antarctica.

We then pick up our baggage and find our rooms.  Everybody shares a room, and two neighboring rooms share a bathroom.  There is some shuffling of roommates and I end up rooming with one of my co-workers on the ROSETTA project.

One of the dormitory buildings.

Flight to Antarctica

Inside the C17 — big enough to hold a helicopter, plus 55 passengers, and supplies for McMurdo. I ended up in the front middle seat.  Most people sat along the walls.
The flight tracker was a cardboard cutout of a plane that a crew member moved on a map from time to time.
There aren’t many windows on a C17. As we neared Antarctica, I snapped a picture of the sea ice through the tiny window next to the door.
The crew invited everyone for a brief visit to the flight deck. The view was dazzling — both in intensity and beauty.
My first view of the glaciers and icefields of Antarctica from the flight deck.
On the ground at Pegasus Field, an ice runway about 19 miles from McMurdo Station. Planes with wheels can land here until the surface softens too much in the summer sunlight.