Arrived on Ice!

I’m happy to report that I am finishing my fourth day in Antarctica. It’s been a busy time, so not much to post during the week. Maybe more over the weekend.

The Flight

We flew in on Monday, November 21st, aboard the last C-17 of the season. A C-17 is a massive cargo jet, but can only fly early in the season; later flights are on LC-130s, which are propeller planes, and thus somewhat slower. It’s a 5-hour flight (8-hours on an LC-130), but there’s more opportunity to get up and walk around than on a commercial flight.

Arriving at the special departure terminal, after catching a shuttle bus at 4:45 a.m.
Aboard the C-17, watching cargo loading through the giant back door.
Several dozen of us, all thrilled to finally arrive in Antarctica.

From here there’s an hour-ish slow, careful drive to town in a massive vehicle called the Kress. Then an arrival briefing, keys to your room, dinner, and waiting a few hours for your bags to be unloaded.

Ross Island

McMurdo Station is on Ross Island, a volcanic island hosting Mt. Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. The contrast between black ice and white snow is incredibly striking. It’s a seaside community, but doesn’t feel like one: sea ice on one side, the continental ice shelf on the other.

I took a stroll out to Hut Point with some of the other SPIDER folks. Hut Point is a peninsula off Ross Island, named after the hut visible at center left. This hut was built in 1902, for the British National Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. It is kept preserved as a historical site. So is the cross at right: a memorial for George Vinson, who perished here in that year.

The cluster of buildings on the far shore left of center are McMurdo station. The big brown buildings in the middle foreground of that cluster are our main dormitories. The sea ice is visible to the right. To get to the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) facility where I work we head straight ahead over the ridge – more on that another day.

The view from Hut Point back to McMurdo Station.

Travel Resumes!

Today the NSF announced four days without new COVID cases, so Antarctic travel resumes tomorrow!

The SPIDER and SPT crews here in Christchurch are on the manifest for the first flight. We head to the airport first thing tomorrow, and with luck we’ll be in McMurdo tomorrow night. That said, there’s always the possibility of a flight delay or cancellation, or of a “boomerang” flight that returns to Christchurch due to weather. So we keep our bags packed and our fingers crossed!

Update 19Nov: 48 hour flight delay… sigh…

Update 20Nov: Shuttle pickup at 4:45am tomorrow to make another try for the ice!

Some Highlights Around Christchurch

I write this at the end of Day 12 of our long stay in Christchurch, New Zealand. Almost every day begins with at least a few hours of work from one of the local coffee shops (generally C1 Espresso, which has great coffee / food / WiFi). There is plenty to do, both for projects back home and to help the ice team where we can, though location and time zone make many of these things awkward. Some days that basically fills the day until dinner, but other days we get out and about. There are worse places to be stuck than New Zealand in the spring!

A few highlights below…

Botanic Gardens

Truly gorgeous to stroll around: trees, flowers, greenhouses, an amazing rose garden, and more. We’ve visited this three times so far, seeing different bits each time.

Taylor’s Mistake

We took the bus to the trail head for the Taylor’s Mistake Walk. After a hike through the hills overlooking a beautiful bay and a climb over some mussel-covered rocks, we came out on a lovely black sand beach. We hung out on the beach a while and got our feet wet in the South Pacific before hiking back.

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is a nice little wildlife refuge / zoo / petting zoo, another short bus ride from downtown. We saw keas (native parrots), kiwis (scuttling around us as we walked through a large darkened enclosure), tuataras (lizard-like reptiles), otters, pigs, capybaras, aggressive families of geese, and more.

Hiking Arthur’s Pass

On Monday Nov. 14th (Sunday in the U.S.) the team rented a car for a day trip to Arthur’s Pass National Park, a couple of hours from Christchurch. Our main hike was Temple Basin, which gains about 1600 feet climbing up into the mountains. The climb was tough on my 42-year-old knees, and the last part had a difficult scrabble with poor footing, but the views from the top were incredible.

We also took a shorter stroll to Bridal Veil falls, which were beautiful


We visited the Canterbury Museum; among other things, this had a remarkable exhibit on Antarctic exploration and history. We also visited the Christchurch Art Gallery, a modern art museum. Both nice, and both free!

Escape Room

The team did a fun escape room themed on an art heist. Came reasonably close to the time record.

Pub Trivia

I have now played Tuesday night trivia at Dux twice, as part of a team with the SPT folks. Both times we came in second (earning us drink vouchers for next time!), and had a blast. A highlight of the second night was the tie breaker question to decide 2nd/3rd: How many times does the word “blood” appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Closest guess wins. It turns out that 42 (the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything) was an astonishingly good guess!


We’ve had good meals throughout. As a seafood lover, I want to particularly highlight the humongous oysters we had at a Japanese restaurant, and the green New Zealand mussels Riccardo and I shared before pub trivia – both delicious.

Welcome to the Hotel California Christchurch

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Christchurch, New Zealand, on November 12th – 5 days after my scheduled flight to Antarctica. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern here, as I’ll explain, but I’m hopeful of catching a ride down to join my colleagues in the near future.

The U.S. Antarctic Program

I am traveling under the auspices of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), managed through the National Science Foundation (NSF). No nation has a sovereign claim on Antarctica. The continent is managed cooperatively by the nations of the world under the Antarctic Treaty, exclusively for peaceful purposes. In many ways, scientific research is the primary activity on Antarctica. In practice, we scientists are only a small fraction of the total population (which can reach 1000 people in McMurdo Station during the summer season). The logistical operations that support human presence in Antarctica are truly massive, and that work is carried out by countless contractors and tradespeople. Nothing we do exists without their hard work.

From Champaign to New Zealand

Travel to Antartica is a lengthy process. First we travel by commercial carrier to our gateway city: Christchurch, on the south island of New Zealand. In my case this took about 29 hours, and looked like:

  • Bus from Champaign to Chicago O’Hare airport
  • Fly O’Hare to Houston
  • Fly Houston to Auckland (15 hours in a middle seat, but at least it was a bulkhead…)
  • Fly Auckland to Christchurch

Once in New Zealand, we all get assigned hotels to stay in. Mine was not walkable to the town center, but it was straightforward to Uber back and forth each day to be able to walk around and see people.

Clothing Issue

The next day we head to the Antarctic departure terminal for clothing distribution, where we attend safety briefings and get issued our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. We are given a hefty bag full of gear that will keep us warm in even the most extreme environments. In fact, some of it is too warm for our practical needs in McMurdo in the summer: the famous Big Red parka is fantastic for cold days, for example, but most days I expect to wear Little Red (an insulated windbreaker) and sweaters.

Photo from ECW issue: Big Red parka, hat, neck gaiter, insulated gloves, wind pants, white bunny boots (cut off in photo, but similar pair visible in background). (Photo by Riccardo Gualtieri)

Change of Plans: The Pause

I was manifested for the next C-17 flight to McMurdo the following morning. During clothing issue, however, we started getting news from up north that something was going on with travel. The NSF soon announced a pause in all travel to the continent for two weeks, to address a substantial outbreak of COVID-19 among the station population. By later that afternoon we scientists knew that we wouldn’t be going down anytime soon – only a handful of medical personnel. I was hand-carrying some assorted bits for SPIDER, and fortunately I was able to hand them off to one of the station doctors who I met on the commercial flights south.

And so now we wait. The NSF is working through a difficult situation, working to balance critical operations, scientific research, and the health and safety of station personnel. Everyone is working hard to keep things going. In fact, I’m very happy to report that the SPIDER team on the ice is currently ahead of my straw-person schedule for the season! Those of us off-continent are keeping in close communication with the ice team to help where we can. As PI I’m the point-of-contact for our team’s logistics, and I’m happy to keep work like that off the ice team’s plate.

Christchurch is a nice town, and it’s a beautiful spring. I’m spending my days mostly with a number of colleagues from the South Pole Telescope (SPT), working in coffee shops and sharing meals and outings. I’m trying to help the ice team and keep on work back home as best I can, given the time zone difference. But it’s also a frustrating limbo, feeling like I’m on some kind of vacation when I have responsibilities at home and in Antarctica.

The Avon River meandering through downtown Christchurch
My office for the foreseeable future – C1 Coffee, Christchurch.

Southbound Again

It’s time for another trip to Antarctica, so it’s time to resume these posts (a little belatedly, since I’m already on my way). I expect they’ll be a little less detailed and frequent this time around (check out the prior posts for more detail!), but I still want to give a flavor of what we’re up to for family and friends. For more details and photos, you should take a look at postings by Elle Shaw, a Ph.D. student in my research group at Illinois; Dr. Steve Benton, a research scholar at Princeton; and on our team Twitter account.

Explaining the mission

SPIDER is a powerful instrument to observe the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – the afterglow of the hot early universe. Since light takes time to travel across the universe, when astronomers (and the rest of us!) look out into space we look back into time. We see our friends across the room as they were a few billionths of a second ago; the Sun as it was 8 minutes ago; night-sky stars as they were years or centuries ago; and galaxies as they were millions or billions of years ago. The CMB is the oldest light we can observe: the glow emitted back when the entire universe was an opaque, hot plasma – sort of like the surface of the Sun, but everywhere. The universe’s expansion has stretched the wavelength of this light from the visible and infrared down into the microwave regime, leaving a radio-wave (actually millimeter-wave) glow across the entire sky.

Our goal is to look at the faint polarization pattern of that glow, mapped across the sky. If we saw a particular sort of pattern in that polarization, called a “B-mode” (basically a curled, pinwheel pattern in how polarization changes across the sky), it would be a sign of the presence primordial gravitational waves: faint ripples in spacetime produced during the period of inflation that begins our cosmic narrative. Detecting such gravitational wave “noise” would give profound insight into the physics in operation at our universe’s very beginning.

This measurement is very difficult for two major reasons. The first is that the B-mode pattern (if present) is exceptionally faint, requiring enormously sensitive instruments. SPIDER and similar instruments use sensitive detectors called bolometers, cryogenically cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero (the lowest possible temperature, at which all molecular motion would stop). These detectors are housed in cryogenically-cooled receivers, designed both to limit the thermal glow of the instrument themselves, and to avoid systematic effects that could confuse our measurements of the sky. The second is that we must look at the CMB through the glow of our own Galaxy. Emission from Galactic dust and synchrotron processes can mimic our signal, and must be somehow separated from our maps of the sky

This is where SPIDER-2, our current mission, comes in. SPIDER’s first flight in 2015 mapped the sky at two frequencies (“colors”): 95 GHz and 150 GHz. SPIDER’s second flight will add three new receivers to observe at 280 GHz. At this frequency Galactic dust glows much more brightly than it does at 95 or 150 GHz, and so by combining information from the three maps we can distinguish dust more effectively from primordial light. Unfortunately the Earth’s atmosphere is relatively opaque at this frequency, making such observations difficult from the ground. From a stratospheric balloon we can get a nearly-space-like pristine view of the cosmos, producing measurements that will have lasting value both to SPIDER and to the rest of the community (through informing Galactic dust models).

SPIDER’s three new 280 GHz receivers were built here at Illinois, by graduate and undergraduate members of my research group over the years. The basic telescope architecture is very similar to that we developed for the first flight, but with a variety of modifications to accommodate new 280 GHz detector arrays designed and built at NIST in Colorado. Receiver development and characterization has been a major task of my group over the past few years. We’re very proud of the results, and looking forward to getting them on the sky!

Ph.D. student Elle Shaw (left) and undergraduate Kaliroe Pappas (right) assembling a SPIDER-2 receiver in our lab.

An Unexpected Party

This trip has been long-awaited, and the lead up filled with twists and turns. SPIDER has been nominally ready for its second science flight since before the pandemic. Our 2019-20 deployment was postponed by a lack of space on the ice (due to payloads delayed from the prior season), while the 2020-21 and 2021-22 Antarctic ballooning seasons were canceled entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. This delay has been very disappointing and difficult for the whole team. We had applied for renewed funding for 2021-24 (this time with me as nominal Principal Investigator) in hopes of one last chance, and we felt those hopes slipping away.

We began 2022 with a great deal of uncertainty that we would get to deploy this time either, due to the urgent deployment of a different mission of unusually high priority. When this mission waived off this spring, we were suddenly offered full funding and the chance to fly this season! This was an incredibly challenging prospect: SPIDER’s main cryostat had been effectively in mothballs for two years, and we needed to assemble a team and pack/ship many tons of cargo to Palestine, Texas in May for pre-flight deployment. This was frankly an incredibly stressful time for everyone, not least me – as new PI, I was dropped into a lot of high-stakes planning very fast! NASA was extremely supportive, our team came together, and we signed the papers and got everything where it need to be.

Our team had a successful campaign this summer at Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility (CSBF) in Palestine, Texas. This is a dry run for Antarctica: the whole payload comes out of shipping containers, we assemble and cool it down, certify it for flight operation, and pack it back up for shipment to the ice. All of this happened at breakneck pace due to the exceptionally early shipping deadlines imposed by pandemic-era shipping delays. Between unexpected child care issues and a bout of COVID, I joined for less of the campaign than I’d hoped. But the team performed exceptionally, the payload worked well, and everything headed to the ice on time. You can read more about it on Elle’s blog.

A view of the SPIDER payload in the high bay at CSBF in Texas.

The Campaign Begins

The fall has been spent on preparations for the ice: getting the team members physically-qualified (PQ – medical exams), final making sure that all of our cargo arrives on time, making arrangements for teaching coverage and family, and even buying long underwear and socks. Our first team arrived on the ice October 26th, including Elle. Another student of mine, Sho Gibbs, joined a couple of days later. Work in the Long Duration Balloon (LDB) high bay began ahead of schedule on October 29th, and all is well underway.

First arrivals on the ice! From left: Jared, Johanna, Simon, Suren, Joseph, Susan, and Elle.

My ice flight was eventually set for November 7th. The first team members arrived on the ice November 25thI shared Halloween with my kids, said goodbye to everyone, and headed to the airport on November 3rd. Southward!

Halloween 2022: Henry (age 7, chameleon) and Alyssa (age 10, ninja). I’ll miss you!