Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Of Halos, Satellites and Sun Dogs

After writing the previous blog entry, I went to the weekly science talk at 8—now here’s something interesting for you. The talk was on the satellites we have down here and the future of communication. There are two satellites: TDRS and GOES, and our internet and telephone communications are completely limited to the times when they are up. We also have an iridium network that can be used all the time, but it’s quite pricey so it’s only used for emergencies and transferring important science data. Right now we have internet between about 1:30 and 10:30 in the morning (and because it’s based on the rise and set of the satellites the time is earlier by three minutes every day): the first satellite to come up is TDRS, which provides a quick connection. TDRS sets around 6 or 7 AM and we’re left to rely solely on GOES, which is quite slow, for the last 3-4 hours of satellite time. Basically, this setup isn’t exactly the most conducive to getting real work done if you’re on the day shift during the winter (good thing I’m not down here to work on my analysis!) So here’s the funny part: TDRS was launched in 1978 and has already outlived its expected lifetime by about 10 years. This means that at any moment (literally) hardware malfunctions could cause TDRS to stop communicating, leaving us strictly with GOES…the slow one…for about 7 hours a day. If we intend to keep doing science research down here, we need something better (because we do a lot of things like data transfer and phone conferences which GOES just can’t handle). So the talk was on the future of satellite communication down here at the Pole.

As it turns out, the future is quite bleak—there is a dearth of satellites that pass within view of the Pole, and for those that do we will have to compete with other science projects. This means that in addition to the 7 hours of achingly slow—and I’m talking slower-than-dial-up-in-1995 slow—GOES per day, there will also be about 2 hours of fast satellite connection during random parts of the day, mostly broken up in 15 minute or half hour chunks which simply will not work for things like phone conferences with the North or intensive data transfer. This is going to be a huge problem. The funniest part was that I was sitting next to a guy who had been a winter-over two years ago, and earlier that day I’d asked him if he’d ever do it again. He said no: once is really cool but never again—it would be a waste of time. At the end of the talk he leaned over and said, “Wow, yet another reason never to winter-over again. Can you imagine how bored they’re going to be?” Bummer for the winter-overs who get stuck the year TDRS fails! (But, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure they don’t sign up to spend the winter at the South Pole thinking, “Score! I’ll have all day long to surf the web!”)

Monday and Tuesday were spent much like Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I worked a lot and loved every second of it! Something that was unique about these days was the weather—we’ve been having lots of blowing ice crystals. Instead of raining or snowing, it’s actually sparkling! This means that we get…well, basically rainbows except that, since the index of refraction of the ice crystals is different than for water droplets, instead of just an arc you get an entire circle, or halo, of spectral colors around the sun. If you’re lucky you see a second halo around the first at the double the distance with the colors reversed (the double-rainbow equivalent). If you’re really lucky you see a band of light jetting out from the sun at a right-angle to the halos and circling the entire sky—this creates bright spots, known as “sun dogs”, where the band of light overlaps the halos. So for the past few days, every time I notice the sparkling I look to the sun and see a halo, sometimes with sun dogs—it’s entrancing! And what’s really cool is that every time you see a really good one you tell everyone else and half the station runs outside with their cameras—especially if you get the double halo with the sundogs. I’m told this is rare, so I’m really lucky to have seen it a number of times. How cool is that? Not so cold, actually, which is why we’re having the blowing ice that causes the halos! I’m attaching some photos, but even if I had a wide-angle lens I couldn’t do it justice—in real life the sparkling is…magical!

Photos coming soon!


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