Relocating, Wrapping Up

Ob Hill convergence Following the exhausting days leading up to Spider’s launch, the fun had just begun! Early in the flight, while we still had a line of sight to Spider, above the horizon, we had a high bandwidth radio link, which we needed to make the most of. The first day or so was spent turning all of Spider’s systems to work well from the stratosphere. Which most of them did, especially the flight critical ones! Once Spider floats past the horizon, the experiment mostly runs itself. And we get very little information to check that things are healthy: just one 255 byte “text message” every 15 minutes. Radio links mess up Spider’s detectors, so we use as little as possible. Still, we monitor Spider constantly, and helping to staff one of those shifts was my job. For this, we relocated to Crary Lab, the main science building in McMurdo. Others returned to LDB to pack up all our stuff. The big Christmas dinner was during this time, and a laptop was brought to dutifully continue to monitor Spider during the feast. We even did some commanding, a couple sent by our wonderful LDB chef, Dan. To make room in McMurdo, we eventually had to leave to monitor the rest of the flight from Christchurch. Which we did until Spider ran out of liquid helium shortly after the relocation. Then we got a chance to relax some more, while waiting for Spider’s odd fight path to eventually take it somewhere good enough to land. Spider is currently on the ground, and the recovery team is gearing up to retrieve our eagerly awaited data! […]

Launch Day!

Metal Riccardo In the evening of December 21, we received word that the following day would have good enough weather to try to launch. Which was an improvement over the previous prediction that we’d have a windy day off before trying again. So instead or a rest day, the team trickled back to LDB for what would turn out to be our launch. My spirits were very high, possibly due to just enough sleep to shrug of my exhaustion, but keeping a touch of delirium. Here are my photos from the full day leading up to the big event. […]

Rolling Out

Backing up for possibly the last time On December 19, we did Spider’s Compatibility test. This is essentially a dress rehearsal for launch. We go through our pre-launch checklist, disconnect from all our non-flight ground cables, and hang out on the launch vehicle (aka The Boss). The test went fine. This set off a blur of days as we immediately prepared to start trying to launch, with the first attempt beginning the evening after Compatibility ended. For the first attempt, we had a whole bunch of little tasks to finish before we were really truly launch ready, like cleaning pre-flight data from the computers, and finishing arts-and-crafts on the sun shields. Which meant much of the team had little rest. We had a couple scrubbed attempts, where we got all ready, rolled outside, and waited for the weather to maybe look good enough to launch. It didn’t. (Yet.) And then we reversed the procedure to roll back inside to try again the next evening. And again. Until finally… […]


Earlier today, at 10:27 NZDT, just shortly before the summer solstice, Spider launched! We’ve been frantically dealing with getting everything working while we have the fast line-of-sight radio link. More to come later. […]

Fully Operational

Penguin me It’s been a bit of a crazy time here. We received notice around 10 days ago that our campaign would be shorter than we expected, so we scrambled to be ready as soon as possible. A flurry of work followed turning Spider from mostly working to ready to fly. As I type this, the balloon is inflating to (I really really hope) launch Spider, on our fourth attempt. […]

Got it covered

Sunbathers With our detectors at cryogenic operating temperatures (0.3 K), our team of detector experts have been tuning the readout to make them as clean and well behaved as possible. We’ve been monitoring and testing detector health, and doing some pre-flight calibration tests. And fixing bugs in the fight code, testing satellite communications, and churning through our list of little things to build or fix. At the same time, there’s a whole bunch of arts and crafts going on, primarily to turn our sun shields from the empty frame they’ve always been previously into something that can actually block the sun, and keep our instruments from overheating. Eventually all of Spider will be covered, except from the front side where it looks out at the dark sky. We might have a launch opportunity next week (it’s too early to say, but near enough to start trying). So we’re going to be pushing hard, and cutting some corners (only the cuttable ones, of course) to be ready in time. Wish us luck! […]

Getting Cooler

The "prom photo" group photo With the arrival of our delayed November shipment of liquid helium, we were finally able to start cooling Spider down to her science operating temperatures. This process takes several days and some longs shifts. In parallel, work continues on setting up the gondola, pointing systems, ad sun shields. More and more Spider is starting to resemble an awesome functional payload. […]

Coming Together

Gondola and Lloro During my first week in Antarctica, we completed the final preparations to join the cryostat (aka Llorothaag, or Lloro) to the balloon gondola that will support Lloro during the flight. The two systems were broadly complete already, with Lloro vacuum sealed and pre-cooling full of liquid nitrogen. But there were lots of little things to fix with cables, insulation, and testing. The week culminated in Spider finally coming together as a complete unit. I was able to spend my first full day out at our Long Duration Balloon facility (LDB), which we commute to each day from McMurdo Station. After catching up with everyone, I spent much of the next couple days on mandatory training for new arrivals, before finally being able to get back to work. My arrival made the field team almost complete, just waiting for Bill. The weekend after my arrival was American Thanksgiving, one of the big celebration days in McMurdo, and one of the rare two-day weekends (though, alas, not for me, as I paid the price for arriving so late). We managed to have the whole team together for the celebration meal, with both different shifts together. We were joined by a couple others: a colleague waiting to travel to the South Pole for a related project, as well as our wonderful chef out at LDB. Note also that for this campaign I’ve brought a film camera (Nikon FM) with me. So there will be a bunch of photos, mostly from outside, that I won’t be posting until after I’ve returned home and had the film developed. […]

It begins!

The "best" tree At least for me it does. Much of the team has been deployed for a while. I was supposed to be in the second wave, but ended up delayed for almost a while month. But at least I made it to Christchurch on the way to McMurdo. I had one pleasant afternoon here, amongst a lot of rainy days. So I went to the Botanical Garden to say hello to green things for maybe the last time in a while. My mission was to find the best tree. There were many contenders, but I think I succeeded. […]

Compatibility / The End of Texas

Group photo! This post is very late: my site had server issues that have finally been resolved. I post this just before heading out to join much of the rest of the team already in Antarctica! After successfully cooling down and testing Spider’s detectors, the final thing to do was our compatibility test. For this, the payload gets completely assembled and we roll outside to test that the NASA satellite communication (and everything else) works properly. This requirement is the primary reason that we go to Palestine in advance of Antarctic flights. This was the end of my stay in Texas, since I had to leave early to attend a conference. Though I missed the first couple days to stay for compatibility. Oops, sorry, I only missed packing. We were also joined by a few Princeton undergrads: Zakiya, Andi, and Shannon. Extra hands were very welcome in the final crunch, and hopefully they enjoyed a bit of science before the packing. Lots of balloon science is just packing and unpacking anyway. […]