A Skyentist at the bottom of the world

Daniel Michalik

Astronomer Computer Scientist Traveller

Resumé South Pole Contact

Resumé

Work Experience and Education

Support astronomer (winter-over)

2017

South Pole Telescope, Antarctica

Research focus: VLBI/Event Horizon Telescope observations, CMB observations (small-scale structures, detection of orphan gamma-ray bursts from their millimeter-wave afterglow, B-mode polarization studies, detection of galaxy clusters). Duties include SPT3g detector commissioning, read-out system noise characterization, hard-/software maintenance of the computing system, and mechanical, electrical, and electronic maintenance of the telescope and its control systems.

Research assistant

2016

Lund University, Department of Astronomy and Theoretical Physics

Research focus: Gaia astrometric core processing, preparation and validation of Gaia data release 1

PhD studies

2011 - 2015

Lund University, Department of Astronomy and Theoretical Physics

Research focus: Bayesian combination of astrometric observations, adaption of the Gaia's astrometric core solution algorithms for insufficiently observed objects
Ph.D. thesis: Tycho-Gaia and beyond: Combining data for precision astrometry (Download)

Young Graduate Trainee

2010

European Space Agency

Science satellite data processing: astrometric data reduction algorithms for Gaia and Nano-JASMINE, development of mission planning software for LISA Pathfinder

University education

2003 - 2009

University Erlangen-Nuremberg

Diploma in Computer Science (equiv. MSc)
Focus: Networking and security, computer architecture, computer graphics, operating systems, physics
Diploma thesis: Image Reconstruction Software for Near-Field Coded Mask Instruments

 

A journey to the South Pole

Logbook of a unique adventure

Last update: 16 June 2017

To the newest entry

On the 6th of January 2017 I left from Sweden to the South Pole. My journey led me 16200 km south (as the bird flies), although the actual flight distance was much closer to 25000 km. My mission on the harshest continent on Earth: do my best to ensure smooth operations of the South Pole Telescope (SPT) and help with the scientific analysis of its data, with the goal of discovering the signatures of high-energy events.

SPT is a state-of-the-art observatory of the cosmic microwave background. The telescope has just been upgraded, it now features a brand-new camera, the third generation of its kind. We are located in the very middle of the Antarctic continent at the Amundsen-Scott research station, quite exactly 90 degrees South. Yes, we really see the South Pole marker from our galley windows!

I will be staying here throughout the Antarctic winter, until November 2017. On this page I will upload pictures and small stories. Updates will come more or less often, depending on our internet availability and how busy I am. I strive for an update once a week. Feel free to email me questions! I hope you enjoy this little insight into the adventure of travelling to and living at the bottom of the world.

A journey to the south pole

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Christchurch: the final dark nights and the last lush greens

Christchurch (New Zealand) is the gateway to the US and New Zealand bases on Antarctica. Arriving early morning of the 8th of January, I was just in time to see a lovely sunrise behind the airport control tower. The city features a fantastic botanical garden. I happened to be there just in time for an open-air concert in the park and a nap in the warm summer sun.

The Christchurch airtraffic control tower in the morning sun A last glimpse of green: the botanical gardens in Christchurch A last glimpse of green: the botanical gardens in Christchurch A last glimpse of green: the botanical gardens in Christchurch A last glimpse of green: the botanical gardens in Christchurch Lucky coincidence: open-air concert in the park Lucky coincidence: open-air concert in the park Concerts in the park become even better by bringing a cute picnic basket A somewhat different fountain. The faces rotate driven by water, and the goose flaps its wings. Christmas decorations along the trees Christmas decorations along the trees

Sun, 8 Jan
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Flying to Antarctica

Christchurch does not only host the departure airport for flights bound for Antarctica, it also hosts the clothing distribution centre. Extreme cold weather (ECW) gear is issued for all participants of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). It is strange to think that today is my last dark night for a while, and the last time I see people, bars, restaurants, stores. When I arrive to Antarcitca the sun will be above the horizon the entire time, all day and night. In the morning of the 10th we are boarding a ski-equipped military Hercules aircraft. The journey to the coast of Antarctica takes 8 hours and we are greeted by ice, snow, and mountains.

Clothing distribution centre: One of each of the warm clothes, please, I might need it! 2500 kg of fresh fruit and vegetables, science cargo, and a large team of staff and visitors on their way to Antarctica. Toilets are located behind curtains. Luckily it's loud enough that noone can hear a thing. Arrival to Antarctica: Ice, water, rocks. Low-hanging clouds above the Antarctic coast. A first view of the McMurdo base: the white mountain in the background is the active volcano Erebus. The hill to the front right is the 'Observation hill'. First steps on the Antarctic ice. In order to land on a snow runway the aircraft is equipped with giant skis. Transportation from the airstrip to the research base.

Jan 9+10
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One night in McMurdo

At the very coast of Antarctica, at the point closest to New Zealand, lies its largest research base: McMurdo. Travellers bound for the south pole typically spend one night here, and if the weather is too bad to continue the journey one might be stranded here for a few days. We continued next day, and for me this was a decision between sleeping and seeing the research base and its surroundings. Of course I had to chose the latter! The pictures below show the base, the historic 1902 Discovery Hut at the Hut Point peninsula, and give an impression of my hike up the nearby Observation Hill.

A sign outside the doctor's office in McMurdo. Ice and snow require special vehicles. Scott's hut, built 1905. A view of the cross on top of the <em>Hut Point</em> hill. In the background the McMurdo base and the <em>Observation Hill</em>, my next hiking goal. The station seen from the nearby <em>Observation Hill</em> A view towards the sea from <em>Observation Hill</em>. Lots of seals can be seen. McMurdo's heliport.

Jan 11
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The way to the very bottom of the Earth

Quite a painfully early morning. I was out hiking till 3am, and had to get up shortly after 6am for my flight from McMurdo to the south pole. The flight took about three hours and crossed straight across the trans-Antarctic mountains. After five days of travelling I am finally at my destination! I immediately feel welcome, basically the entire South Pole Telescope team is waiting at the airfield and I am greeted with the words Welcome home. South pole, my new home for the next year.

Our bus to the airport. Spare propellers. Those things are huge! Excited, in front of the LC-130 ski-equipped Hercules. Trans-Antarctic mountains seen from the airplane. Trans-Antarctic mountains seen from the airplane. Arctic Survival Kit... someone needs to tell them that we are as from the Arctic as is physically possible. Trans-Antarctic mountains seen from the airplane. Trans-Antarctic mountains seen from the airplane. Polar expedition boots - ready for the south pole. Arrival at the South Pole Passenger terminal. Psssst, secret: It's really just a small metal shack. From the airfield one can simply walk to the station. Finally, the ceremonial south pole! This picture was taken from one of our galley windows. In the background: a tourist camp site.

Jan 11 (posted: Jan 15)
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First impressions

Upon arrival it took me quite a while to acclimatize to the surroundings. First, there is a large change in altitude, from sea level to effectively 3300m above sea level in only three hours of flight time. The air is very thin and occasionally it was hard to breath, especially when walking up stairs. I spent three days avoiding moving too much and tried to sleep much, which helped a lot with getting used to the altitude.

Secondly, it's bright here, twenty-four hours a day, all the time, until mid-March when we will experience one single sunset that last for multiple days. Quite mind-blowing, eh?

Lastly, oh, the jet lag, it was bad. The station uses New Zealand time, which is exactly opposite (we are twelve hours ahead) compared to Central European time. We currently only have satellite coverage during night hours, which makes calling people or using the internet hard if one still wants to actually get some sleep before working hours. Speaking of the satellite schedule, it is published as a PDF and in text form on the USAP website. Reading it is easiest done by checking the last page (New Zealand time) of the PDF (non-Javascript) which shows when we have satellite coverage at the south pole, and then to subtract twelve hours to convert the times to Central European times.

Anyhow, I'm posting this with a bit over a one week delay. I spent the last week getting up to speed with my work, and I hope you'll enjoy some first impression pictures this week instead!

My way to work is approximately one
kilometer. This picture is taken from the South Pole Telescope (where I work)
facing the station (where we eat and sleep). The telescope is huge! Find the person working on greasing its elevation axis for comparison. The big box in the top left (with the green bottom edge) is the receiver cabin where we will mount the new camera, once it is ready. I am somewhat lucky to arrive on this particular day. Parts of the detector are still open and it's very nice to see what it looks like on the inside. This picture shows the new receiver ('camera') to be mounted on the telescope. The cylindrical part facing away contains the optics, and the square box that houses the detector and read-out electronics is still open. Two of my colleagues are working on finishing the assembly before closing the back. Close-up of two of the detectors and their read-out electronics. Close-up of some of the read-out amplifiers (SQUIDS) Facing away from the station all I can see
is white. It is currently around -25 to -30 degrees Celcius, which
feels like -35 to -40 on days like today with rather little wind. Fun fact: the
air is so thin and dry that it transports little heat, it's mostly the wind that cools
us down in these conditions. In fact, today I'm definitely dressed too warm. 16220 km and five days of travelling, and there is actually mail waiting for me! How exciting and what a sweet welcome. Thank you, Susanna, Andi, Isabella, Moritz, Signe, Ronja, Ida, and Dainis!

Jan 13 (posted Jan 22)
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Visiting the tourist camp

In one of my first pictures of the pole marker I pointed out a tourist camp in the background. We thought it would be fun to pay them a visit! On the way home we spent some time goofing in the snow and taking shots around at the south pole markers.

The tourist camp: three community tents (blue) containing the galley, lounge and dry toilet; in the background: tents for sleeping (orange). Galley (right) and toilet (left). Toilet. One of the sleeping tents. It's unheated, good that there is a cozy sleeping bag inside! Cake and mimosas for breakfast. Hannah, Eric, Eli, Shane, thank you for the warm welcome! During the winter the camping equipment remains at the south pole. A ski-equipped Basler aircraft picking up the crew of the tourist camp to take them to their next adventure. In the background: the South Pole Telescope (left), BICEPS-3 (middle), Keck (right). Part of our small delegation biding farewell to the tourist camp organizers. Snow angels at the south pole. Great place for a snow angel. Fun with flags: the ceremonial south pole The ceremonial south pole. View of the station (living quarters, offices, galley, gym, etc). The actual geographical south pole moves with the ice, a few meters every year. Every winter crew produces a marker for the next year, the new marker is placed at New Year's. Or should this picture really be taken the other way around? Carrying the world on my shoulders! Goodbye for today! Disappearing through the escape hatch into the underground tunnels that lead back to the station. A true winter wonderland.

Jan 14-16 (posted Jan 30)

The South Pole Traverse

Today, the third south pole traverse arrived. The traverse is a convoy of nine tractors that drive the 1600 km from McMurdo at the coast to the south pole in the middle of the Antarctic continent. It takes them about three to four weeks, during which the drivers live along the road in two containers, also drawn as part of the traverse cargo.

The purpose of the traverse is delivering fuel to the south pole station. This summer three traverses had arrived to the pole, each delivering over 400 000 liters of fuel for our upcoming winter. This covers roughly three quarters of the total fuel needs (1.5 million liters) of the station. The remaining fuel is brought in by aircraft.

The first two tractors. From right to left: Common area (kitchen, bathroom, etc), generator container, bed rooms, storage. They might seem small, but they ain't. These tractors are huge and each one is pulling around 90000 liters of jetfuel for the station. Close-up of the fuel bladders. Each bladder is over 10000 litres. In the background the pump shack and the geographical south pole marker. Huge tractors indeed. Here you see one that is equipped with a blade to clear the path of snow drifts. Two of the four containers: The closer one
is for storage of food, tools, trash, etc. The one further away contains five
bedrooms, each shared by two persons. Thanks, Kevin, for giving us a tour! Here he is showing us the bunk beds for sleeping along the trail. Another tractor. The white container in the background holds the generators for power and heat along the trail. Generators for providing power and heat on the road. The traverse itself uses roughly 150 000 liters of fuel for the way back and forth to the south pole. This fuel is needed for powering the tractors, for generating power, and for heating. The traverse is equipped with kitchen, showers, and laundry machines. This picture shows an incinerator toilet that literally burns up human excrements in order to reduce waste. The snow melter, used for obtaining water. Maps showing the route that the south pole traverse takes.

Jan 27 (posted Feb 13)
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Locked in for 268 days

Today is a very special day. Our last Hercules plane came in and picked up all the remaining people who are not staying the winter. Hercules are military cargo aircraft equipped with skies, bringing personnel in and out of our station, delivering food, science cargo, station supplies, and mail, and taking out trash. Each Hercules arriving also brings up to 10000 liters of fuel to us.

Watching the last plane leave was a very strange moment. The temperatures have dropped to almost -50 degrees Celsius during the last two weeks, too cold for further Hercules flights. We are now stuck here, with the same 46 people (41 men, 5 women) for the next 268 days. No supplies, no mail, no new people, whatever breaks we have to either fix somehow, or live without. The real adventure begins!

Corey directing a Hercules aircraft into its parking position. Orange 'cones' to mark a safe path for walking to and from the aircraft. I am one of the people deploying the cones (black jacket orange-red hat). The engines remain turned on during (un)loading of cargo, (un)fueling the aircraft, and while (de)boarding passengers. Fuel handling, just three meters from the running propellers. Fuel tanks at the flightdeck. Fuel hose and nozzle. Pump station. Underground fuel tanks. Passenger bags are brought to the aircraft by skimobile. Cargo handling. Cargo handling. The last passengers boarding. Our last aircraft - ready for take off. Almost everyone on station is watching. The final aircraft flying over the station saying goodbye. (Courtesy NSF/James Casey).

Feb 15
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The South Pole Telescope (first part)

Today's entry comes with special greetings to my brother in law, Andi, who asked for more pictures of "my" telescope. Here we go! My work here in Antarctica is caring for the South Pole Telescope, observing with it, sharing the observational data with colleagues in the North, and preparing a preliminary analysis of the data. The telescope has received a major upgrade this summer, consisting of a new camera with a much larger number of pixels. The pictures below show the telescope, the assembly and installation of the new camera, and what the data looks like on our screens. In part two (next week) I will show some more specifics of my work and say something about the issues we need to solve before we can start using the upgraded telescope for sciene.

An overview. There is a bunch of telescopes in the same area at the South Pole. The South Pole Telescope is
furthest to the left in the picture, observing diagonally upwards. Our building is called the <em>Dark Sector Laboratory (DSL)</em>, we share it with the BICEPS experiment. When walking to the DSL we pass by MAPO, which hosts the KECK CMB telescope and our machine workshop. The arrow points out a Hercules aircraft flying over the DSL. The Dark Sector Laboratory/South Pole Telescope seen from the station (where we live/sleep/eat). To the right: the MAPO building. The South Pole Telescope rotates around two axes and can observe anywhere on the sky. Here it points straight up, observing a source in the zenith. The red arrows indicate the path of the microwave light, bouncing off the primary mirror (the big silver dish) into the receiver cabin. There it is reflected by the secondary and tertiary mirror, and then registered in a camera (which we call receiver). The arrow points out one of our colleagues for size comparison. He or she is greasing one of the mount bearings. From inside the telescope mount: Two SPT colleagues greasing the elevation bearing. Two SPT colleagues at the base of/underneath the telescope. It's cold working outside on a metal structure, proper clothing is important. To access the receiver cabin there are doors in its floor (left-hand side arrow). The telescope is pointing straight up in the picture, which makes it difficult to access the doors. If one actually wants to get into the receiver cabin the telescope is moved to a horizontal position, so that the receiver cabin is on top of the building roof (right-hand side red arrow). The roof opens up providing direct access from the building into the receiver cabin. A look from below upwards into the receiver cabin. Here it is still mostly empty. In the far corner one sees the secondary mirror. Wendy underneath the secondary mirror. The new SPT3g receiver (our new camera, containing a set of optics and the detector array). A view of the open back of the SPT3g receiver. The receiver is being prepared for installing the readout cables. The readout electronics are cabled up and the receiver is ready to be lifted into the cabin. The receiver just about fits into the cabin.
Hoisting it up was a long and difficult process, the weight of the
camera is roughly one ton (the weight of a few cars). Safety was our utmost concern during the hoisting operation. The control electronics for the receiver. This entire rack was also hoisted into the cabin. Now the cabin is pretty much full. Climbing into it requires holding your breath and squeezing through narrow spaces. The winterovers (me and Andrew) working on test equipment underneath the receiver. First attempt of observations. Computer screen during observations.
Each oddly shaped pixel represents six individual detectors in the receiver. The detector array consists of ten hexagonal shaped wafers.
The colours show the current status of individual detectors. Test observations of the bright star-forming region RCW38. The bottom right corner shows the response of one single detector while slowly moving the telescope left and right. Each spike corresponds to the moment when we point the telescope exactly at RCW38. Me walking through the dark telescope building. The power was intentionally cut to test noise properties of the telescope. After finishing work for the afternoon, I took a nap on the telescope in the windless warm sunny air. Just -35 degrees Celsius that day!

Feb 20
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Field trip to the South Pole Solar Telescope JEFFRIES

A few weeks back we were invited to visit the JEFFRIES solar telescope, located four kilometers from station. The telescope had a very successful season, and has now been packed away. I still go running to its former location every now and then. The "road" is made of compressed snow and marked with flags, which makes the run and orientation out in the snow a little bit easier.

The solar telescope from afar. The solar telescope. The control centre is a small room under ground. The antenna provides network connections with the station. At the horizon you can see, very small, the South Pole Telescope and the station. A container serves as a visitor centre and as a room to warmp up in. Behind the visitor centre is a container housing a camping toilet, and a generator station. Francesco explaining the Sun.

Feb 27
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Field trip to the SPRESSO site

Another field trip we made a few weeks ago was to the SPRESSO site. Here, seismological equipment is buried in the ground. The site is about 8 kilometers from station, getting there gives you the real outer space experience.

Going out to the SPRESSO site in a pistenbully. Working on the seismological detectors requires digging out holes with a shovel. The equipment under ground is throroughly protected and insulated. A hatch leads to an underground communications and control system cave. The communication and control systems are located 10 meters under ground. Communication and control systems 10 meters under groud. Kevin showing real-time seismological data measured from their systems. The spikes in the data correspond to me jumping and stomping around in the snow simulating a dinosaur at south pole.

Feb 28
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The other side of the coin

When writing here I mostly focus on giving an account of the cheerful and exciting bits of being at the south pole: the logistical challenges, the state-of-the-art science experiments, the massive machinery to survive in the snow and cold, the oh-so-different and cold weather, and the fact that nothing on the sky moves the way you're normally used to.

It is not always fun to be here though. Two weeks ago, my grandfather whom I dearly love passed away in the North. Being stuck at the south pole feels like the worst place to be right now. I miss my family, my friends, real hugs from people I love, walking barefoot through the forest, and laying in the grass in the sunshine on a blanket doing nothing. I miss people in the North I didn't have the chance to talk to in a while or that I lost contact with before leaving to Antarctica, and I keep wondering how they are and if they forgot about me in the meantime. Even the people I talk to regularly or even daily, like my parents, my sister and my baby niece, my brother, Isabelle and Dafne, friends at home; I think of them all the time, and miss them, a lottleA beautiful word creation emphasizing the expression a lot: it's like a little, just a whole lot of it. . 236 days till I come home.

Very appropriate to how I felt the last two weeks, the weather has changed a lot and a white gloom currently washes out the horizon entirely. Around us only white, temperatures below -60 degree Celsius, and even our telescope one kilometer from station is barely visible from our galley. At the same time we are just a few days away from our once-a-year sunset and it's starting to get dark. Weltuntergangsstimmung. I recommend closing your eyes and listening to some piece of dramatic classical music after reading this.

I am of course well aware that I'm complaining on a very high level: from a warm room in a place with ample food, water, power, and occasionally even internet. All impossible to imagine just 100 years ago. Next on my list is therefore a reminder of how incredibly hard it was get here in the first place: the book The worst journey in the world by Cherry-Garard, published 1922, a gift for my journey I received from my parents. It starts with the beautiful sentence polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised. With that in mind, lots of love, hugs, and kisses to my family and friends in the North.

White. Where is the horizon?! This illustration makes me smile. I wish I could find the original author to give proper credits for my link.

Mar 19
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Sunset at south pole

The geographical (south) pole is literally the place that the earth rotates around. Reaching your arms around it is a fun thing to do for a picture, your body in all timezones at once. This also means that, during one day, the sun just goes aroud our heads, same height above the horizon all around. No daily sunsets and sunrises, oh no! South Pole gets only one sunset per year, and it lasts roughly two-three days.

During the last month we watched summer turning into winter. With every bit of the earth's yearly orbit around the sun our shadows got longer, with the sun lower and lower on the horizon. Two days ago the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon, giving us some spectacular sunset views. Since a complete sunset takes some two days (during which the sun spirals around us slowly crossing the horizon more and more), pictures of the setting sun and the beautiful colours opposite of it can be taken in all directions.

This is also the moment to introduce Pete, the tiny penguin who mailed himself down to the south pole for a unique adventure, and Debbie, a tiny seal with a magnet in its stomach, who was my travel companion from the beginning. Dafne and Isabelle sent those two tiny ones down with me, and during the next weeks they are going to show you all about their south pole adventures throughout the summer.

Pete and Debbie climbing the geographical south pole marker, sometime early February. The South Pole Telescope during the sunset (opposite from the sun). Did you notice the moon? The ceremonial south pole and the south pole station during sunset (opposite of the sun). The South Pole Telescope and the setting sun. The green flash, an elusive light phenomena caused by the atmosphere, visible mostly in very flat surroundings. (Picture: G. Hall)

What's up next for us? First, this weekend is marked with a sunset celebration dinner. From now on we are facing six months without sunlight, and peace and harmony in our small group will be extra important. A few weeks of evening twilight will gradually turn into complete darkness, while we watch the brightest stars and planets appear in our eternal night sky. During the four darkest months we hope for pristine dark skies for stargazing and plenty of aurora australis/southern lights. Goodbye, Sun, see you in half a year!

Mar 22-25

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Sunset dinner

Sunset at pole is a big happening. We started the day with a late lazy Sunday morning brunch, featuring omlettes, mimosas, cheese, salmon, and waffles. The staple that made me personally most happy was finding real milk - oh, how much I missed it! Peter & Peter organized a lovely little café in our climbing gym where we spent the time between brunch and dinner.

In the evening a three-course dinner was served. Nice to see everyone dressed their finest. The meal featured lovely ingredients, bison steaks, duck, blue cheese pasta with nuts (lovely taste and texture!), and salads and vegetables grown in our own greenhouse. A true highlight. Our galley staff is fantastic, and so was the Crème brûlée.

Monday after the dinner was a day off for the entire station population, giving the science experiments in the dark sector a welcome reason to invite to an open-house.

Peter's café in the climbing gym Don't know where Peter's café is? Go find the palm tree. Peter's café is located straight in the middle of summer camp. Appetizers before dinner. Lounge corner in the galley before sunset dinner. Sunset dinner. Sunset dinner. Sunset dinner. Sunset dinner. Blue cheese pasta, fresh salad - delicious. Dessert. The receiver cabin in the process of docking onto the control room roof, a demonstration of our daily work routines. Visitors from station realizing just how large the south pole telescope really is. Grant explaining the BICEP experiment. Exploring the SPUD telescope from the inside. The atmosphere changed and brought us a very last glimpse of sunlight, Monday evening The atmosphere changed and brought us a very last glimpse of sunlight, Monday evening.

Mar 26-27

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Tears in -60°C

This week we boarded up our windows with cardboard. We did it to prevent light pollution and to protect our light-sensitive experiments outside from our lamps indoors. It felt rather sad though, and symbolic for us being cut off from the rest of the world, captured in an icy cage for a long cold winter.

While applying for a job here, I read travel reports and Antarctica blogs, watched documentaries, and talked to people who did what I was about to do. Comes rather handy in the job interview. But there seems to be one topic no-one seems to dare to write about: death.

Death has turned my dream job on Antarctica into a temporary nightmare. My sister's husband, father to my two year old goddaughter, and friend of mine, died very unexpectedly at age 35. No-one tells you how bad it feels to be stuck 16 000 km from everyone you love when something like this happens. The feeling of being lost and alone, the feeling of not being there for your family, it is devastating and hard to cope with. I am lacking words to express how heartbroken and sad I feel. So I will let the image of the boarded-up windows speak for me instead.

Galley window. Hallway window. Hallway window. Computer lab/office window. Hallway window. Window in my bedroom.

For all of you who are true scientists in their hearts and are curious now to find out what actually happens when crying outside in -60°C: crying is fine. It's really the blinking that causes you trouble. Your top and bottom eyelashes freeze together instantenously. Not strongly enough to keep your eyes shut for long, but amusing enough for a brief juckle under tears and good enough to serve as a reason to find a slightly warmer place for mourning. To my sister and niece, and my family, I love you.

April 03 (posted April 18)
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The Event Horizon Telescope

In dedication to my brother-in-law Andi, who started his mornings "reading about Trump, and checking out what's new at the south pole". You are dearly missed.

The South Pole Telescope (SPT) has a secret. Hidden in an unsupicious corner in the big receiver cabin is an additional science instrument, much smaller and very special. It is a single pixel camera with very high spectral resolution, and used when SPT observes together with other telescopes. All the telescopes together form a kind of super-telescope, one that is capable of taking pictures of incredible resolution. This technique is called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI): telescopes in different places of the world observe the exact same part of the sky in unison. In the story of the Event Horizon project, telescopes are spread out covering one side of our globe: Chile, Mexico, Hawai'i, mainland US, Spain, and -drumroll- the South Pole Telesope in Antarctica. Just imagine being an astronaut (or an alien?) watching this spectacle from afar, so many big telescopes moving together in perfect harmony, perfectly synchronized like instruments in a symphonic orchestra.

Data is recorded at each telescope site, with timestamps from an atomtic clock. Combining all single observations results in an image so good as if a telescope as large as our Earth took it. Early April we used this technique to observe the silhouette (event horizon) of the super-massive black hole in the very centre of our Milky Way galaxy. This is the first time that a black hole has been imaged directly with enough resolution to actually expect features in the image. Normally, observations of black holes are actually observations of the behavior of stars close to them. Their orbits are super-small and super-fast, and the best and only explanation we can think of is the presence of a supermassive black-hole. But taking a photo of the black hole’s event horizon is an entirely different matter. The galaxy is huge and the black hole incredibly far away. A task for the world’s largest syntetic telescope, called the Event Horizon Telescope.

Map of the EHT 2017 telescopes. The addition of the South Pole Telescopes added baselines between 7500 and 14000 km to the network. February 2017: preparations of the telescope roof for mounting the EHT mirrors. February 2017: a view of EHT in the receiver cabin, a few days before mounting the main SPT3g receiver.

What does this all mean for us at the South Pole Telescope? A lot of work, but what an incredible experience to be part of. First we prepared the telescope: check the atomic clock, turn on all instrumentation and computer systems, and verify whether everything is working right. This process revealed a bunch of issues that weren't quite optimal, insufficient vacuum in the instrument, wrong Helium pressure in the cooling lines, and a bunch of other small kinks that aren't unexpected for a complicated project like this, but that need fixing before we could start observing. After a week of hard work, repairing and re-calibrating we managed to get all subsystems up and running, hurray! During this time we also mounted mirrors onto the telescope, stealing the light from the main camera beam and reflecting it into the EHT camera instaed. The mirrors are heavy and must be handled with care, and they are mounted to the telescope roof, outdoors in the dark and cold. All telescopes in the world-wide array need to be ready at the same time though, so we didn't have much chance to wait for less wind. One last check and we could finally start our data recorders. Ready for observations!

April 2017: Secondary EHT mirror - ready to go. (Photo: Eric Hansen) April 2017: Mounting the EHT mirrors in -60 degrees Celsius and wind. (Photo: Eric Hansen) April 2017: The two mascots Pete and Debbie checking out the signal cabeling of EHT. April 2017: Telescope control system during EHT observations. April 2017: Telescope control during EHT observations.

During the 10-18 hour observation nights Andrew and I took control of the telescope. Following a minute-by-minute schedule we were moving the telescope from observation target to observation target, constantly checking the quality of our data and verifying that the telescope pointed perfectly at the right source and was well-focussed. The observation nights were long and cost a lot of concentration. It was very rewarding though, thinking of how our telescope operates perfectly in sync together with some of the other largest radio telescopes in the world. Early morning on the 12th of April we finally finished the last observations - what a beautiful feeling: we are a part of history in the world of astronomy. Results? To be expected in roughly one year: the gathered dataset is too large to transmit via satellite, uploading it would take roughly four years. We will thus wait until the first flights come in to pick up the stacks of harddrives from our data recorders for full data analysis.

April 2017: Data recorder maintenance between two observation nights. April 2017: First auroras sighted at the south pole, during one of the observation nights. Bottom left: the Moon. (Photo: Martin Wolf) April 2017: Close-up of a data recorder storage module. April 2017: Close-up of the inside of a data recorder. April 2017: The South Pole Telescope during EHT observations. The full moon creates a pillar effect in the atmosphere. The bright speck left of the Moon is Jupiter. April 2017: Telescope control during EHT observations. April 2017: The South Pole Telescope during EHT observations, 12 hours after the previous telescope picture. The last glimpses of the Sun behind the horizon cause the clouds in the sky to light up in hauntingly beautiful colours. April 2017: The mascots Pete and Debbie celebrating finishing the last EHT night with extra special whiskey.

April 12 (posted May 21)

Picture

Happy Towel Day

Here's a frood who really knows where his towel is.

May 25 - happy towel day, everyone! (Wikipedia article / Deutscher Wikipedia-Eintrag)

Trying to hitch a ride through our galaxy. With towel, of course! (Picture: Martin Wolf and Daniel Michalik)

May 25

Picture

Auroras above the dark sector

Sleepless night, so I went outside. And I was mindblown, realizing that every direction I look at is North. I don't mean this as a question of defining the cardinal directions, it's really an astronomical epiphany: the night sky I see right now is the only night sky I can ever see from here. It doesn't change throughout the day, it doesn't change throughout the months. With the exception of our Moon and the planets it just keeps being the same, slowly rotating around the zenith right above our heads. The night sky shows us the same stars at all time, none rising, none setting. As an astronomer it is a mangnificient thing to see, only visible at the north and south pole. What a lucky bastard I am!

This is also the southern hemisphere, which I don't really know well at all. I've only ever seen the southern skies on three short occassions: once during a visit to South Africa a few years back, a second time when seeing the Gaia launch in French Guiana, and last during a visit to Congo Kinshasa/DRC. What a great chance now to finally learn more Southern constellations and to spend more time outside with binoculars. Time to put on all the warm gear I can find and to lay outside in the snow for as long as I can manage to stay.

Taken in -60°C, this picture shows the South Pole Telescope illuminated by the Milky Way and some of the first aurora australis of the winter season 2017. Jupiter is brightly visible on the lower left, Saturn is to right of the telescope dish. This pictures was taken just a few hours after the previous one. It illustrates nicely how much auroras change, we can literally watch them change from minute to minute. It is really quite marvelous. In the bottom right corner is building 61, the power and communication's distribution hub of the dark sector. The tracks of two satellites can be seen, the upper one is probably a flare from an Iridium satellite that we use for communications. The constellation of Scorpio is visible to the right and the Southern cross with the two pointer stars in Centaurus are visible at the very top of the image. Once again, this time with annotations: This pictures was taken just a few hours after the previous one.  It illustrates nicely how much auroras change, we can literally watch them change from minute to minute. It is really quite marvelous. In the bottom right corner is building 61, the power and communication's distribution hub of the dark sector. The tracks of two satellites can be seen, the upper one is probably a flare from an Iridium satellite that we use for communications. The constellation of Scorpio is visible to the right and the Southern cross with the two pointer stars in Centaurus are visible at the very top of the image. Early May, the moon behind the South Pole Telescope. The auroras were so strong that night that they were visible despite the glaring moon light. Strong auroras above the roof of the dark sector laboratory.  The light of the moon coming from the left illuminates the snow-covered ladder and the instruments of our weather station.

April 20 (posted June 16)

Contact information

Email me at

dm.public@argafal.de
(GnuPG-ID: 0x53BE81EC, fingerprint: A854 4C0A FF1A 09DF 5433 0EF8 1CF0 0213 53BE 81EC, Download Key)

Where to find me

Berthing A1 Room 226
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station
Antarctica

Postal address

Daniel Michalik A-379-S WINTEROVER
South Pole Station
PSC 768 Box 400
APO, AP 96598-0001
United States of America