Home Sweet Home

13 12 2009

Ayça picked me up at the Moline airport on Thursday evening. My trip back home passed without incident, except for a suitcase which had only been checked through to O’Hare. That showed up today. I am now happily back in Iowa, with temperatures reminding me of the early days in Antarctica.

Kristof, Ayça, Buddy and Angelo enjoy an evening at home on the sofa.

The West Lake Bonney ENDURANCE project has come to a successful end. ENDURANCE itself will fly back to the US at the end of December. Our season went extremely well, and there is talk of proposing future field campaigns for ENDURANCE or possible successor vehicles, so you may yet be reading updates from me here in the future. I’ll still put up a link to a picture album from this season once I upload it in the next week or two, but for now, this is Kristof, over and out.


9 12 2009

Today was suffused with the color of growing things. Shilpa, Chris and I took Peter’s advice and walked over from our hotel to the Riccarton Bush. This is a patch of primordial forest which was set aside by the Dean family when they homesteaded this part of New Zealand, and has been preserved ever since. It is about a 45 minute walk from the center of Christchurch, right in the middle of present-day suburbia. It was perfect for a group of people looking to readjust from the splendors of the Dry Valleys. Instead of being immense, dry, and shades of brown, blue, and white with only the wind blowing through, it was intimate, aromatic, green and filled with birdsong.

Breathing in the earthy aromas and taking in the verdant scenery of the Riccarton Bush.

We finished our excursion at the restaurant housed in the old Dean residence, which had some of the best eggplant lasagna, chocolate dessert and apricot tea ever. And we sat in the middle of a rose garden, under an arbor topped with pink blooms. What a perfect closing parenthesis to our Antarctic experience.

Taking time.

Shilpa, Kristof and Chris enjoy a luncheon with tea under the arbor in the rose garden.


8 12 2009

For Antarctica, everything today ran quite smoothly. Ivan the TerraBus picked us up in McMurdo around noon and dropped us off at the Pegasus airfield. We were on board the C-17 taking us back by 3:30. The flight back was uneventful—I slept most of the way. We landed to the sights and smells of Christchurch at around 8:30 pm, passed through customs, dropped of our ECW and hopped on the shuttle to the Windsor B&B, our home away from in Christchurch.

The most striking impressions: the muggyness when I got off the plane, the smell of grass and flowers stepping out of the airport, the currently impending darkness of night. My first nightfall since mid-October.

I gave Chris his camera back, haven’t gotten mine working yet, and didn’t ask anyone for their photos before they headed off to bed, so no pictures from today.

Cleaning Up

7 12 2009

Today was (if everything goes according to plan) the last day in Antarctica for four members of Team ENDURANCE, including me. We spent it cleaning up, packing, and returning stuff we checked out at the beginning of the season. I helped out the team at the BFC.

Emma and Leah checking all of our field gear back in to the BFC.

Shilpa at the pee bottle washing station at the BFC. We used the bottles in the field when an outhouse was too far away, or too hard to get to (like from your sleeping bag). But they do appreciate it if you clean out your own before checking it back in.

The four of us leaving tomorrow just had our bag drag, and now it’s off to the ENDURANCE good-bye party at Southern X-posure, one of the three local drinking establishments.

Bot Day

6 12 2009

Today was Bot Day in McMurdo. Both this year and last, Team ENDURANCE has maintained a friendly rivalry with another underwater robotic vehicle doing Antarctic exploration. While ENDURANCE is a large vehicle outfitted with a slew of sensors, carries all its power on board, and is capable of maneuvering autonomously, the rival robot is remotely operated and powered, and has two video cameras as its only sensors but is thin enough to fit down a 10-inch drill hole. To highlight this last fact, it is dubbed SCINI (pronounced “skinny”), and team SCINI refers to ENDURANCE as “fatty” (they even came up with an acronym to make PHATTI, though none of us remembers what that was right now).

The SCINI vehicle in the test tank at MBARI (my old playing grounds while doing my thesis). Courtesy Stacey Kim, Moss Landing Marine Labs.

This afternoon, SCINI had an open house, where the McMurdo populace was invited to come down to a dive shack on the sea ice in front of town and watch the vehicle drive around. They even gave us a chance to drive it ourselves. I made a valiant effort to sabotage their vehicle by driving it into a rock, but was foiled because they had the power on the thrusters turned down, and the protective metal cage in front of the camera dome bounced off harmlessly.

Then tonight, Peter and Bill gave the Sunday Science Lecture on ENDURANCE. The lectures are open to the entire McMurdo community and are held in the Galley. It was pretty impressive to see all the work that we’ve done over the past 6 weeks—the past two years, in fact—summarized and displayed. The Galley was full, and there were a lot of interesting questions. The lecture was recorded, and should be viewable on the McMurdo Station server in a few days.

The awesome poster we got made to advertise the Sunday Night Science Lecture. That's Bill Stone doing Slim Pickens.

Tomorrow, Peter, Chris, Shilpa and I pack our bags and get ready to leave for New Zealand on Tuesday. The remaining team stays for another five days and prepares ENDURANCE and all accompanying cargo for shipment back to the US.

Back in MacTown

5 12 2009

This morning, I got up still slightly groggy from last night’s escapades. Since we are returning to Christchurch on Tuesday, Peter, Chris, Shilpa and I were prioritized to leave Lake Bonney on the early flight at around 10 am. We packed up our stuff and helped Emma get ready for leaving camp by moving some empty barrels and taking down some empty tents. When the helo landed, we finished putting on our ECW, brought our gear up for the helo tech to pack in, clambered in, buckled up, and we were off. As our last views of Lake Bonney passed by in the windows, I’d wager we were all thinking about the great times we’ve had there and whether we’d ever see this beautiful panorama again.

Shilpa got the window seat on the ride back from Lake Bonney to McMurdo.

My view wasn't quite as good.

After a 32 minute flight, we arrived in McMurdo. Just like when we arrived at the beginning of the season, it felt like we’d been gone a long time, but yet had never left. We all took showers, did some laundry, ate some fresh fruit and salad in the Galley, and once again took up the accoutrements of normal, civilized life.

My bed in the Bunk Room in the dorm called Hotel California, where Chris, Maciej, Jim and I have been put. There have been weather delays of more than a month for some of the large parties going out to the field this year, and the town is bursting at the seams trying to accommodate everyone.

Final Hurrah

4 12 2009

Bill, Chris and I just got back from climbing up the Matterhorn. The Taylor Valley Matterhorn, that is. After finishing packing in the ‘bothouse, we came back to camp and then headed out for a 9-hr hike that we just finished. We didn’t make it all the way up, but the climb and views were astounding. The ventifact rocks towards the top were crazy.

A ventifact formation we dubbed 'Sprocket Rock' after the ENDURANCE cat mascot Sprocket. Look, he's about to pounce on that bird!

Three happy dudes.

Last Day for ENDURANCE

3 12 2009

The final day for ENDURANCE has come and gone. We started off with a successful mission, getting in the last bathymetry, and also a few field demonstrations of new robotic capabilities.

Kristof, Chris, Emma, Vickie, Rachel, Shilpa, Peter and Bill pose with ENDURANCE after its final mission.

Then it was time to start packing up. ENDURANCE is much too heavy, and has too many fragile instruments, to be transported fully assembled. The syntactic flotation has to come off, the sonde, DVL, USBL, cameras, batteries, etc., have to be removed and packed up. So we spent the rest of the day making sure we’d be ready for the first sets of helo flights of our stuff scheduled to go out tomorrow.

I work on removing one of the syntactic flotation blocks.

Bill, Peter and Chris working on packing the syntactic blocks into boxes for shipment back to McMurdo.

Peter, Emma and Bill working on disassembling ENDURANCE and packing up the 'bothouse.


2 12 2009

Today, we had another successful run through the narrows into the east lobe of Lake Bonney with 4 km traverse, 8 sonde drops and bathymetry coverage of 30% of the lake. Ho-hum. I’m going to talk about Zen.

The Zen Garden, that is. Behind the ridge above Lake Bonney Camp, about half-way up the side of the valley, is a wide shelf covered with the cinders from a small cone further up the mountainside, undisturbed for millions of years by water or ice. Only the howling Antarctic winds have come through and carved amazing shaped out of the larger boulders which lie strewn about on the bed of small reddish pumice pebbles. It truly bears an uncanny resemblance to a manicured Japanese sculpture garden, and last Saturday, when we celebrated Thanksgiving, it became the goal of a small hike I took in the afternoon. It was probably the most unforgettable place I’ve ever been.

The high shelf holding the Zen Garden. The cinder cone on the side of the mountain to the right of the Sollas Glacier is the source of the reddish pebble field covering the plain below. The boulders are chunks of the surrounding bedrock.

A typical view in the Zen Garden.

I had the best time running around from rock to rock. This one rested just so, that one had ridiculous holes carved through it, the view behind that one was stunning. Each was better than the next.

The fragile shapes left by the carving of the wind are completely unbelievable. This was once a four-foot diameter boulder. The wispy shell is all that remains.

The Zen Master contemplating the oneness of all existence.

Winding Down

1 12 2009

The days left at Lake Bonney are becoming very few. ENDURANCE has completed all of the major science objectives: profiling the entire west lobe biogeochemistry, obtaining bathymetry of the entire lake, exploring the contact between the glacier and the lake bed. And it’s demonstrated the engineering objectives to make it all possible, too. Yesterday, ENDURANCE completed a mission where we detached the communications fiber after it was initialized in the water. It got all the data, found its way back to the melthole and came right up to the surface—all by itself.
Now we’re trying to figure out what else to do to really show off its capabilities. Not that we’re lacking in ideas. ENDURANCE is proving to be a great platform for experimenting with new ways of doing robotic science in extreme environments, just as everyone had hoped. I’m working on a method for ensuring ENDURANCE can get back to the melthole, even if the DVL navigation sensor has a failure. Chris is perfecting the automated sonde drop routine to handle the outages the sonde’s sonar altimeter is experiencing due to poor reflections off of the soft lake bottom sediments. Shilpa is updating the system executive module to properly handle the new functionality. We hope to pull off a totally autonomous mission with full science sampling and return home in the face of some outages by the time we leave.

Missions have become much less stressfull. As opposed to the early days where we were constantly monitoring telemetry, issuing commands for things that ENDURANCE couldn’t yet do on its own, tracking from the surface to make sure we had exact GPS coordinates for sonde drops, the ‘bot is now pretty much off on its own.

Bill, Chris, Shilpa, and Peter watching the sonar data visualizer, waiting around for the 'bot to finish its mission.

We still “watch over its shoulder” via the data coming on the fiber-optic tether, but there’s not much else to do for missions once the bot is initialized and sent off in the morning.

For a change, Vickie gets a rest and Shilpa tends the fiber while the 'bot is out doing its rounds. Up till recently, Vickie would be out on the ice tracking the 'bot's magnetic beacon and getting GPS fixes for sonde drop locations, and Shilpa would be at mission control checking telemetry, issuing commands, writing comments in the data log, etc.

Hmm, Shilpa doing the fiber tending seems to have a calming effect on everyone.

Well, not on everyone. (Bill doing push-ups).

The Fateful Day

25 11 2009

Well, y’all, we did it. Today, ENDURANCE made it under the Taylor Glacier.

Here’s how it went:
To start off the day, we drove ENDURANCE over to a second melthole which Professor Peter Doran, Principal Investigator and Papa Ice Finegler had melted near the glacier face. ENDURANCE found and came up through this hole without a hitch. There, we weighted ENDURANCE down with 230 lbs. of lead so that it would become heavy enough to penetrate the halocline (salt water boundary) and move into the very salty lower lake waters. Here’s a capture of our real-time 3-D visualization of the sonar data it collected after it went back down the hole and down to 22 m depth:

ENDURANCE hovering below the halocline, looking under the mystery ledge. The red is the lake ice above, the orange and yellow is the glacier face, with the ledge which hid the view of the lake bottom sticking out towards the bottom, the green is the lake bottom.

Finally, ENDURANCE could see under the ledge which had hidden the important contact between ice and lake floor from our view since last year. As you can see, the cavern doesn’t extend back too far, but far enough that we could go in for a closer look.
This was it, moving in under the Taylor Glacier. Carefully, Shilpa executed the command telling ENDURANCE to move ahead toward the glacier. We all watched the sonar data coming back intently. How far would ENDURANCE be able to penetrate? Would we be able to see the grounding line where the ice meets the lake bottom, and where tantalizing water temperature and chemistry signatures that ENDURANCE has been picking up might be originating?
ENDURANCE proceded forward.

ENDURANCE exploring under the mystery ledge. The red and yellow rays projecting from ENDURANCE show its obstacle avoidance sonars, the blue fan represents the DeltaT multibeam sonar.

As you can see, it got right up close and under the ledge. Unfortunately, there was too much dust in the water, and the end of the cavern pinched off in too narrow a V for us to get any clear visual view in the forward camera.
We tried a few other locations along the glacier wall, but found that there was a little too much ballast on ENDURANCE, and it couldn’t quite come up high enough to successfully see the sought-after grounding line. So tomorrow’s mission will call for the same procedure, with about 40 lbs less ballast, which hopefully will allow ENDURANCE to maneuver in close enough at the proper depth. But, gosh durn it, ENDURANCE has swum under the glacier!

(Note: The internet was out again yesterday, probably because it was overcast and snowing all day, and the solar panels on Peak 1882 were covered and unable to recharge the repeater batteries. We’ll see how everything holds out for the next few days…)

The Daily Commute

23 11 2009

My daily update schedule has gotten a bit out of whack due to the extended internet outage, so I’ve decided to take more of a themed approach to my posts. Here is the first in such a series: the joys of commuting in the Dry Valleys.

Lake Bonney Camp is located on the east lobe of Lake Bonney about 4 km as the crow flies from the bothouse on the west lobe, which ENDURANCE calls home. In order to get from place to place on the lake, we are provided with swank 6-wheel ATVs which can be driven on the ice. (To avoid damaging the fragile soil ecology, no driving on dirt is permitted.) These then provide us with transportation for the Lake Bonney daily commute, which takes about 20-25 minutes. (Rush hour is usually around 9:00-9:30 am and another half hour sometime in the evening).

Emma and me in an ATV in front of Bonney Camp, ready for the morning commute.

Bart, Chris and Rachel taking in one of the sights along the way: a mummified seal who got lost in the valley possibly thousands of years ago.

On the West Lobe connector. The ablating (basically means eroding) permanent ice makes this the bumpiest part of the ride.

On the Inter-Lobe Expressway. The seasonal ice re-freezes smooth every year. Of course, this means it doesn't last through the summer, and currently is beginning to get rougher and more broken up. Even down here you have to deal with potholes.

Saddling up at the bothouse for the evening rush hour.

Rachel has also posted an awesome video of the commute on Facebook, which you may be able to view, depending on your level of friendliness to both of us.

Waiting for the Batteries

22 11 2009

(Nov 23, 2009: I just found this draft, which I apparently was working on when the internet went out.)

No pictures again today. Chris took back his camera to record some of the things he was fixing inside of the main processor housing, and then left the camera in the ‘bothouse. I’ll upload some pictures tomorrow.

We figured out that yesterday’s problems were caused by a dirty wire where the router for the network in the robot is plugged into the power supply. This was causing the router to turn off from time to time and caused the network outage we saw.

While debugging things yesterday, Bart also figured out that the new batteries are having some problems which essentially cause them to have to shut down with about 20% of their power still available. This might have been contributing to our battery problems in the last few days. So while we had the ‘bot taken apart, we also took apart the batteries. Bart is working on some fixes at the moment, while the rest of the team is back at camp eating dinner. When he finishes up, he’ll put the batteries back on charge, and we’ll have a team head out early tomorrow morning to put them back together and re-install them in the ‘bot.

The weather is excellent. Our outdoor thermometer is reading 2 °C, though it is in the sun, so it’s skewed high. I plan to go out for a little run tonight before heading off to bed.

Lake Bonney Jamesway Activities

22 11 2009

In addition to all of the science being done in Lake Bonney with ENDURANCE, we’ve also had an interesting social experiment take place down here in the last 10 days. Viz:

Activity in the Jamesway while the Internet repeater was down.

Activity in the Jamesway after Internet was restored.

Everyone answering emails and updating blogs does take a toll on the talking, game-playing, carousing, and so on.

Be sure to check out Shilpa’s posts and the Stone Aerospace blog for more details on all the stuff we’ve been doing with ENDURANCE. I’ll come back more on that tomorrow.

Kick-@$$ day.

21 11 2009

We are just finishing up a long day which got interrupted by some water in a slip-ring returning data from the drop sonde, but got us some great data in the end. Here is a pretty picture for now.

ENDURANCE in front of the Taylor Glacier. This image is a frame from the visualization of the sonar data recieved by ENDURANCE as it swam in front of the glacier face today. The orange blob in the center is ENDURANCE, the red is the lake ice above, the orange and yellow are the glacier face and the green is the lake bottom. You can distinguish the open area under the lower shelf of the glacier which ENDURANCE currently can not see into, but which we hope to explore in missions on Monday and Tuesday.

We’ve been working for about 17 hrs straight. We’ll get a good night’s sleep and take the day off tomorrow, back to the Taylor Glacier on Monday.

Back to the Land of the… Living?

21 11 2009

The comms shop was finally able to get a helo up to peak 1882 and fix our internet repeater. We had an interestingly refreshing and also aggravating break from the world-wide web, but now we’re all back on our laptops, checking emails.

We’ve made a lot of progress since the my last post. More later tonight.

Update: It is all good (posted by Ayca)

18 11 2009

Kristof just called and reported that everything is going well at Lake Bonney and their work is progressing. However, their internet is down and that is why we have not received any updates in the last one week or so. The phone connection was also very bad, so I could not get too many details except that there is nothing to worry about and that they are trying also to fix the internet.


Out of the Frying Pan…

11 11 2009

After yesterday’s successes, we wanted to do a longer mission with ENDURANCE and start getting experience sending it to some of the areas not sampled last year. This meant we had to attach the new fiber optic tether, which is 2 km long as compared to the 1 km of the old tether. So Bill and Vickie spent the morning taking the fiber off its reel and flaking it into a large box. This permits Rachel, our tether-tender extraordinaire, to pay out and retrieve the tether without twisting the fiber, as it would do if it were attached and on a reel.

Bill and Vickie Flaking

Bill and Vickie flaking out our 2 km fiber optic line from its reel so we can use it for the mission today.

We headed out with our nice new fiber, and started performing sonde drops. Suddenly, Chris said “Umm… I think we’ve lost comms.” ENDURANCE was right in the middle of one of the profiles, with the sonde spooled out almost all the way down. We tried a few things to try to re-establish communications, including testing out everything in the ‘bothouse to make sure the problem was not in there. But nothing worked.
What was worse it that we noticed that the “deadman” process, which is supposed to monitor for communication losses and bring ENDURANCE home if they drop out for too long, had recently died (for as yet undetermined reasons). We hadn’t noticed this, and haven’t yet gotten our audible warning system set up to alert us if the deadman fails.
So now we had ENDURANCE about 400 m from the melthole, not responding, with the sonde spooled out about 25 m, and it was not going to come home by itself. Our first guess was that there was a problem with the new 2 km fiber, but it could also have been a battery problem or problem with other part of the network. Luckily, ENDURANCE was ice picking, i.e. sitting on the underside of the ice and not actively trying to control its position, so we could try to pull it back using the fiber optic tether, just like we did the last time we lost comms. This time it took about 2 hours.
Chris and Shilpa Pulling ENDURANCE

Chris and Shilpa pulling ENDURANCE back to the melthole using the tether.

When ENDURANCE got back to the melthole, we tried disconnecting the new fiber, almost sure that we’d be able to talk to it again. However, no dice. The problem was not with the new fiber, but somewhere else. Hmm… and the sonde was still spooled out, so we couldn’t pull ENDURANCE all the way out.
Luckily, there is another port on the spooler where it can be controlled from. Vickie harnessed up and reached out under the ‘bot to plug in to the port, while Chris stood by on the laptop to see if he could connect.
Looking at Payed Out Sonde

Vickie and Bart looking at the profiler spooler while Chris attempts to connect with it in the background. The green line going in to the melthole is holding the drope sonde.

Success! We managed to bring the sonde up and get ENDURANCE back on its stand in the ‘bothouse. We have a few good ideas as to what’s wrong, but we’ll go back tomorrow and figure it out exactly.

A Day to Relax

11 11 2009

Today started out with a wonderful breakfast (more like a brunch, or actually a lunch) made by Chris.

Chris Breakfast

Chris's breakfast with gravy. Yeaah!

Then I got in my weight lifting session helping Emma around the camp.


Helping Emma move greywater barrels that a helo dropped off.

Later in the afternoon, John Priscu and I took two ATVs over to West Lake Bonney to check on the ‘bothouse, and also gather some glacier berries. Along the way, we paused to climb up a portion of the Taylor Glacier. There is a spot where the ice is not a steep face but more a ramp, and you can actually climb all the way up on top of the glacier and up to the Antarctic Central Plateau. Robert Scott and his party took this route on one of their exploratory missions during the first British National Antarctic Expedition in 1902. John and I just went up a few hundred feet to see the view.

Kristof in the Crack

In one of the melted rills on top of the Taylor Glacier

Glacier Berry Gathering

Gathering glacier berries.

Tomorrow, we’re back to some exciting ENDURANCE missions. This time, we’ll be trying out our new, longer fiber optic tether. Wish us luck!

Success #1

10 11 2009

A brief summary of yesterday’s activities:

The day started off a bit rocky. I made a mistake in both calibrating the navigation instruments and updating the calibration file which resulted in the navigation being off by about 10%. We brought ENDURANCE back, figured out the problem, recharged a bit, reset the navigation, and sent it back out with about a 4 hour delay.

But then everything ran smoothly. ENDURANCE successfully performed 19 sonde drops over a 2.4 km course, including a lot of photos of the bottom of Lake Bonney along the north shore which were of great interest to John Priscu, one of the co-investigators on the project who has been doing research at Lake Bonney for over 20 years. These points represent about 20% of the primary data we want to capture. Of course, we did get the easiest points, so future days will have to be slightly less productive, though not less exciting.

Me at Console

At my station in the 'bothouse watching some of the first images of the bottom of Lake Bonney from this year come in. On the monitor on the upper right is an image from the downward-looking camera on the sonde showing some interesting red streaking in the bottom sediments.

Sonde Capture

One of the images from the sonde camera showing some biological growths on the bottom of Lake Bonney. The white spot on the right is from the light on the sonde.

In the evening, we brought back one of our projectors and celebrated with a showing of The Big Lebowski back at Lake Bonney Camp.

Big Lebowski

Now for Some Zs

9 11 2009

We had a long but successful day today. 19 of 90 planned sonde drop points ticked off in one mission. I think we’re starting to get in the groove, most of our problems now have a solution. It’s about 3:30 am, we’re planning on taking a day off tomorrow in celebration. See all y’all then.

Fresh Breath

8 11 2009

Today, we all woke up to a rare phenomenon in the Dry Valleys. The quiet rustling on the fabric of my fly could only mean one thing: snow!

Snow From Tent Door

View from the door of my tent when I woke up this morning.

We took an easy morning, enjoying the calm, relatively warm weather. I made some pancakes. I ate some pancakes (and shared with everyone). Then we were ready to tackle solving the mystery problems of yesterday.


The team gathered for a brief meeting to decide on what the plan of action would be. We decided to look through as much of the data and logs we had to learn as much as we could before trying to open anything up.
As we looked through everything, a timeline for yesterday’s events began to emerge:
5:51 ENDURANCE begins slowing down to stop for waypoint F5
5:51 ENDURANCE central processor rebooted
5:55 We discover some of the serial ports aren’t working
6:01 We manually rebooted the central processor to fix the serial ports
6:02 The central processor comes up again, serial ports work
6:11 Many processes on ENDURANCE stop working
6:13 We rebooted the central processor again
6:15 The central processor comes up again, no processes work
6:29 We lose all communications with ENDURANCE
6:45 ENDURANCE is retrieved from the melthole

We went through all the evidence and figured out that the two events which had most confused us were pretty easily explained.  The 6:11 event was due to a hard drive filling up, the 6:29 event was due to the batteries running out. However, the original 5:51 event was never completely explained. It seems certain that the batteries restarted at that time, but we see no reason for that to have happened.

We ended the day with a good feeling, we’d figured out most of the most befuddling problems, and have a good idea of what to look for in the future, even if we don’t know the exact cause of the original failure. Tomorrow, we plan to do another science mission, fairly close to the melthole and in a safe area away from the glacier. To finish up the mission, we’ll do a few more tests to try to address some of the issues we think might have caused the original event, and end by running the batteries all the way down to get a better feeling for how they work when they’re almost empty.

Leaving the Bothouse

A happy crew leaving the 'bothouse tonight.

Operational… Kind Of

7 11 2009

The whole team was up and ready to get at it this morning. We took Emma away from her camp manager duties to help us. She has been made responsible for clearing ice that forms on the surface of the melthole every night. The fastest way to do this is to scoop it up while hanging from a harness in the middle of the hole.

Emma on Harness

Bill showing Emma the harness setup in the melthole. Just look at that grin!

Emma Clears Bothole

Emma clearing out the ice crust from the melthole.

She had a blast doing it, just look at the big grin on her face. (Maybe at some point she’ll blog about it. 🙂 )
One of the next tasks was to prepare flags which would mark points at which ENDURANCE would drop the sonde to get a profile of the water chemistry.
Setting Flags

Bart, Emma and Rachel preparing flags to mark the the profiling points.

Bill and Vickie got suited up to go outside to track ENDURANCE from the surface using a magnetic beacon mounted on the ‘bot. They took the flags that Bart, Emma and Rachel prepared to mark the ‘bot position, and took survey-grade GPS readings to get the exact locations of sonde drops to determine distribution of chemicals in the water.
Vickie and Trimble

Vickie with the Trimble differential GPS for measuring the profiling locations.

We started the mission, and knocked off a number of points. Things were looking very good, all systems were humming along, we were getting data, the batteries had plenty of reserve power.
Then things went south. Even further south than our current latitude. First, the fiber optic tether we use to “look over the shoulder” of ENDURANCE got caught on no less than four snag points, forcing us to abort the planned mission and have ENDURANCE retrace its steps several times. We finally got everything unsnagged, and were clicking off a few final data taking points, when suddenly, we lost all communications from the primary ‘bot computer. Not good.
It did come back about 30 seconds later, and had apparently rebooted itself. However, many of the processes on the computer which talk with the various subsystems on ENDURANCE were not running correctly. We were unable to determine the cause of the reboot and why things weren’t working, and eventually we lost all communications with all systems on the ‘bot. Normally, ENDURANCE is able to come back home alone if it loses comms(!) with the ‘bothouse, but not if half of the on-board processes are not working. We ended up having to (very gently) pull ENDURANCE back the 150 m to the melthole using the fiber optic tether (luckily, it has a Kevlar sheath for strength).
Looking for ENDURANCE

The whole team looks on intently as Bill gently pulls ENDURANCE back using the fiber tether.

We finally got ENDURANCE back to the melthole, and brought it out of the water. We managed to repower it and re-establish communications to at least download the data we’d taken earlier in the day, as well as some data to help debug the problem. There was nothing immediately obviously wrong, like any dent or damage. As of this night, we are still at a loss as to what happened. We got back late and are going to sleep in tomorrow to get a fresh start and approach the problem with fresh minds and bodies. At least ENDURANCE is back safely.

ENDURANCE back in the melthole after an adventurous day.


6 11 2009

Sorry all. I’m busy cranking through our calibration data for ENDURANCE’s navigation system tonight, and won’t do an extensive blog post. I’ll give you this picture of Lake Bonney Camp as consolation:

Lake Bonney Camp Panorama

Panorama taken from the helo pad at Lake Bonney Camp. My tent is on the knoll to the right, the main camp Jamesway is in the forground right of center.

Things are going well. More tomorrow.

Frustration and Elation

5 11 2009

This morning we all piled into our ATVs and headed of to the freshly melted ‘bot hole, ready to send ENDURANCE out on its first mission outside the melthole.

ATV on Moat

The Bonney morning commute. Chris driving half the crew on the ATV.

We wanted to do a basic set of tests of all the systems on ENDURANCE, in the actual Lake Bonney environment.
We got to the ‘bothouse and starting going through the launch checklist for ENDURANCE. Before every mission, we clean off sensitive sensors, intialize subsystems and verify that they are working correctly, make sure that everything is plugged in and sealed up, etc. We got to the step of running the test program on the thrusters, and noticed that half of them weren’t working. Hmm… Slightly frustrated, we started trying to figure out what was wrong. It finally turned out that the battery stack that powered those three thrusters had turned off overnight when it had gotten fully recharged. As you know from my previous post, these are new systems, and fairly complex. It turned out we had never really made a clear, easy-to-check indicator of whether the battery stack was on or not, so it took us a while to figure out.
That would all have been fine, but Murphy had some more tricks up his sleeve. In the process of trying to figure out the problem, we had tried to talk to some of the controller units that run the thruster motors. And accidentally set two of them to have the same address. That means, when commands were sent to one motor, both would respond. Not a good condition, since trying to change the address back would make both of them change. The only way we could figure out to reset them back to separate addresses was to unplug one of them. This unfortunately meant opening up the waterproof electronics can, a lengthy process involving the crane, cleaning, O-rings, and a 5-minute nitrogen purge to put everything back together.
Chris and MCU

Chris looking dejectedly at the motor controller electronics housing we had to open up this morning.

We got the thruster all fixed up and the battery turned on, and continued with the checklist, albeit with a few hours delay. I next went to clean of the front of the forward-looking camera on ENDURANCE…and noticed there was water inside the housing. This required another hour delay to disassemble, inspect and reassemble.
Inspecting Camera

Bart, Bill and Vickie inspecting the leaking camera housing.

Finally, with about 4 hours of delay, we got ENDURANCE in the water. And the results were very uplifting. All systems worked. There were a few little things to patch up here and there, but nothing that would throw a wrench in the works.
Best of all was the visualizer that shows what all of the sonar sensors on ENDURANCE “see”, a 3-D view of the underside of Lake Bonney. We were even able to see some objects that we lowered on ropes through the melt hole. This gives us confidence that we’ll be able to detect any forgotten science experiments that might be hanging from the ice roof. We were all very excited about being able to see ENDURANCE moving through it’s new environment on the computer visualization.
Excitement Over DeltaT

The team looking with excitement at the first views from the sonar data under Lake Bonney.

More Melthole Mania

4 11 2009

This morning we finally got ENDURANCE all weighted properly and had finished up all the melting that we wanted to do to finish out the melthole. We were excited to finally get the ‘bot out to do some missions. We went through our launch checklist, got the ‘bot in the water, and placed the dive weight on top which lets ENDURANCE descend the melthole without churning the water too much with its thrusters. Bill was manning the line tied to the dive weight, getting ready to pull it off when ENDURANCE reached its transit depth under the ice. Suddenly, he said “it’s stopped going down,” followed shortly “I wonder if it’s stuck.”
We all looked at each other. Could it be that there was still some protruding parts at the bottom of the melthole that wouldn’t let ENDURANCE pass? I got out the fish cam (a little waterproof camera/lights combo in the shape of a fish which you can drop on a cable and see what thing look like down below on a little TV monitor). Sure enough, when I guided the camera around the perimeter of the syntactic, you could see a little ledge that ENDURANCE was sitting on on one side, and where it was pushed up against the ice wall on the other. After all of the energy that went into it, the hole was still not quite done.
So, we fired up the Hotsies again. Bill and I went around the perimeter of the hole again to look at where to put the melting coils.

Hotsy in Fishcam

View of the Hotsy melting coil at the bottom of the melt hole from the fish cam. You can see the flange of ice that stopped ENDURANCE from going all the way down the hole in front of the coil as we attempt to melt it out.

When we got the Hotsy melt coils back in position, there wasn’t really much else for all of us to do.
Bored in the Bothouse

Shilpa, Rachel and Chris at the control center area in the bothouse, waiting for the Hotsies to work.

After about 15 minutes, Bill came up with the idea that maybe he could go diving with the big ice chipper bar and attack the offending ice lips more effectively than trying to adjust the Hotsies from the surface. So he got kitted up and we dropped him into the melthole.
Bill Diving in Melthole

Bill being lowered into the melthole to perform melthole maintenance.

He managed to knock off some big chunks and smooth out some lumpy areas. Surprising how much he could get done given that he was dressed in an inflated dry suit, with “lobster mits” (the index finger is separate), and floating free in the water as he swung the chipper bar. But he did it! We quickly sent ENDURANCE all the way down the hole before the end of the day. It fit! We even had it move around a little under the ice of Lake Bonney to test out the navigation sensors and new software. Tomorrow, we should be able to do our calibration runs and then start gathering real data on Friday. As Chris would say: “Sweet.”
Bill Diver Talking with Bart

Bill discussing the results of his chipping with Bart while Vickie unzips the back of his drysuit.

It swims!

3 11 2009

Today we got ENDURANCE to float in the melthole free of the crane.

The morning started out with getting the final large chunk of ice out of the melthole. Last night, the Hotsies had been set up to melt a slot cutting off this piece from the bottom of the hole. Finally, the hole is ready for real operations.

Melthole Bottom Lip

Bill taking a picture of the final chunk of ice being pulled out of the melthole. The ice is laced with tracks of bubbles coming up from the underside of the ice.

We finished up bolting on the syntactic and put the final instruments on. ENDURANCE was ready to go in the water.


Bill, Shilpa, Rachel, Vickie and Chris with ENDURANCE all kitted up and ready to go for it's first free swim in the melthole.

However, before it could go off swimming on its own, we had to make sure it wouldn’t sink. Or rather, we needed to adjust its buoyancy just right. If it’s too heavy, it will sink in the event of any kind of power or thruster failure. So you want it to be buoyant. However, if it’s too buoyant, the vertical thrusters will be constantly working to push it down, and it would take a lot of energy (kind of like if you tried to dive underwater while wearing a life vest). So adjusting the buoyancy is a pretty important and delicate step, involving making sure there are no spurious air bubbles trapped inside the ‘bot’s body that might mess up the adjustment, and then carefully adding and removing weights to figure out when it just floats. To complicate things even further, we want ENDURANCE to sit as level as possible in the water, so we also move the weights from side to side and forward and back to take out any listing.
Burping the Bot

Vickie 'burps the 'bot', i.e. rocks it back and forth to get any air trapped underneath to bubble up.

We didn’t get completely finished adjusting the buoyancy. Tomorrow’s plan is to finish that up quickly, and then move on to actually having ENDURANCE do some shakedown missions swimming around and testing out sensors in Lake Bonney.

A World First

2 11 2009

A momentous occasion, poorly documented. Today, Vickie became the first woman ever to dive in Lake Bonney! Unfortunately, I have no pictures of it. You’ll have to look at the Stone Aerospace blog for more details.
We sent her in to check out the progress of the melt hole, especially down at the bottom where it’s difficult for us to tell from the surface what’s going on. She whacked off a few chunks of the most problematic protrusions with an ice axe, and helped us note down what areas still need some work with the Hotsies.

Maciej flew back to town this morning to have his back checked, and the helo taking him out brought in his temporary replacement Lael. Tonight, he reported back that he’s just pulled a muscle and will have to take it easy for a week, but will be back tomorrow.

We also “fixed” the camera problem. That is, we tried to do the same thing as yesterday, but couldn’t replicate it. We played around with it for a while, but the problem didn’t reappear. We feel pretty confident that it was not actually a problem with the camera, but just an operator error or software “glitch.”

According to plan, tomorrow will be the first day that ENDURANCE goes swimming free. Slowly, but surely, we’re making progress towards doing actual missions.

We’re in the Water!

1 11 2009

Woohoo! We finally managed to get ENDURANCE in the water. It was still naked, and couldn’t go in very far, but we’ve gotten the ‘bot wet.

The hole was still slightly too small for ENDURANCE to fit in when we got to the ‘bothouse this morning. So we spent some more time with the Hotsies melting away the ice.

Bill and Bart Discuss Hole Size

Bill and Bart at the moon pool discussing the size of the melthole and how to place the Hotsy melt fingers.

Later in the afternoon, we finally decided that ENDURANCE would be able to fit in, at least far enough to get underwater and test for leaks and basic sensor functioning. We weren’t planning on putting the syntactic flotation, just have the frame hanging from the crane we use to pull ENDURANCE in and out of the moon pool. This gave us a little more wiggle room, but even so, it was a tight fit.
Me and Naked ENDURANCE

Me looking up briefly from watching ENDURANCE as it enters Lake Bonney for the first time this year.

We carefully wrangled ENDURANCE into the hole, carefully checking all around that it wasn’t hitting any of the remaining knobs of ice that hadn’t been fully melted away (we actually kept the Hotsies running and in the water for the whole process). Finally, ENDURANCE was submerged!
ENDURANCE in the Water, Naked

ENDURANCE fully submerged for the first time this year.

We left the ‘bot in the water for about half and hour. Our leak detection system reported all pressure housings were sealed. We even ran the profiling system to pay out the sonde, and it worked great. There was one problem in getting back pictures from the camera on the sonde, but the remaining 200+ subsystems and sensors on board all came up nominal. At least we’ll have something to work on tomorrow. 🙂

Haunted Bonney Halloween

31 10 2009

Today, the evil spirits of All Hallow’s Eve were certainly out and active. First of all, Shilpa woke up this morning in a bad state, swollen and hoarse (she’s been fighting the crud since the day we were leaving McMurdo), and we all agreed it was best if she stayed back at camp to recuperate.
After a delicious breakfast of pumpkin pancakes courtesy of Emma’s 6 am rising, the rest of us headed off to the ‘bothouse on the ATVs to see how progress was going on the melthole. Maciej and Jim had spent the night there tending the melting equipment (a set of diesel burners called “Hotsies”) in an effort to get the hole finished up after numerous breakdowns and delays.

Jim Under Bothouse

Jim adjusting the Hotsy melting coils in the melthole under the 'bothouse.

However, when we arrived, all Hotsies were silent and had run out of fuel, and one of them had sprung a diesel leak which was filling up the secondary containment basin underneath it. In the middle of dealing with this, we were reminded that Maciej and Jim had to go back to camp to pack up another Hotsy that had previously broken so that the helicopter arriving in an hour could take it back to McMurdo to be repaired. While they were gone, we finished up preparing ENDURANCE to do its first dunk in the water.
Emma, Rachel and ENDURANCE

Emma and Rachel working on prepping ENDURANCE.

When ENDURANCE was ready, we fixed up the ‘bothouse while we waited for Jim and Maciej to come back to finish chipping out the hole.
Saluting the Banner

The ENDURANCE project banner is raised in the bothouse.

When they returned after a rather long delay, we found out that Maciej had thrown out his back lifting the Hotsy at camp, and was pretty much down for the count in terms of getting any physical labor done.
Jim and I worked at getting the Hotsies running again, when suddenly, I saw flames coming out of the top of one of them. This is not normal. I ran inside to grab a fire extinguisher and notify people. In the end, Jim turned off the fuel shutoff and the fire was decreasing, so I decided not to spray the sensitive Dry Valley environment with ammonium phosphate fire retardant and just monitored the situation while the fire burned itself out.
Burning Hotsy

Culmination of demons' activities this Halloween: the burning Hotsy.

In the meantime, Rachel had come down with a full-blown case of the crud as well and eventually decided to head back to camp early. Also, Chris burned a big hole in his sock trying to dry it out on the heater.
The melthole never did get finished, though we did manage to put up some skirting around it to keep the wind off it and make it warmer inside the bothouse when we open the moonpool cover (from the perspective of the interior of the ‘bothouse, we refer to the opening through which the ‘bot descends into Lake Bonney as the “moonpool”). Pictures of this tomorrow.

We did end the day on a high note. Emma had prepared a great Halloween celebration when we came back, complete with little carved carrot jack-o-lanterns.


Emma's beautiful Halloween meal. Even the pita bread is a jack-o-lantern.

We even dressed up for the occasion.
Kristof Rocker

Me rockin' the mullet and Stratocaster...ish.

However, the final count for the Halloween demons was three people down, a leaking Hotsy, a Hotsy on fire, a burned sock, an unfinished melthole, and no initial dunk for ENDURANCE. Here’s to praying the saints are nicer to us on their special day tomorrow.