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January 19, 2021 - An Overdue Update

Stasis. Despite several fairly impactful events since my last post, the feeling of life below the Antarctic circle during the summer is a sense that every day is the same. Gone are the stars and milky way, and along with them the auroras. The bright sun and clear weather is constant and nearly unchanging. The feeling is particularly acute because my world is the station and the telescope. This world was new to me 14 months ago, but today it feels worn-in and comfortable. Same-old-same-old.

But that feeling is hardly fair, and changing quickly. A lot has happened recently. Certainly the arrival of new crew for the summer was a milestone. The first flight of the summer season brought strangers into our home. They weren't strangers for long, but it is an interesting experience after a long winter with your crew. That same flight carried away some close friends. Over the following weeks the number of strangers grew and familiar faces dwindled. It is impossible not to feel as if intruded upon, at least initially. Outgoing winterovers have a reputation of being "toasty", a condition attributed to the long months of isolation and darkness and characterized by a certain level of apathy and bitterness, or maybe a slight disconnection from the world. Before the station opening we would remark to each other how normal we felt, how the "toastiness" didn't get to us. But you don't recognize it until the summer crew begins to arrive, and the predictable lifestyle of winter at pole is turned upside down. Enthusiastic, smiling new faces meet you at every turn. You find yourself wishing everything stayed the same until the day you leave. You might even initially dislike a lot of the new people. Before too long, you get used to the new faces, make new friends, and decide that maybe you've just been here a long time...

Speaking of being here a long time, normal deployments don't last this long. Due to the severity of the pandemic, which right now is surging in the United States and across the world, the US Antarctic Program has severely limited summer operations in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 making it into our research stations. As a result, for science groups such as ours, we are limited to deploying replacement winterovers only. No summer crew. BICEP Array being only one year old and still having the kinks worked out, I was asked to stay for the summer. Having the extended training period for my replacement was judged necessary in order to ensure a successful and safe 2021 winter observing season. Alas, I was denied on medical qualification grounds (that's a long story and don't worry I'm very healthy). After several months of appealing and getting the situation clarified, which was difficult thanks to inefficient and sometimes broken lines of communication, it seemed clear that the most turnover I would get is three weeks. We prepared to expedite some maintenance on the telescope that required warming up the receivers and cooling back down - a process taking three weeks - in time to have the telescope operational before my departure and giving enough time to train my replacement on standard operating procedures.

Sadly, the warmup and cooldown broke the telescope's focal plane, a very delicate part of the instrument. This, of course, generated a true emergency for our experiment. With the prospect of an entire winter observing season being lost with no opportunity to send any help for repairs, we made a final appeal to keep me here for the summer so together Brandon (my replacement) and I could attempt a repair. I found out I got approval to stay literally while standing in line to weigh my bags for the flight.

Luckily my extension looks to have paid off. The telescope has just finished cooling back down to operational temperatures and a preliminary look at the data suggests that everything is working well again. The architecture of the readout electronics is such that if a single module (focal plane image sensor tile) fails in a certain way, the entire system is unreadable. Until we had removed the BA1 receiver from the mount and disassembled it, we were not sure of the extent of the damage or if it was recoverable at all. Fortunately we were able to electrically bypass the failed module, remove it, and put the receiver back together again. Our tests so far show that it is in good working order, though we have lost 1 of 12 focal plane tiles. This was actually a lot of fun, once we got over the sadness of having a broken telescope and figured out that it was fixable.

Christmas eve BA1 "unboxing"!
Putting humpty dumpty back together.

Aside from the above, there have been holidays and special events, of course. Thanksgiving and Christmas is always special here. We don't have the opportunity to go home for the holidays, so we celebrate with the 'family' we have here on station. The holiday meals that are put out are extravagant, to say the least! There is the annual "Race Around the World", a slightly over two mile fun run over the new year weekend. And week and a half ago I participated in the South Pole Marathon. It isn't as grueling as it sounds, but yes it is a full marathon outside at the south pole. Surprisingly the cold is not bad at all. I wear some midweight hiking socks in my running shoes, heavyweight merino wool baselayers, pants and a light jacket, along with midweight winter gloves, a face mask, goggles and hat. But training is hard to keep up with. The running surface here varies between as hard as concrete, to chunks of ice that turn your ankle, to soft snow, and everything in between. It can be a little rough at times. The pressure altitude of ~10,000 feet doesn't help either. You only get 2 2-minute showers per week here, too. In the winter training outside is out of the question. All in all it is just harder to work up the motivation to train than it is back home. For this year's marathon I finished in a slow but respectable 5 hours 31 minutes. I'm just happy to have finished, despite taking way longer than what I have been able to do at home. And besides... it feels good to suffer every now and then!

All in all it has been a good summer. I'm glad I got to stay, though I am especially looking forward to going home now, despite the pandemic. I can't wait to be able to go outside in positive temperatures again! Only a few more days before I start my journey back North.