Week 4 Lots of People Arrive - AMANDA Invades South Pole
7th November - 14th November 1999
I don't think I've actually described who AMANDA is. AMANDA stands for Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array. The project is a large international collaboration, but is predominantly Americans and Germans. So what is a neutrino and Muon?? My boss put it well the other night - a muon is a beefy electron, and a neutrino is what is left after a neutron decays into an electron and proton.
Neutrinos are extremely high energy particles that do not interact with anything very well. It was not until the 1950s that they were even detected, after being predicted to exist in the 1930s. Being so elusive makes them irresistible to some people. But there are reasons to study them other than being elusive. Maybe they constitute enough mass in the universe to cause it to eventually collapse back on it self? Because they go straight through almost everything, maybe we will be able to see things at the edge of the universe from which light will never reach us becasue there is so much stuff in the way.
So we are looking at very high energy cosmic rays. But if they don't interact with just about anything, how are they detected? Well, there is a very small probability they will interact with something. When they do they produce very fast Muons. The Muons are going so fast - usually faster than the speed of light in the medium they were produced (not faster than the speed of light in a vacuum of course), that they have to loose energy. This is done by emitting light - Cherencov Radiation. Simple, look for flashes of light in some clear medium. Put enough detectors in the medium with very precise timing and you can even tell where they came from (the Muon will go in the same direction of the Neutrino that produced it). But you had better make that a large amount of clear medium to make up for the very low chance of the Neutrinos interacting. And it just happens that very deep ice, under huge amounts of pressure, is extremely clear. So the AMANDA detector is strings of light detectors 1km long, 1km below the surface of the ice.
You wouldn't know it but Muons and Neutrinos are produced in the atmosphere all the time by high energy cosmic rays. They bombard the surface of the earth, and penetrate deep enough to be detected all the time by AMANDA. So how do you tell them apart from the Muons produced by Neutrinos?? Well for ones coming from the atmosphere above pole, we can't really. But in the other direction a filter is used - the Earth. Because Neutrinos interact so poorly with anything, most of them travel straight through the earth, and a very small number of these will then interact in the ice at SP, and produce Muons that are coming from the direction of the center of the earth. Nothing else can pass through the earth to produce Muons traveling in that direction!!
At present AMANDA consists of 13 strings of detectors in the ice. To increase the sensitivity of the detector it is being expanded, and another 6 string are being installed this summer. This requires lots of people. Over 60 Amandroids, and many drillers will pass through SP during the summer. And the amount of cargo is huge. For each string, three LC-130 flights are required. Early this week my boss Bob Morse arrived to start organising this circus. He arrived with others, and more arrived later in the week. Suddenly I find someone sitting at MY computer in the mornings. And there are many, many more to come. The invasion has begun.
History has shown that one of the greatest threats in Antarctica is fire. To try and avoid disasters elaborate measures are taken to detect fires, and control them if they occur. Back in the heroic age they relied on a night watch. Today there are fire and smoke detectors everywhere. But of course these things go off for reasons other than fires. But they all have to be taken very seriously in case it's for real. This week we had a run of days each with at least one false alarm.
Before we traveled south most of the winter crew attended the Rock Mountain Fire Academy. There we spent a week leaning how hard it is to fight fires, even when your water hoses aren't frozen solid, or break when you try to unroll them. Now we are on ice we have been organised into a fire-team. There is a first response team to go straight to an alarm as quickly as possible. A team 2 that will be sent with equipment, such as breathing apparatus and dry chem extinguishers, once the fire has been assessed. Team 3 will transport any victims to Biomed (the medical center), where they will be treated by the doctor and trauma team. I'm on team 3 and trauma.
When an alarm goes off the fire team has to rush to their stations, get into ECW, get their gear and head for the fire. The rest of the station goes to muster points so they can be accounted for. This is an exhausting exercise for teams 1 and 2, as they usually have to travel some distance to their gear, and then it's heavy. For me I go to Biomed and wait for instructions. So far for half the alarms I've been at Mapo and have had to leg it 1km to the dome - 3 times so far.
With a false alarm there is usually a person on site very quickly and a stand down is issued. But we need to go through the whole process to see if the system will work. So drills are conducted.
This week we had a drill after a number of days with false alarms. This did not impress the night shift workers sleeping during the day. But it's important. I was at Mapo of course when the alarm sounded. I rush down stairs, pile on ECW, grab a fire team VHF radio, and head for the dome. After a short period of time I start to rush a bit as a false alarm would have soon been discovered. From the conversations on the radio it sounded like something serious might be happening in the power house. But there is soon an announcement that a drill is being conducted (otherwise the power might have got shut off). By the time I arrive at Biomed, team 3 had already left, and I had to wait for the victims to be brought in. When they arrived it was the end of the drill. I'm in two minds about unannounced drills. But they are very hard to argue against.
Why wasn't I rushing to the dome for the fire alarm? Even though I've been here a couple of weeks, just walking to Mapo still has me out of breath. Rushing has me panting heavily. During the first few days here I had to collect luggage from a building, DNF (Do Not Freeze), which is outside the dome. My bags were heavy and I couldn't find a spare banana sled. So I carried them and was soon very out of breath, panting heavily. Before I knew it the saliva on the roof of my mouth froze. For a few days my mouth felt as if it'd been scalded. We have been warned it's possible to frost bite your lungs. So it's important to take it easy or risk becoming a victim yourself.
So what is it like to live at the very bottom of the earth. Most days I walk the 1km to Mapo to check the experiments. The ceremonial and geographic poles are a short distance off the packed snow trail to Mapo, and I often make a detour to walk past them. Sometime during my second week here I was walking towards the South Pole, and as I got to within 10 meters or so of it I started to feel a spinning sensation. Within a few steps it became so bad I felt dizzy and unsteady on my feet, and had to stop walking and get my senses together. Of course it was just the altitude combining with my hyperactive imagination. But I think it was the moment that I truely realised I was at what my friend John so nicely put, "the still point of the turning world".
To be continued .......