Water, water, everywhere… and all of it frozen

Posted July 26th, 2016 at 2:37 pm (UTC-4)
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The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The view from atop Castle Rock. On the horizon you can see open water. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Despite being surrounded by the world’s largest supply of fresh water, the South Pole is driest place on earth. Not a drop of liquid H2O exists—not for hundreds of miles in any direction. Temperatures, which never climb above freezing even on the warmest days of summer, keep our fresh water supply frozen—locked away in plain sight.

Of course, without access to water, Amundsen-Scott Station wouldn’t be here. Water is essential to our everyday living, from cooking meals and mopping floors, to doing the occasional load of laundry and flushing toilets. During an average winter day, the South Pole station uses over 4500 liters (1200 gallons) of fresh water. In the summer, this number can quadruple.

So where does all this water—the cure for our parched mouths, cracked lips, and dry tongues, the source of our most prized luxuries, warm showers and hot coffee—come from? How do we meet our never-ending demand for the elixir of life?

In short, we melt it and pump it into the station.

Ice tunnels run from the lowest level of the main station to the base of the rodwell. Large, heated, insulated pipes carry the water to the station’s treatment plant. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Ice tunnels run from the lowest level of the main station to the base of the rodwell. Large, heated, insulated pipes carry the water to the station’s treatment plant. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Though basic in concept—apply heat to ice to make fresh water—the process has evolved greatly, especially in the last 20 years. Originally, the station used a massive water maker that had to be manually filled with snow, and heated using warm glycol. This was an energy-intensive set-up and the heavy equipment took a beating, especially during the colder winter months.

In the 1990s, the station switched from the above-ground water maker, to a specially designed “Rodriguez Well,” named for Army engineer Raul Rodriguez, who originally came up with the idea.

The rodwell, as it’s known, is “dug” using a hot water sprayer to melt through the top 30 meters (100 feet) of the ice-cap—an uncompressed layer of snow and air, known as the firn—and burrow into the more dense ice layers below. A pump is lowered into the hole, and hot water warmed by exhaust in the power plant is flushed into the well. That melts more ice, which is then pumped back to the station.

A dizzying trip from the depths of the rodwell up to the surface of the icecap.

Unlike more traditional wells, the rodwell’s effective lifespan is fairly limited. As the well produces more and more water, it becomes deeper and wider. When it reaches a depth of 150 meters (500 feet), it’s no longer efficient to continue pumping water to the surface, and typically a new well is drilled. We are currently on the station’s fourth rodwell. This one is about 30 meters (100 feet) below the firn and holds more than 700,000 liters (190,000 gallons) of water. By the end of its life span, it will have produced more than five times that.

The rodwell building houses the entrance to the rodwell as well as the pumps that push and pull water to and fro from the main station. The two hoses from the large coil (right) carry water out of the rodwell at just above freezing, and deliver warm water to melt more snow and ice. (Photo by Refael Klein)

The rodwell building houses the entrance to the rodwell as well as the pumps that push and pull water to and fro from the main station. The two hoses from the large coil (right) carry water out of the rodwell at just above freezing, and deliver warm water to melt more snow and ice. (Photo by Refael Klein)

As you can imagine, the water we get at the South Pole is some of the purest available on the planet. In fact, there are so few dissolved minerals in it that we end up having to run it through a limestone matrix to increase its mineral content. If we didn’t, it would strip the solder from our pipes and be unhealthy to drink. Even so, if you are eager to try the fresh “unadulterated” liquid goodness, straight from the depths of the icy continent’s frozen ocean, you can, at a spigot found in our water treatment plant. Bizarrely, the water doesn’t taste much different than the water anywhere else.  It’s flavorless, cold and thirst quenching.

Like the rings on a tree, you can tell the age of any layer of ice by measuring the number of rings above it. With the bottom of our rodwell 60 meters (200 feet) below the surface of the ice-cap, we are melting water from the 15th century. Every time I lean over the water fountain, I’m drinking water that was frozen by the time the Incas built Machu Picchu, and Christopher Columbus set out on his journey across the Atlantic. It’s a bizarre feeling—poor man’s time travel at the bottom of the world.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

They’re Sure It Exists, But Scientists Still Unable to Detect Dark Matter

Posted July 23rd, 2016 at 12:55 am (UTC-4)
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Artist impression of the Milky Way. The blue halo of material surrounding the galaxy indicates the expected distribution of the mysterious dark matter. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Artist impression of the Milky Way. The blue halo of material surrounding the galaxy indicates the expected distribution of the mysterious dark matter. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Back in 1933, Caltech astronomer and astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky was observing the Coma cluster, a large group of galaxies located some 321 million light years away in the Coma Berenices constellation.

He noticed the speed of the galaxies rotating within the cluster was much faster than the quantity of its mass he had calculated.

According to Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Zwicky thought this difference should have caused the galaxies to spin-off from the cluster.

So, he then figured that for all his observational information to add up with Newton’s theory, along with matter that could be seen, the cluster also had to contain a good amount of some kind of material that couldn’t be seen.

He called this invisible substance “dark matter.”

This false-color mosaic of the central region of the Coma cluster combines infrared and visible-light images to reveal thousands of faint objects - green (NASA / JPL-Caltech / L. Jenkins (GSFC))

A false-color mosaic of the central region of the Coma cluster. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / L. Jenkins (GSFC))

In the years since Fritz Zwicky’s finding, researchers have been trying feverishly to make an actual detection of dark matter.

Most are quite sure of its existence because of the gravitation influence it has on various cosmic objects, such as what Zwicky found with the Coma cluster in 1933.

The way light bends as it makes it way through space is another clue scientists say also points to dark matter.

NASA says this mystery material makes up roughly 27 percent of the known or observable universeDark energy, the force said to be responsible for the expansion of the universe, is thought to make up nearly 68 percent while normal matter, the things we can see and touch, makes up the remaining 5 percent.

Now, some 83 years after Zwicky’s discovery, a group of scientists say that despite searching for twenty months, with what is said to be the world’s most sensitive dark matter detector, they still have not been able to directly detect even a trace of the mysterious stuff .

Scientists with the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter experiment, presented findings of their experiment’s final run at the Identification of Dark Matter 2016 conference (IDM 2016), held this past week in Sheffield, England.

The dark matter experiment was conducted at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, located  beneath a little more than 1.6 km of earth and rock in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The scientific consortium found that the sensitivity of their detector, a 370 kg liquid xenon time-projection chamber, was four times greater than they expected. They contend that if any dark matter particles had actually interacted with their device – it would have pointed them out.

To search for dark matter the scientists say their experiment was set-up to look for WIMPS, otherwise known as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, which is where they think they’ll be able to find dark matter.

Inside the water tank of the LUX detector: The vessel at the center is filled with liquid xenon, which is sensitive to hypothetical dark matter particles called WIMPs. (C. H. Faham/LUX Collaboration)

Inside the water tank of the LUX detector: The vessel at the center is filled with liquid xenon, which is sensitive to hypothetical dark matter particles called WIMPs. (C. H. Faham/LUX Collaboration)

They theorize every second, billions of these WIMP particles are actually passing through our bodies, everything that surrounds us and through the Earth itself.

According to the scientists, we don’t notice this continual bombardment because the interaction of these WIMP particles with ordinary matter is quite weak.

Over its last 20 month run – October 2014 through May 2016 – the researchers say their experiment gathered and then analyzed nearly 500 terabytes or 500,000 gigabytes worth of data.

While they were unable to actually detect any dark matter, the LUX scientists say their experiment did eliminate a good number of possible models where the WIMP particles might be found.

The LUX team says their research and findings will also help future investigators in their hunt for dark matter.

The LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, which is set to replace LUX at the Sanford Underground Research Facility will continue the search some time in 2020.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

X Marks the Spot; New Radiation Monitor on ISS; 3D Astronomical Map

Posted July 20th, 2016 at 3:22 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission observed and gathered data of the entire sky twice in 2010. Astronomers then used the data to find the X-shaped structure in the bulge of the Milky Way. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/D.Lang)

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission observed and gathered data of the entire sky twice in 2010. Astronomers then used the data to find the X-shaped structure in the bulge of the Milky Way. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/D.Lang)

X Marks the Center of the Milky Way

When we hear “X marks the spot,” many of us might think of old pirate maps and where treasure is supposedly buried.

But “X marks the spot” could also have more of a cosmic meaning, thanks to a new study published in the Astronomical Journal.

The study’s two authors say that the X, in this case, marks the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE space telescope, a configuration of stars forming the letter X was could be seen within the galactic bulge located at the heart of the galaxy.

NASA describes this bulge as a round structure of tightly packed material that includes old stars, gas, and dust. The space agency says the Milky Way’s bulge is about 10,000 light years across.

While previous reports have mentioned the central X structure, the authors say data gathered for their study provides the clearest indication of the X shape so far.

Grooves and gashes near the moon's Imbrium Basin have long stumped astronomers. New research examined these features to estimate the size of the object whose impact created this lunar feature. Researchers found that it was big enough to be considered a protoplanet. (NASA/Northeast Planetary Data Center/Brown University)

New research examined grooves and gashes found near the moon’s Imbrium Basin  to estimate the size of the object whose impact created this lunar feature. (NASA/Northeast Planetary Data Center/Brown University)

Lunar Impact Basin Created by Huge Asteroid

Researchers have recently determined an asteroid that smashed into the moon some 3.8 billion years ago to form the Imbrium impact basin was more than 241 kilometers across, which is much larger than thought.

Previous estimates, based solely on computer models, have indicated the asteroid was only about 80 kilometers in diameter.

Sizable areas of the huge crater formed by the impact were later filled with basaltic lava and other materials.

Writing in the journal “Nature,” the scientists from Rhode Island’s Brown University suggest that the asteroid that formed the Imbrium basin was so enormous that it could have been classified as a protoplanet, an object that later can become a planet.

Based on the sizes of other impact basins, not only on the moon but also the planets Mars and Mercury, the scientists say their findings also suggest that the early solar system was full of protoplanet-sized asteroids.

The researchers made their findings after conducting experiments at NASA’s Vertical Gun Range at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Wearable units of the new European Crew Personal Active Dosimeter – EuCPAD – system for active radiation monitoring of astronauts in orbit. ((c) ESA)

Wearable units of the new European Crew Personal Active Dosimeter (EuCPAD) system for active radiation monitoring of astronauts in orbit. ((c) ESA)

New ESA Radiation Monitoring Tool Sent to ISS

Radiation is among the many health dangers that humans face in outer space.

For crewmembers aboard the International Space Station radiation exposure is currently monitored with a number of instruments.

Individual radiation doses are also measured with a device called the crew passive dosimeter (CPD), which is carried by each ISS crewmember for the duration of their time in space.

But these devices are only read and processed after the astronaut returns to Earth.

A more sophisticated personal monitoring instrument developed for the European Space Agency has been included in the recent shipment to the ISS.

Called the European Crew Personal Active Dosimeter (EuCPAD), this new device will provide crewmembers with a real-time picture of their radiation exposure.

The new system, which can distinguish radiation from the sun, the Van Allen belts or from the far reaches of the galaxy, will also help scientists prepare for deep space travel.

This is one slice through the map of the large-scale structure of the Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. (Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III)

This is one slice through the map of the large-scale structure of the Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. (Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III)

1.2 Million Galaxies in New 3D Astronomical Map

A research team, made-up of hundreds of physicists and astronomers from throughout the world, have built the largest 3D map of distant galaxies that has been created so far.

They claim the map has allowed them to precisely measure of dark energy, a mysterious force that scientists say is behind the current accelerated expansion of the universe.

To produce the map, the team took measurements over a five-year period of some 1.2 million galaxies that reside in one quarter of the sky or about 650 cubic billion light-years of the universe.

The measurements used to construct the map came from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey or BOSS, which is a program of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-3.

The researchers say their new map allows scientists to measure just how fast the universe is expanding, which will help them to figure-out the amount of matter and dark energy that makes up our Universe.

Hops on the Vine in Oregon (Visitor7 via Wikimedia Commons)

Hops on the Vine in Oregon (Visitor7 via Wikimedia Commons)

Key Beer Ingredient May Someday Reduce Breast Cancer Risk

Among the important ingredients used to make beer are hops, the seed cones of the hop plant. They’re also used in the manufacture of dietary supplements to help women relieve post-menopausal symptoms.

Now, lab tests conducted by a research team at the University of Illinois at Chicago has found that an enhanced hops extract could also someday be used to ward off breast cancer.

Researchers created compounds from the fortified hops extracts and then applied them to two different breast cell lines.

They wanted to see if any of the compounds had an effect on the metabolism of estrogen, something that’s considered a key process in breast cancer.

A compound, called 6-PN was created from the fortified hops extract and preliminary test results are suggesting that it could have anti-cancer effects.

But additional research must be conducted to further investigate possible helpful effects of the hops-based compound.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Sticking with a Daily Routine at the South Pole

Posted July 19th, 2016 at 2:35 pm (UTC-4)
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I arrived in Antarctica on a clear, sunny day in October, 2015.  The Mount Erebus volcano dominated the horizon, sending large clouds of steam and smoke high into the air.  Minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-28C) felt cold at the time, and watching my breath glide from my mouth and disappear into the landscape was hypnotizing. Like living through a Dali painting, I was melting into the continent and the continent was melting into me.

NOAA's Refael Klein walks to work at the South Pole. (Photo by Hunter Thomas)

NOAA’s Refael Klein walks to work at the South Pole. (Photo by Hunter Davis)

To step off the grey LC130 and stand on the McMurdo ice runway was the culmination of a boyhood dream– a romantic adventure, a challenge I couldn’t refuse– a one year assignment to work as the Station Chief to the Global Monitoring Division’s Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO) at the South Pole.  Twelve months stretched in front of me, one 6 month long day and one 6 month long night, filled with ice crystal clouds, brilliant stars and dancing auroras. Most people would live their whole lives without experiencing those sights, but not me!

Now, eight months in, two-thirds of the way through my assignment, I’m experiencing another side of the Polar experience: extreme tedium, the result of an endless routine and an ever-present night, so thick and dark that even one’s imagination feels smothered.

During long deployments as a Deck Officer on board NOAA’s fleet of oceanographic research ships, I learned the best way to make the best of life in a confined space, to keep yourself sane when your existence begins in your head and ends at the horizon.  On the ocean – liquid or frozen, it makes no difference – finding a routine and mustering the discipline to stick with it is key—as important as a sense of humor or a warm pair of mittens.

There is no beginning or end to my week.  I walk to ARO each morning, and return each afternoon.  I haven’t missed a day of work since I arrived on station.  If I’m sick, I walk to work. If it is minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-73C), I walk to work.  If I broke my foot, I would limp to work.  My walk, as heinously cold as it can be, reminds me of where I am, an existential fact that becomes harder and harder to recognize the more time you spend inside the windowless, odorless, 70 degree (21C) world that we call our Station.

Long winter nights mean ample opportunity to pursue hobbies and recreation. Some hone their carpentry skills, others write novels, the author hones his climbing skills in the station's bouldering cave.

Long winter nights mean ample opportunity to pursue hobbies and recreation. Some hone their carpentry skills, others write novels, the author hones his climbing skills in the station’s bouldering cave.

After work, I work out. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I go to the gym, and spend an hour on the stationary bike or treadmill.  Sometimes, I’ll lift free weights for a few minutes afterwards, but usually it’s just an hour of cardio, enough to get through an NPR podcast about the Flint, Michigan water crisis or watch an episode of this or that on the gym’s flat screen television.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I make the quarter-mile trek to the summer camp gym, and spend an hour and a half climbing on the green, blue and pink plastic holds that make up the South Pole Climbing wall.  Sometimes, I’ll do calisthenics afterwards—a few pushups and crunches, but usually it’s just 90 minutes of climbing, enough to get through half an episode of KDVS radio station’s New Day Jazz or Crossing Continents.

Sweaty and tired, I make my way back to my room, take an Amundsen-Scott Station regulation two-minute shower if it is a Cardio Day, change clothes and walk the 101 feet (30 meters) that separate my room from the entrance to the galley.  Dinner is served from 1700 to 1830. I always arrive at 1800, and try to finish in a half-hour, so I can get my dirty dishes into the dish pit before it closes.

A good selection of cardio equipment and weights helps chase away the winter blues. Many on station use the Antarctic winter to train for Marathons, Long distance hikes and other rigorous pursuits.

A good selection of cardio equipment and weights helps chase away the winter blues. Many on station use the Antarctic winter to train for Marathons, Long distance hikes and other rigorous pursuits.

It’s evening now, and thanks to an exhausting and cold walk back and forth from ARO, and another hour plus spent exercising in a more traditional manner, I’m ready to sit down on the couch in the greenhouse and read for a few hours, or appropriate the television in the station’s lounge to watch a movie–a musical, a B-movie, or a Criterion Collection Classic. Regardless of what I watch, I’m swept away; the sterility of the ice cap makes it exceptionally easy to become engrossed in anything that isn’t frozen, arid and dark.

If it’s a Sunday, I’ll squirrel myself away in my room early and begin to write my weekly blog.  I’ll write about what happened that week, about the nuisances of my routine, about the research projects I help operate, about the occasional departures from the ordinary: a good meal, a good laugh, or an exceptionally bright full moon.  I’ll write in prose, and in coded messages that only those in the know can decipher.  I’ll write in lists and doodle in between the lines, trying to keep my thoughts lucid and find the words that bring my polar adventure – the excitement and the tedium – to life.

 

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Space Snow Spotted; Frankenstein Galaxy; Fewer Allergies for Thumb Suckers

Posted July 13th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Artist impression of the water snowline around the young star V883 Orionis, as detected with ALMA. Credit: A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Artist impression of the water snowline around the young star V883 Orionis. ( A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO))

Astronomers Spot Snow Circling New Star

For the first time, astronomers have been able to get a glimpse of a water “snowline” in a protoplanetary disk, which is the material surrounding a new star that may later form into planets.

This water “snowline” marks the point within these left overs of star formation where the temperature and pressure drop to a point to allow water ice to form.

These “snowlines” usually form closer to a star whose light overwhelms any possible observation.

In this case it was formed farther out than normal from the star, identified as V883 Orionis, so astronomers were able to image it with the ALMA radio telescope in Chile.

It’s believed that a sudden and significant increase in the brightness of the star is what pushed the “snowline” out to where it could be seen.

The astronomers say that this phenomenon is about 6 billion kilometers from the star, comparable to the orbit of Pluto in our solar system.

Piston of a 3.5 L (210 cu in) Ford EcoBoost gasoline direct injection engine (Wikimedia Commons)

Piston of a 3.5 L (210 cu in) Ford EcoBoost gasoline direct injection engine (Wikimedia Commons)

New Gas Saving Cars May Add to Climate Change

Many drivers today prefer vehicles that use less petrol and cost less to operate.

But a new Canadian study suggests that although fuel-efficient technologies may provide more miles per gallon, some of these new gas saving internal combustion engines could actually contribute to climate change.

To provide their customers with vehicles that offer high performance, while using less gas, automakers have been turning to a small new type of fuel-efficient engine known as the gasoline direct injection, or GDI engine.

The study found that that while GDI engines emit less carbon dioxide, they also produce higher levels of the climate-warming pollutant black carbon than traditional engines.

The researchers suggest installing more effective filters in GDI engines, at the risk of slightly lower fuel-efficiency, but preserving the technology’s net benefit for the environment.

Say hello to the Frankenstein or UGC 1382 galaxy. Low density hydrogen gas shown in green (NASA/JPL)

Say hello to the Frankenstein or UGC 1382 galaxy. Low density hydrogen gas shown in green (NASA/JPL)

Frankenstein Galaxy Detected

Lying some 250 million light years away, in what is described as a quiet and unexceptional section of the universe, astronomers have discovered a gigantic and quite unusual galaxy.

What makes UGC 1382 such an oddity is that they believe it was formed from the parts of other galaxies.

So they’ve nicknamed it the Frankenstein Galaxy, after the fictional monster made from body parts taken from various corpses.

At first this mammoth galaxy was thought to be just a tiny, old and normal galaxy.

But after sifting through data gathered by a couple of NASA’s space telescopes, along with several ground based telescopes, the astronomers realized that the galaxy was a rotating disk of low-density gas that’s seven times wider than the Milky Way.

Thumb Sucking/Nail Biting Kids Develop Fewer Allergies

A New Zealand based study suggests that children who are exposed to microbial organisms at an early age, through thumb sucking or nail biting, are less likely to develop allergies.

The study finds that children that engage in both of these habits are less likely to develop allergies to common triggers such as house dust mites, grass, cats, dogs, horses or airborne fungi.

Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago made their findings from data gathered by the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study.

The long-term study followed into adulthood about one-thousand participants who were born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972 and 1973.

Despite their findings, the researchers say that they are not suggesting that children be encouraged to engage in thumb sucking or nail biting, since it is still uncertain if there are any real health benefits from acquiring these habits.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

Fixings for a Feast at the South Pole

Posted July 5th, 2016 at 1:34 pm (UTC-4)
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Seventy thick, grass-fed buffalo strip steaks sat in front of me, each individually vacuumed-sealed in a clear plastic bag—red, red meat, wrapped in a red, red film of Myoglobin and water. I found myself a large, green plastic cutting board and an open section of stainless counter next to a deep sink, then I grabbed a red plastic-handled serrated paring knife and a pair of disposable latex gloves—size medium. In the next hour, each one of those steaks would need to be opened, trimmed, patted dry and seasoned.

This was going to be a bloody mess—a hell of a way to celebrate the middle of winter.

It's a rare sight to have the entire station in one room at the same time, but even the most introverted can't say no to the delectable treats that the kitchen prepares for Mid-Winter Dinner. (Photo by Refael Klein)

It’s a rare sight to have the entire station in one room at the same time, but even the most introverted can’t say no to the delectable treats that the kitchen prepares for Mid-Winter Dinner. (Photo by Refael Klein)

A week ago, a sign-up sheet had been posted at the entrance of the galley to recruit volunteers for midwinter dinner— a celebration of the solstice. It was a call for extra stewards to help set-up the banquet, pour drinks, serve appetizers and bus tables, and extra dishwashers to clean up afterwards. Having always enjoyed entertaining, I decided to add my name to the list, and lend my services as an amateur waiter, sommelier, cicerone, and expediter.

Dressed in my only nice non-uniform clothes, a pair of fitted green-grey chinos and a blue and black flannel I had picked up from a small men’s store in Brooklyn, I waltzed into the galley. Appetizers were scheduled to be served in the foyer in 30 minutes, and I knew the head-chef, Darby Butts, would need someone to un-cork bottles of wine, ice sodas and arrange cheese and charcuterie platters for service.

In the South Pole kitchen, three men in white aprons, black pants and baseball caps, were busy at work—filling pastry bags with mousse, rolling out mounds of dough and whisking dressings. They were a sight to behold, a well-oiled machine, working in near silence with a precision and focus that was as palpable as a humid August day in Washington, DC.

Not wanting to interrupt their ballet, I stood at the entrance to the kitchen with a glass of water in my hand, and waited for a break in the chopping, a joke or expletive, some type of opening in which I could ask, “what do you need me to do?” without disrupting their cooking cadence, which had reached the extreme speed and power of a Japanese bullet train. To interrupt them at the wrong moment could derail them—and I didn’t need a severed finger or a burnt pastry resting on my conscience.

“Get your ass in here,” said Darby with the devilish grin of a young boy who had just finished popping all the heads off of his younger sister’s Barbie Dolls. “You see all these steaks?” referring to a mountain of red meat overflowing from a hotel pan. “You are our new prep cook, anything the Sous needs you to do, you do, starting with these,” picking up one of the flaccid steaks like a rag doll and indifferently throwing it back onto the pile. With a bewildered “Okay,” I found an apron and got to work.

Busy at work, Chef KC Loosemore prepares shortbread pastry shells for his Peruvian Cocoa Nib Mousse Tarts. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Busy at work, Chef KC Loosemore prepares shortbread pastry shells for his Peruvian Cocoa Nib Mousse Tarts. (Photo by Refael Klein)

We had one hour to get things ready and set in the steamer line. The steaks would be cooked to order, but they all had to be prepped and staged next to the grill before the galley doors opened, and 48 tipsy, hungry and excited individuals found their seats at two long, white tableclothed banquet tables that had been decorated with candles and origami swans.

Adrenaline racing, I worked with a singular focus—cut, trim, dry, salt, pepper, repeat—  until three cookie pans were packed with steaks, staged and ready for their communion with fire. With fifteen minutes remaining, I wiped down my counter with soap and bleach, cleaned my knives and ran my cutting board through a large industrial sterilizer.

When I returned to my work station, a plastic grocery bag filled with herbs—mountain mint and fresh basil—lay where my cornucopia of buffalo once sat. Before I could say a word, the Sous handed me a 10-inch chef’s knife, and gave me a one word command: “chiffonade.” I nodded, dropped my head, and began picking the aromatic leaves off their spindly branches—pick, stack, chop, repeat—until the pound of herbs had been tamed into a pile of evenly ribboned confetti.

I looked at my work, and breathed a sigh of accomplishment. It had been eight months since I did any cooking, and I managed to get through an hour of it without making a total fool of myself or severing a major artery.

The first people began to enter the galley, making their way to their seats, with half-finished bottles of wine, mingling with each other with the combination of ease and restlessness that can only be found among those who are two-thirds of the way through a one-year contract at the South Pole.

The kitchen continued to hum, the finishing touches frantically put onto each dish as it was nestled into position on the line atop the steamer trays. I ran a platter of pastries to the dessert table– Peruvian Cocoa Nib Mousse Tarts, garnished with cashew florentines and thin triangles of coconut and chocolate caramel. With extreme self-control, I managed to not pick one off the tray and eat it with my bare hands. Instead, I removed my apron and sat down at a special table that had been reserved for those volunteering that night.

Having spent the last hour plus in the kitchen, I knew the menu inside and out: Grilled bison strip steaks with black truffle demi-glace, potato gnocchi—the last of our fresh potatoes—tossed in a white truffle cream sauce, channa masala tossed with fresh herbs, roasted asparagus wrapped in phyllo dough with a honey balsamic reduction, and a beautiful, fresh green house salad with herb vinaigrette and house-made ciabatta croutons. And those tarts!

Perhaps even more challenging than working as a prep-cook in the kitchen, is figuring out how to maximize the area on your plate and the room in your stomach. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Perhaps even more challenging than working as a prep-cook in the kitchen, is figuring out how to maximize the area on your plate and the room in your stomach. (Photo by Refael Klein)

Rich and tempting aromas rolled off the line, and while some say the Winter Site manager gave a spirited speech—as is tradition– I can’t recall it, so focused was I on the decadent foods I was about to pile high on my plate. And I’m sure I contributed to the quiet drone of rumbling stomachs that could be heard throughout the galley.

This was going to be a night to remember—a five star meal at the bottom of the earth.

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Jupiter’s Auroras; Distant Universe in Detail; Severe Fire Season For Amazon

Posted July 1st, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Astronomers are using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet's atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. (NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester))

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras on the poles of  Jupiter. (NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester))

NASA’s Hubble and Juno Probe Study Jupiter’s Auroras

As NASA’s probe Juno buzzes closer and closer for its 4th of July rendezvous with Jupiter, astronomers are using the good ole Hubble Space Telescope to study the planet’s auroras, which are just like our own northern and southern lights.

These spectacular light shows in the Jovian atmosphere hover above the giant planet’s two poles just like they do on Earth.

Scientists say they are created when high-energy particles, such as the solar wind or from disturbances of the sun, enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles and smash into gas atoms.

NASA says that while Hubble takes care of observing and measuring Jupiter’s auroras, Juno is gauging the properties of the solar wind itself.

Scientists want to find out how various elements of the Jovian auroras react to different conditions within the solar wind.

An image of a small section (0.4 percent) of the UDS field. Most of the objects in the image are very distant galaxies, observed as they were over 9 billion years ago. (Omar Almaini, University of Nottingham)

UDS image of a small section of the distant universe. (Omar Almaini, University of Nottingham)

New Images Provide Detailed View of Distant Universe

A group of British astronomers just released a number of infrared images that provide an extraordinarily deep and detailed view of the distant universe.

Final data released from the Ultra-Deep Survey, a component of the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey, allowed the astronomers to create a map of an area of space that’s four times the size of the full Moon.

The survey spotted 250,000 galaxies, several hundred of which show light that was produced within the first billion years after the Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago).

The Ultra Deep Survey began scanning the skies in 2005 with astronomers using a wide field near-infrared camera mounted on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Scientists involved with the Ultra Deep Survey say that their new images will help astronomers to study and get a better understanding of some of the earliest phases of the formation and evolution of galaxies.

The smoke from multiple fires in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil rises over forested and deforested areas in this astronaut photograph taken from the International Space Station on August 19, 2014. International Space Station (NASA)

The smoke from multiple fires in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil rises over forested and deforested areas in a photo taken from the International Space Station on 8/19/14.  (NASA)

NASA El Nino Data Predicts Nasty Amazon Fire Season Ahead

Scientists at NASA and the University of California, Irvine are predicting that the El Nino that took place during late 2015 into early 2016 will produce an intense fire season for the Amazon region of South America.

This periodic weather phenomenon caused a change the rainfall pattern for many parts of the world over the past year, with some areas getting more rain than usual while others got much less.

For the Amazon region, the scientists say that the recent El Nino cut back the amount of rain that fell during its wet season, which usually lasts from November until May.

According to NASA satellite data, the decreased rainfall left this huge area of South America drier at the start of its 2016 dry season, which lasts from July through September, than any year since 2002.

Jim Randerson, a professor of Earth system science at the University of California Irvine says that this is the driest he has seen at the start of a fire season. He says that an important challenge right now is to come up with ways to use what they’ve learned to help limit damages in coming months.

Artist impression of ESA's Rosetta approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet image was taken on 2 August 2014 by the spacecraft's navigation camera at a distance of about 500 km. (Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Artist impression of ESA’s Rosetta approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet image was taken on 8/2/14 by the spacecraft’s navigation camera at a distance of about 500 km. (Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Comet Chasing Spacecraft to Wrap-Up Mission in September

The European Space Agency says its comet chasing Rosetta orbiter will wrap up its mission on September 30th.

That’s when the space agency will send the spacecraft on a controlled descent to the surface of its comet, 67P-Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

ESA says the mission has to end because the spacecraft and the comet are traveling too far from the sun, which is reducing the solar power needed to operate Rosetta and its instruments.

Adding to the decision to terminate the mission is the plain fact that the spacecraft is pretty much near the end of its life, having to deal with the harsh environment of space for over twelve years, two of which was spent close to the dusty comet.

As it drops to the surface of 67P during the final hours of its mission Rosetta will capture some close up images and make a number of what ESA calls once-in-a-lifetime measurements of the comet.

Photographs of the megalithic cluster of Carregal do Sal: a) Dolmen da Orca, a typical dolmenic structure in western Iberia; b) view of the passage and entrance while standing within the d'window of visibility'; c) Orca de Santo Tisco, a much smaller passage or corridor. (F. Silva)

Photographs of the megalithic cluster of Carregal do Sal: a) Dolmen da Orca, a typical dolmenic structure in western Iberia; b) view of the passage and entrance while standing within the d’window of visibility’; c) Orca de Santo Tisco, a much smaller passage or corridor. (F. Silva)

How Were Astronomical Observations Made 6,000 Years Ago?

It’s thought that the first optic telescopes emerged sometime in the 17 century.

But is it possible that ancient stargazers could have studied the heavens with their own observation tools long before the modern telescope was invented?

In a project presented to the National Astronomy meeting, that was held this past week in England, scientists proposed to learn whether or not long, narrow passageways or prehistoric tombs were used as a way to enhance views of the night sky some 6,000 years ago.

The scientists want to find out if the human eye might be able to see stars of any given brightness or color without the help of any telescopic device in locations such as the Seven-Stone Antas in central Portugal.

Those proposing this investigation say that perhaps ancient astronomers were able to better observe certain stars from deep within one of these passageways.  The researchers also suggest that in ancient times, spotting a particular star, after not being able to see it for a period of time, may have provided a way to mark the seasons.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

June 2016 Science Images

Posted June 29th, 2016 at 3:30 pm (UTC-4)
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NASA and the aerospace company Orbital ATK fired up its Space Launch System’s booster for its second and final test on 6/28/16 at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. A pair of boosters such as this will provide 75 percent of thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, in NASA’s planned Journey to Mars. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA and the aerospace company Orbital ATK fired up its Space Launch System’s booster for its second and final test on 6/28/16 at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. A pair of boosters such as this will provide 75 percent of thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, in NASA’s planned Journey to Mars. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

On 6/20/16 a team of Caltech-led researchers have discovered the youngest fully-formed exoplanet ever detected. The planet, K2-33b, at 5 to 10 million years old, is still in its infancy. Here is an artist’s conception of the newborn planet (dark spot) transiting its sun. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt)

On 6/20/16 a team of Caltech-led researchers have discovered the youngest fully-formed exoplanet ever detected. The planet, K2-33b, at 5 to 10 million years old, is still in its infancy. Here is an artist’s conception of the newborn planet (dark spot) transiting its sun. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt)

A Siberian tiger cools itself in the pool of the tigers' enclosure in the Gyongyos Zoo in Gyongyos, Hungary on 6/24/16 when daytime high temperatures reached between 32-36° C. (AP)

A Siberian tiger cools itself in the pool of the tigers’ enclosure in the Gyongyos Zoo in Gyongyos, Hungary on 6/24/16 when daytime high temperatures reached between 32-36° C. (AP)

On 6/28/16, NASA released this Hubble Space telescope image of the dwarf galaxy Kiso 5639. The small galaxy some 82 million light-years away resembles a skyrocket, with a brilliant blazing head and a long, star-studded tail. (NASA/ESA)

On 6/28/16, NASA released this Hubble Space telescope image of the dwarf galaxy Kiso 5639. The small galaxy some 82 million light-years away resembles a skyrocket, with a brilliant blazing head and a long, star-studded tail. (NASA/ESA)

A Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft carrying the returning NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, ESA astronaut Tim Peake, and commander Yuri Malenchenko lands in the steppe of Kazakhstan on 6/18/16. The trio spent 186 days on the International Space Station. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft carrying the returning NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, ESA astronaut Tim Peake, and commander Yuri Malenchenko lands in the steppe of Kazakhstan on 6/18/16. The trio spent 186 days on the International Space Station. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A halo around the sun is seen over the California State Capitol, in Sacramento, on 6/14/16. The phenomenon is known as a sun halo. Tom Dang, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service says it is caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in cirrus clouds within the Earth's atmosphere. (AP)

A halo around the sun is seen over the California State Capitol, in Sacramento, on 6/14/16. The phenomenon is known as a sun halo. Tom Dang, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service says it is caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in cirrus clouds within the Earth’s atmosphere. (AP)

As it prepares for its 7/4/16 arrival at Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft captured this color view on 6/21/16 from a distance of 10.9 million kilometers from the giant planet. Seen in this image with Jupiter are its four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

As it prepares for its 7/4/16 arrival at Jupiter, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this color view on 6/21/16 from a distance of 10.9 million kilometers from the giant planet. Seen in this image with Jupiter are its four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

This is a close-up of the head of a sculpture called "Cyber Horse" that was on display at the entrance to the annual Cyberweek conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel on June 20, 2016. “Cyber Horse” was made from thousands of infected computer and cell phone bits. (Reuters)

This is a close-up of the head of a sculpture called “Cyber Horse” that was on display at the entrance to the annual Cyberweek conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel on June 20, 2016. “Cyber Horse” was made from thousands of infected computer and cell phone bits. (Reuters)

China’s new Long March 7 rocket lifts off from the launch pad in Wenchang, Hainan province, China on 6/25/16. (Reuters)

China’s new Long March 7 rocket lifts off from the launch pad in Wenchang, Hainan province, China on 6/25/16. (Reuters)

Artist impression of distant galaxy SXDF-NB1006-2. Astronomers on 6/15/16 announced that they detected the universe’s oldest oxygen (green) in this galaxy. To make their discovery, the astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope array, in Chile. Ionized hydrogen (purple) was detected by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii (NAOJ)

Artist impression of distant galaxy SXDF-NB1006-2. Astronomers on 6/15/16 announced that they detected the universe’s oldest oxygen (green) in this galaxy. To make their discovery, the astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope array, in Chile. Ionized hydrogen (purple) was detected by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii (NAOJ)

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

The Middle of the Night at the South Pole

Posted June 29th, 2016 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
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It is the solstice. Darkness has swallowed the landscape for three months. Each day, since March, the sun has sunk farther and farther away as our permanent night has gone from grey to dark blue to an immutable black. The sun sits as low as it ever will below the horizon, the apex of our longest night, and what I’d like to think of as our darkest, though, in fact, it is one of our brightest. The moon, near-full, sits well above the horizon. Vehicles cast long shadows as they slowly churn across the desolate landscape, flattening snowdrifts and carrying 50-gallon drums of machine oil and long, snaking bundles of fueling hoses.  Where they are going, and what they are doing is beyond me, lost in the tension of snow and ice, wind and light.

Now that the sun can’t get any lower, it will begin to make its way back towards our horizon.  Still, it’s a long ways off, another three months until I can feel its celestial heat against my frozen lips and, with a scrunched face, stare into its glowing mass until my eyes begin to water and my eyelids freeze shut.  Until then, tedium and tiredness will continue to haunt me—an inescapable condition of life at the bottom of the earth.

A full moon means a bright day and long shadows. Even underneath the station, the night is as clear as day. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

A full moon means a bright day and long shadows. Even underneath the station, the night is as clear as day. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Of course, the sky will begin to get lighter several months before the sun actually crosses the horizon.  The end of July marks the start of astronomical twilight, when the faintest of the stars begin to disappear and the horizon starts to pick up color — turning from an inkwell of blackness to a salt-water ocean at midnight.

A month into astronomical twilight, things will begin to change more noticeably.  More stars will disappear, and the Aurora will no longer be visible to the naked eye.  The horizon will continue to brighten, and one will be able to follow the position of the sun — still unseen — by a smear of light blue and orange that will ride along the intersection of the earth and sky like the aroma of a magnolia tree when it first begins to bloom.

Bright stars and aurora circle the station during the Winter Solstice. In another two months, as the sky brightens, they will be a distant memory. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

Bright stars and aurora circle the station during the Winter Solstice. In another two months, as the sky brightens, they will be a distant memory. (Photo by Kyle Obrock)

We call this stage nautical twilight, the period of night when shapes and land forms on the horizon can be seen, and enough stars and planets are visible, that one can still navigate by them.

By early September, the stars and planets will have left us and the polar plateau will be a uniform shade of grey.  It will be light out—from what I’m told, “frustratingly so,” like the last hour for a smoker on a 9-hour flight from Miami to Buenos Aires, when you can’t get out of your seat, and each second feels like a lifetime.  During civil twilight, when the sun sits just 6 degrees out of sight, and the horizon encompasses every Crayola crayon shade of yellow, orange, red and purple, you can do anything that you could do during the day, except soak up vitamin D and tan — which are really the only two things you want to do.

Sometime at the end of September — and no one can say exactly when, partially due to atmospheric conditions and geographic variations across the ice cap — the sun will finally appear.  It will breach the horizon in a gentle upwards spiral, like a school of fish slowly rising from the deep, testing the shallows for predators, and then, if the sky is cloudless and the earth still lies crooked on its axis, it will let its first rays shine forth, and wash away the last remnants of night from the South Pole.

 

Refael Klein
Refael Klein is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps). He's contributing to Science World during his year-long assignment working and living in the South Pole.

Hubble Spots Mysterious Vortex on Neptune

Posted June 24th, 2016 at 4:00 pm (UTC-4)
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This new Hubble Space Telescope image confirms the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. (NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley))

This new Hubble Space Telescope image confirms the presence of a dark vortex in the atmosphere of Neptune. (NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong and J. Tollefson (UC Berkeley))

NASA says images gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, a little over a month ago, confirm the existence of a mysterious dark vortex in Neptune’s atmosphere.

While vortices on Neptune have been spotted several times before, dating back to the 1989 flyby of ‘Voyager 2’, this recent Hubble observation marks the first time the phenomenon has been seen in the 21st century.

The dark vortices, according to NASA, are actually weather related high-pressure systems that travel through Neptune’s atmosphere.

They’re known to travel with what are referred to as bright “companion clouds” that are probably made up of methane ice crystals.

Scientists believe that these clouds are created by gases that freeze when currents of air surrounding the vortices are disturbed and pushed above it.

Mike Wong a research astronomer from the University of California at Berkeley led the group of astronomers that made the discovery after analyzing data from the Hubble.

He said that Neptune’s dark vortices float through its atmosphere like “huge, lens-shaped gaseous mountains.”

Wong compared these companion clouds to flat (orographic) clouds that can form over mountains here on Earth.

Scientists say the size, shape and stability of Neptune’s dark vortices can change, and that they can wander in the atmosphere, traveling at speeds that can vary from slow to fast.

NASA says future observations and investigations could provide scientists with a better understanding of how the vortices are created, what causes them to drift through the atmosphere, their relationship with Neptune’s environment as well as what causes them to eventually disperse.

Astronauts took this photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope during the final space shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. (NASA)

Astronauts took this photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope during the final space shuttle servicing mission in May 2009. (NASA)

Meanwhile, the space agency says it has just extended a contract that makes it possible to continue the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope for another five years to 2021.

This extension would allow a bit of an overlap in operations between the Hubble and its more sophisticated successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in 2018.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.