Tag Archives: Astronomy

Winter Solstice

It is winter now. Temperatures have fallen to a low of -70F and the polar night has enveloped us with darkness nearly 24/7. We still get a few hours of twilight each day between 11am and 1pm. It’s just bright enough to wash out the stars, but soon it grows dark again.
summit-solar-graphsDecember 21st is the winter solstice and the darkest day. We will have almost 14hrs of proper night, 3hrs of Astronomical twilight, and just under 7hrs of Nautical twilight. After this darkest day it will gradually become lighter each day until January 28th, 2017 when we will see the sun again.

We’ve found our grooves and have settled into our winter routines. It feels a bit like ground-hog day sometimes, with each day much like the last despite our efforts to mix things up. Some of the bigger winter projects are underway and I have stayed busy updating SOPs, safety paperwork, and cleaning out and re-organizing the filing cabinets on station. Some other projects we have include paint touch-ups, major generator PMs, re-flooring the walk-in refrigerator, and other bits and pieces. After-hours we watch movies or read, but I think everyone is sleeping more. It is a much smaller crew here than we had during my winter at the South Pole (5 vs 44) and we only have a few weeks of darkness compared to the months down South (antarcticarctic.wordpress.com/heart-of-darkness), but it is challenging none-the-less.

We still have a few “freshies” left; some apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, a few leeks, some squash, and cabbage. They are a huge morale boost and are a greatly appreciated addition to frozen/dried food.

With the growing darkness I’ve had ample time to experiment with night photography. We’ve had several beautiful displays of aurora borealis and a few clear days/nights to get some star trails.

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A satellite passing overhead flares with the sun’s reflection

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The LiDAR seems to point at the North Star

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Aurora Borealis

It’s a chilly evening in the heart of the ice sheet with temps hovering around -40F. We are outside, however, to witness a fantastic display of auroras! Tripods frost up, breath freezes on gaiters and hats, plastic becomes brittle, and above us the sky is alive.

I’ve written about auroras in a few previous posts here and here so I won’t go into too much detail, but a brief summary is that auroras are caused by energized particles from our sun striking gas molecules in the atmosphere (much like neon displays). The colors are due to which molecules are excited – green is caused by oxygen around 60 miles up while nitrogen causes the red-purple auroras. Solar storms and flares release waves of charged particles which can be predicted and tracked. To see the aurora forecasts and where they might be visible check out NOAA’s Space Weather page here: www.swpc.noaa.gov. NASA also has a fantastic page on Aurorae with photographs of aurorae on other planets!

Auroras dancing over the Big House

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The green line coming out of the far building in the last image is the CAPABL LiDAR I discussed in my previous post. The red light is the 50m tower.

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Storms and Aurora

The Big House at sunrise (HDR)

The Big House at sunrise (HDR)

We awoke yesterday to the wind howling. The Green House was filled with a deep Summit_Sunrise_HDRresonating sound as the wind vibrated wires on the roof. I peaked out my window. Seeing only flying snow in the pre-dawn light I pulled up the weather page: 35 knots. I pulled on my windproof layers, complete with goggles and stepped outside. The Big House was completely lost in the blowing snow…this is why we put up flag lines. I followed the flags to the Big House and found our mechanic inside sipping coffee. Gradually the others trickled in. As we ate breakfast and commenced the morning meeting the wind rose to nearly 40 knots, swaying the Big House on it’s stilts. Con 1: No travel unless absolutely necessary and check in via radio upon departure and arrival when moving between buildings…

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Halfway to the Big House with 35kt winds and blowing snow filling the air. Behind me the Green House was already gone.

We hunkered down, working on indoor projects and getting ready for turnover with the next crew who are due to arrive later this week. The winds stayed strong most of the day, tapering off at sunset. Darkness fell quickly. Inside the Green House after dinner we all gathered to watch a movie when one of the Science Techs went out to prepare for their nightly weather balloon. “Umm…You guys might want to pause that…there are some pretty good auroras…” After a quick look outside, I quickly threw back on all my layers and grabbed my camera and tripod. The sky was filled with one of the brightest, most active aurora I’ve ever seen. Curtains of bright green light tinged with red danced across stars, swirling and spreading.

I turned off the outside light on the Big House, however in the 2-8 second exposures the other lights on station lit the building up in a surreal light – it was not photoshopped into the picture 🙂

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All bundled in the -35F temps

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Cold Snap!

Temperatures plummeted last night. Lately we’ve had temps around -20F, maybe down to -30F, but today it stayed solidly between -43F and -36F…right around that magic value where the two scales cross: -40F.

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Later in the afternoon a thin fog crept over the station. The flat white can be so many things – crystal clear with bright, sharp blue skies and glittering snow, or a greyish white nothingness which we call being “inside the ping-pong ball” where you can’t tell where the ground meets the sky…it can be blowing 30 knots, scouring the earth with a gritty onslaught of ice, or at night of winter, when it’s the most peaceful place on earth; crystalline stars spattering the infinite abyss of sky.

A flagline to nowhere

A flagline to nowhere

The moon last night...huge and beautiful.

The moon last night…huge and beautiful.

The berms under a winter moon

The berm under a winter moon

The Green House - home sweet home...really looks like an Arctic Research Station! ...or Hoth.

The Green House – Looking like a real Arctic Research Station here! …just missing the Tauntauns.

Bundled up for picture taking

Bundled up for picture taking

I know for  a while again
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven
from which even I may step
forth from my self and be free.
– Wendell Berry

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Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

On September 27-28, 2015 the Earth passed between the sun and the moon…all three lining up perfectly. The earth’s shadow fell across the moon causing a Lunar Eclipse. This isn’t particularly rare, eclipses of varying degrees (penumbral, partial, or total) happen almost every year and can be calculated and predicted decades in advance, however this year garnered much attention as a few things came together: Not only was it a total eclipse, it was a Super Moon, meaning physically a little closer to Earth than other full moons this year, it was also a Harvest Moon, the first full moon after the Northern Hemispheres autumnal equinox, and finally it was the last eclipse of a tetrad of lunar eclipses – 4 lunar eclipses each 6 months apart…Pretty amazing!

At Summit Station in Greenland we were front and center for the show. Unfortunately it was pretty stormy this weekend and no one was very optimistic of a good sighting. The sun set at 6:14pm. It was pretty dark with a low blanket of clouds and a fair bit of blowing snow in the 20kt winds. At 10:30pm however I glanced out the window and saw the clouds had cleared, revealing a full moon shining brightly above the blowing snow. I bundled up and headed outside. Everyone was still up – glancing out of windows or huddling near their cameras mounted on tripods. The earth’s shadow was clearly visible from the beginning and we watched as it crept further across the lunar disc. It was -15F without windchill. At 12:47am (2:47am UTC) the eclipse reached totality. The entire moon was in shadow and the more diffuse light bending around Earth bathed the full moon in its picturesque red glow.
Here is a series of photos I took here at Summit:

The full moon prior to the eclipse

The full moon prior to the eclipse

HDR image of the last sliver of moon before totality

HDR image of the last sliver of moon before totality

The Blood Moon

The Blood Moon

The Big House under the full moon

The Big House under the full moon

The Big House under an eerily dark moon

The Big House under an eerily dark moon

There are many beautiful photographs and lots of information on lunar eclipses out there, while we got a great view of the moon it was hard to stabilize the tripod in the gusty 20kt wind for a good shot of the stars.
For more information, and a great technical info-graphic, please check out NASA’s page at: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/lunar.html

Earth and Sky has a nice page too: earthsky.org/tonight/
And Wikipedia has a great summary of the process and tables predicting eclipses – though this is Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_2015_lunar_eclipse
Finally, IFL Science posted a timelapse of the eclipse here: http://on.fb.me/1QJpYjG

And finally a few photos I took this week, not eclipse related…

Moon dogs

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The Big House and some stellar "Moon dogs" the other night

Not eclipse related, but a photo of the Big House and some stellar “Moon dogs” the other night

Returning from the SOB after an exciting balloon launch in 30kt winds

Returning from the SOB after an exciting balloon launch in 30kt winds

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Summit Sunsets

Sunset on August 6, 2015 at Summit (photo by

Sunset on August 6, 2015 at Summit (photo by “Medic Luke”)

At 72° 35’46″N 38° 25’19″W Summit is above the Arctic Circle. This means that for a few months each summer the sun never sets and the winters are long and dark. Unlike at the South Pole however, where there is only one sunrise and sunset each year (see my old post from Pole about sunsets here), Summit gets several months in the spring and fall with sunrises and sunsets. The last sunrise here was on May 6th, 2015 and last night, on August 6th, the long day ended. Though the sun technically set at 12:22am, rising again just 37minutes later at 12:59am, due to atmospheric distortions it didn’t visually appear to go below the horizon at all. Several people stayed up to watch, and the light was beautiful. It changes fast at these latitudes – tonight it will set at 11:54pm, rising again at 01:26am. This makes today unusual in that we have two sunsets on one day! One at 12:22am and another at 11:54pm….all a matter of arbitrary time zones (we’re on the same time as Kanger), but it’s kind of interesting nevertheless. It will continue setting earlier and rising later until November 14th when it will set for the last time, not to rise until January 28th! For more information about sun rise and set times and lengths of twilight check out this link: http://www.timeanddate.com/sun/greenland/summit-camp The North and South poles each have one sunrise and one sunset per year due to the tilt of the earth as it rotates around the sun. If the earth’s axis were perpendicular to its orbital plane the sun would appear to just skim the horizon year-round at the Poles and the rise and set times of the sun around the world would stay constant. It’s a beautiful confirmation of our planet and its position in space …

A diagram showing daylight on Earth on the equinoxes. (Wikipedia)

A diagram showing daylight on Earth on the equinoxes. (Wikipedia)

The US Naval Astronomical Observatory has a neat website that allows you to search for full sun and moon rise/set tables based on your city or lat/long. Check it out: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.php 2015 Chart for Summit Station, Greenland: Sunrise&set Table 2015 And finally…one of my favorite things ever: www.solarsystemscope.com/daylightmap Pull the scroll bar
at the top to the right to speed up time, to the left to reverse. We’re roughly in the middle of Greenland, so try fast forwarding to Nov 14 and compare that to Jun 21, our longest day, or to Aug 6, our first sunset. Enjoy!

August 6, 2015 - First sunset (photo by

August 6, 2015 – First sunset (photo by “Medic Luke”)

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Sunrise…Sunset

At 72 degrees North, Summit is within the Arctic Circle. The sun doesn’t set for much of the summer, however since the Solstice on June 21, it’s slowly been sinking lower during the night. At the Poles the sun circles with almost no change in degree above the horizon between noon and midnight. Here we’re 18 degrees from the Pole so it follows an ellipse, sinking closer to the horizon in the night and swinging high into the sky during the day. While it still isn’t getting quite dark enough to see stars it’s definitely becoming dusky.

Today the sun rose at 3:27am and will set at 9:41pm, though it stays fairly bright throughout. Here’s a good page to check out for more information on weather and such: Summit Almanac and Weather. The nights are getting longer by 12 minutes each day!

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A chart showing sunrise and sunset times for our coordinates.

To make your own chart by either your city or latitude and longitude check out this page.

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5pm Aug 21 at Summit

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Sunset on Aug 14 at 10:15pm

The shop at

The shop at midnight on Aug 20

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SCIENCE! Part III

MAPO

http://www.astro.caltech.edu/~lgg/keck/keck_front

MAPO, or the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory, is the first building one encounters upon crossing the skiway. The blue box-like building housing the telescopes Viper (now complete and waiting demolition) and SPUD, used to sit high above the snow surface to avoid drifting issues, but the stilts are now long buried.

SPUD is looking at a similar radiation spectrum as the South Pole 10m telescope (about 2mm wavelength) but at a much larger scale with far less resolution. The project is described in the Science Planning Summary USAP-2011-2012 as:
Small Polimeter Upgrade for DASI (SPUD) is the next generation instrument in the ongoing Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEPT/BICEP2) program of experiments. It will place multiple receivers similar to BICEP2 on the telescope mount originally built for the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (DASI) experiment. SPUD will increase sensitivity over BICEP2 by increasing the number of detectors and in future seasons by also expanding to other frequencies to mitigate possible foreground contamination. The scientific objective is the same as BICEP2 – to attempt to measure B-mode polarization caused by gravity waves spawned in the first tiny fraction of a second after the big bang by the process of “inflation.” Inflation is the favored cosmo-genic model and finding direct “smoking-gun” evidence for it is one of the highest priorities in cosmology today. SPUD will increase sensitivity over BICEP2 by increasing the number of detectors, and, in future seasons, by also expanding to other frequencies to mitigate possible foreground contamination.

The South Pole Telescope as seen through the SPUD telescope

As with the South Pole Telescope this is not an optical telescope. The image to the right is of the South Pole Telescope as seen through SPUD.

The telescope is extremely simple as far as telescopes go; inside each receiver two lenses focus the radiation on the primary sensor. Opaque Teflon and nylon disks, looking a bit like the plastic from a milk jug, help filter out unwanted wavelengths. The sensor is comprised of four silicon chips with extremely thin metal resistors imprinted upon the surface. Very slight changes in temperature from the incoming radiation induce resistance variations, producing a temperature map of the sky, of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Five receivers will be mounted inside the ground shield and can rotate 360 degrees as well as scan vertically. From the station the Ground Shield looks like a giant plywood flower or bowl, but inside it’s lined with mirror-like metal. The purpose is to limit radiation bouncing off the buildings and snow surrounding MAPO.

The SPUD telescope attached to the side of MAPO as seen from ground level

The commemoration plaque by the entrance to MAPO

The view from inside the receiver housing, looking down the ladder to MAPO

The walls inside the receiver housing

One of the new receivers before being mounted inside the housing

The silicone film inside the receiver itself

The door into the shield - the part of the telescope visible to the rest of the station

The receiver housing as seen from the outside - note the station seen just above the edge of the ground shield

The mirror lined ground shield reflecting the mottled cloudy sky

The Station as seen from MAPO

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SCIENCE! Part II

10-Meter South Pole Telescope
http://pole.uchicago.edu/

The South Pole Telescope looking at the ski directly above – the metal scaffolding is being added this year in an attempt to reduce “noise” from reflections off the snow surface.

The South Pole Telescope (often referred to as simply 10-meter or “SPT”) is an iconic feature here at Pole. Constructed during the Austral summer of 2006-2007, the impressive two dimensional rotating 10-meter dish located just across the skiway from the station is hard to miss.

In the Science Planning Summary USAP-2011-2012 the SPT project is described as:

Looking at the intensity and polarization anisotropy of the CMB. By surveying 4,000 square degrees of the sky with high sensitivity in three wavelength bands, the telescope can detect galaxy clusters through the spectral distortion they impart on the CMB. Researchers will use the resulting catalog of galaxy clusters to set constraints on the mysterious dark energy that dominates the mass-energy density of the universe and is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

The telescope is looking primarily at the CMB (or cosmic microwave background) of the universe. In particular they’re interested in finding and cataloging very distant galaxy clusters and learning more about Dark Energy, the phenomena that would explain the accelerating expansion of our universe. With a 1 arc minute beam the telescope has a relatively high resolution. The WMAP satellite is also mapping the CMB in the same spectrum (95-250 Ghz) but with far less detail. Ultimately they’re looking at changes in temperature of the CMB radiation reaching us here at Earth – these variations are extremely subtle and the focal plane is cooled down to .25 degrees above zero Kelvin with liquid helium to increase sensitivity. Atmospheric water vapor acts as a barrier to this type of radiation, which makes South Pole the ideal place for millimeter and sub-millimeter astronomy.

This is all very good, but what is the CMB? This can be hard to explain, and harder to conceptualize, but here’s a try…The Big Bang theory states that in the very very early stages of the universe matter was so dense it was plasma, at some point there was an inflation event that caused the universe to expand at speeds faster than the speed of light. The CMB is essentially radiation from the boundary between space and this plasma – it’s the boundary between “empty space” with stars and suns and planets etc, and matter that’s so hot and dense light cannot pass through. This background glow is incredibly unifrom across the sky with a temperature of about 2.7 degrees Kelvin.
The CMB is not what that part of the universe looks like now, but what it looked like 300,000 years after the big bang, when the light we’re seeing today was transmitted. We’re seeing what the universe looked like everywhere before it expanded and cooled enough to have different particles separated by space. We know that light travels at a constant rate (2.9×10^8 m/s, or roughly 671 million miles per hour) – it takes ~8.3 minutes for light from the sun to reach earth, 4.24 years for light from the nearest star to reach our sun, and 100,000 years for light to travel across the Milky Way. So… Looking into space really is looking back in time.

An important fact to keep in mind is that there is no center of the universe. Though the Big Bang theory states that everything started in a condensed state and expanded rapidly from there, there’s no center and no matter where you are, everywhere in the universe will look like the center. No matter where in the sky you point the telescope it will see the CMB at the same distance – kind of like if you were in the middle of a giant bubble, no matter where you looked you would see that inside surface of the bubble the same distance away. To get much useful information from the CMB you need special telescopes, the size of which affects the resolution, but everyone has seen remnants of the CMB without even knowing it. The fuzzy static on TVs (before there was 24/7 digital broadcasting)…that is the TV picking up on this white noise penetrating the universe, this distant radiation from the birth of our universe.

Galaxy clusters are some of the largest physical pieces within the universe. They are so large they create something like a shadow against the backdrop of the CMB radiation. Because of its high resolution the SPT is able to locate, and thus catalogue, many previously undiscovered distant galaxy clusters. Part of their project is to create a database of such features to be analyzed with different types of telescopes in the future.

The second part is Dark Energy – our universe is still expanding, that’s fine, but it’s accelerating in rate of expansion! Theoretically with the amount of material and energy presently known to exist in our universe the effects of gravity should have slowed the expansion by now. It doesn’t make sense. To explain this acceleration there needs be far more matter and energy for the equations to work out. This unknown factor is termed Dark Matter and Dark Energy. NASA provides a much better explanation: http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/

The Dark Sector Lab and the SPT in it’s docked position where they can work on the receiver.

The hinge of the telescope and the doors to the receiver area – last year I got to help clean off the grease under and around this part. In the winter the grease freezes and cracks off as it gets pushed out of the hinge, in the summer it thaws and gets very messy.

The base of the telescope – the hole is an access point to the cables and interior of the telescope, the dark piece above is the bearing on which the telescope turns.

Many meters of fiber optic cables run inside the telescope allowing it to turn more than 360. As part of the bearing change last year I got to help unwind and carefully set aside all of these.

The Inside of the telescope – where the cables are usually coiled. This picture was taken last year when the telescope was lifted up to change out the bearing.

The telescope separated to remove the old bearing and slide in a new one. The raised part of the telescope weighed over 65,000lbs!!

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SCIENCE!

So many of you may be wondering by this point “working at the South Pole is cool and all, but…Why?”
Why are we here?
Why is there this giant station?
Why do we have US Air Force planes?
Why is there so much going on down here?

All of these questions, and more, can be answered with the one word: SCIENCE!Everything here is in support of research and for the most part funded through the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The South Pole, with an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, an average yearly temperature of -56.9F, and 6 months of darkness is an ideal site for astronomical observations. While there are numerous projects of both short and long term duration the two major ones are IceCube and the 10 meter South Pole Telescope.

NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has a long term Earth Systems Research Laboratory monitoring site here. It’s part of several Global Monitoring Division sites – of which Summit Station, Greenland is also affiliated.

Over the next few posts I’ll highlight some of the primary research projects currently underway here at the South Pole.

ICECUBE
http://icecube.wisc.edu/

A good diagram showing the various parts of the IceCube detector

The IceCube project is a Neutrino detector. Sounds simple enough, but this detector is unlike any other in the world.
Neutrinos are sub-atomic particles of immense energy, but lacking an electric charge – so tiny and with so much energy that they pass through most matter without interaction. Neutrinos are a byproduct of radioactive decay and can be found many places here on earth, but IceCube is interested in a different scale. This project is focusing on neutrinos formed from extremely high energy events such as exploding stars, black holes, and gamma ray bursts. The project goals are to explain these events more thoroughly, shed light on dark matter in our universe, and study the more remote parts of the universe that previously have been too obscured to see. Neutrinos are not affected by magnetic fields, take an extremely long time to decay, and are rarely absorbed, putting them above neutrons or protons as useful particles to study the corners of the universe.

There are several detectors around the world, but the one here at Pole is particularly interesting as it is using the entire earth as a filter. Buried 1.5 kilometers beneath the ice surface the array spans a cubic kilometer! 5160 DOMs (digital optical module) were deployed on 86 vertical strings frozen within the ice sheet.
A hot water drill bored down to 2450m with 1000psi of near boiling water, leaving a tube of liquid water with a 24hr window before it began to freeze. A cable was lowered with the DOMs (61-64 per cable) attached at set intervals. Another part of the project is IceTop which deployed 324 DOMs in tanks on the surface. (http://icecube.wisc.edu/science/icetop) This is an immense project and took over 6 years to complete, the final string being deployed in December 2010. The detector has been collecting data since the first few strings were completed in 2006 and is expected to last another 20 years before the ice stretches and breaks the cables. An international collaboration, there are over 250 scientists around the world are analyzing the overwhelming amount of data being produced. With so many sensors in the ice and with such a large expense it’s good to know that there has been less than a 2% failure rate of the DOMs.

The idea behind having a three dimensional detector is that it is able to track the direction and speed of incoming particles. While many particles come from “above” here, they are noticed first by the IceTop array and can be weeded out, as muons or other various particles not necessarily neutrinos. Particles that come from “below” – or from the North Pole, travelling through the earth, are more likely to be actual neutrinos as most other things are essentially filtered out by the earth’s mass.

How many DOMs total are deployed within the ice here? 5484!
How many miles of copper wire are buried here to transfer data from the strings to the data center in the ICL (IceCube Lab)? 11,650 miles!
Some more fun facts can be found at: http://icecube.wisc.edu/about/facts
A fascinating article (with AMAZING pictures) by NPR about Neutrios and IceCube: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/02/24/133997980/cool-science-the-icecube-neutrino-observatory

The IceCube Lab or ICL – all the cables from the DOM strings come back to the ICL where the data is compiled and stored.

A few of the cables as they come together before entering the ICL

The hot water drill itself – the bowed out pieces are to keep the drill from spinning and oriented vertically

A hole over 2.5km deep!

A Digital Optical Module that us G.A.s got to sign last year

A few of the DOMs ready to be deployed on a cable

One of the last strings deployed last year

The DOMs are hung vertically and tensioned carefully so the cable bends around each sensor.

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