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15 December, 2000

Raising a Telescope and Fire Drill

This afternoon there was great excitement in the dark sector. The optical system for VIPER, a telescope that will look at the cosmic microwave background radiation, was being put inside of its shielding today. The shielding is a set of mirrors that prevents the telescope from seeing the radiation from the ground.

As VIPER was being harnessed to the crane, Chris Martin and I were in AST/RO, poking our heads out occasionally to see how close they were to lifting the telescope. Suddenly the loudspeaker which sends out station-wide announcements came to life with a loud “WHOOOOOOP! WHOOOOOOP! There is a fire alarm in the dark sector. The fire alarm in the dark sector power substation has been activated. Those of you not on the fire team, please muster in the gym. The fire alarm in the dark sector power substation has been activated. Anyone not on the fire team please muster in the gym.” Chris, being on the fire team, grabbed his parka and was out the door in seconds. I took more time to get my parka on, which was long enough to hear the second announcement a minute later: “This is a fire drill. Those of you not on the fire team may stand down.” So, I went outside to see what was happening with VIPER and the fire drill. The dark sector power substation is right next to where VIPER was being moved from. I stood on the roof of MAPO and watched VIPER being attached to the crane, while the fire team had their drill next door.

A fire at the South Pole could be disastrous. Since the air is so dry, and many buildings (parcticularly in the dome) are made of wood, any fire that starts needs to be contained as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t spread to the rest of the station. If the fire is bad enough, the station may become inoperable for a while and people evacuated. It would take a few hours at least for any aircraft to fly to the South Pole from McMurdo, and if the weather is bad or there aren’t any planes available, it could be a little while before people could leave. During the winter months, of course, planes are incapable of flying to the pole, even in an extreme emergency. If there is a severe fire on the station during the winter, then there are emergency supplies so that the winterover crew could survive. However, in such a case much if not all of the scientific research and new station construction would need to stop for the rest of the season in order to conserve supplies, even in those areas not affected by the fire.

The fire team is grouped into two teams. The first team, the team Chris is on, is the first to arrive at the fire location. They get there as fast as they can, and if the fire is manageable, put it out: they are the first response. Getting a fire out as quickly as possible is paramount to prevent it from spreading. While the first team is running to the fire, the second team puts on bunker gear. When they arrive at the fire, the first team yields to them. The second team is equipped to handle a fire that is larger than is reasonable for the first team to extinguish. In their gear, they can enter a burning building to get to the fire and put it out before it spreads any further.

It was interesting being able to watch a fire drill. The first team showed up very quickly, arriving on foot, bicycle, and shuttlevan. Within a few minutes, people in bunker gear began to show up. It was amusing to see guys wearing yellow jackets and green tanks on their back riding a snowmobile across the snow to the power substation. During today’s drill, some of the first team were “injured” (that is, if this had been a real fire, they would have actually been hurt). Other team members had an emergency medical kit out, and were putting someone on a stretcher and into the shuttlevan while the second team entered the building. After the injury was dealt with and the second team was done checking inside, the team gathered to discuss the drill.

A few minutes after the fire team left, VIPER’s 10,000 pound optical system including a 2.1m primary mirror was raised and placed into its new home. In a few weeks, ACBAR, the receiver for VIPER, will be installed in the telescope. In the mean time, the optics will be tested and adjusted so that they are directing light from a known point in the sky to the place where ACBAR will be located. Once ACBAR is installed, the entire system will be tested, and the telescope will be able to begin collecting data.

This is the optics for VIPER, still in its tent. Behind it, the small silver building on the right is AST/RO. MAPO, the other main building in the dark sector is the blue building just visible above the tent to the left. The smaller blue building immediately to the left is part of the building that VIPER will be lifted onto.

Here VIPER is being attached to the crane that will lift it to its permanent home. On the left is the dark sector power substation, and the fire team outside.

This is a close up of the fire team. The group on the right is taking care of an injured person, and the team on the left is preparing to enter the building.

While the injured person is being lifted into the shuttlevan, the group in bunker gear enters the building.

After the fire drill was done, VIPER was lifted. Here is a picture of the VIPER optical system, where you can see the 2.1 m primary mirror on the right. The piece being lifted weighs about 10,000 pounds.

Here is VIPER above the shielding where it will be placed. The building in the background is the new dark sector building, where new astronomy projects will be housed.

This is VIPER just above the shielding. When it is in place, the optical system will be completely inside the shielding, so that it cannot see radiation from the ground.

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