Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science! CosRay in Antarctica


The very first building we stepped inside on McMurdo station was the Crary Science Building.  For our orientation, we were taken into a building that has a mini museum with seal skulls, sea creatures and science equipment on display but at the time we were not allowed to look at them!  We needed to rush by it all to learn all about the logistics of living here-housing, meals, health.   However, we desperately wanted to get more info so on our first day off we asked our friend, Kathleen, to show us around the Crary Building.   As she is the Research Assistant (RA) on station and has the job of monitoring the longterm science and helping the scientist, she also offered to take us up to the CosRay experiment and show us around.   Of course we agreed.   Here's what we found at CosRay. 

We met Kathleen by the stuffed penguin in the front hall of Crary and after taking off three layers of headgear so we could talk, we decided that it was too cold to walk up to the experiment.  We hopped into the RA truck and took the short ride up the road to visit CosRay (short for Cosmic Rays)  - one of the oldest and longest running experiments on McMurdo station and in Antarctica as a whole.  The turn-off for CosRay is about a mile outside of town and sits just to the side of the road overlooking the bay.  It's a lone solitary building that very few people actually inhabit anymore.  When CosRay first started back in 1959-60 (during the IGY, or International Geophysical Year) it needed constant attention as the readouts needed to be deciphered and entered manually.  Now, everything is done remotely.  Kathleen's main job with the experiment is to make sure that everything is still on, all the lights are still blinking and that the modem is still in service.     Because she only needs to check it every few days the building only has one heated room (with the electronics) but you can see that it was once very active.  You walk into a kitchen and lounge area with various artifacts that people have collected sitting on shelves, brightly painted walls, old board games, personal jokes, fun readouts of Cosray pinned up with comments and the kitchen is still stocked with and tea and ramen noodles.  Once you go through the kitchen you come to the main CosRay experiment-it's all a bit lackluster now.  There's old equipment sitting around and collecting dust, (in antarctica it's Volcanic Ash) boxes of old storage all over the place and random personal effects that have been left behind.   However, the room itself is painted hilariously. The ceiling is painted like a rainbow. The walls have various images and someone very conveniently painted the basic principles of CosRay on the wall.  The actual experiment is housed in these massive boxes that sit on the ground and are covered with plywood and Styrofoam.  Kathleen takes the styrofoam off to make sure everything is still blinking and working and then closes it back up again.  There are three of these boxes in the room with about 6 electron counting mechanisms in each. 

So, what IS CosRay?   CosRay uses a neutron monitor to measures the intensity of cosmic rays that are coming though the atmosphere.  When the rays come through the atmosphere, they collide with an atmospheric molecule-mainly oxygen and nitrogen.  The Collision causes charged neutrons to bounce off and shower down.  CosRay counts the loose neutrons that are floating around and the scientists interpret this information and it gives us a picture of what sort of cosmic rays are coming through our atmospheres.  The flux of comic rays is dependent on various things outside of our atmosphere, one of those things being solar wind.  Therefore, an increase or decrease in cosmic rays gives us a good indication of the cycles of the sun and solar flare activities.  Also, the earth's magnetic field affects the cosmic rays and will deflet them out toward the poles, making this a great place to set up an experiment monitoring them. 
Aside from learning about where cosmic rays and radiation come from, the experiment has also given us some insight into the sun. For example, the sun cycles through periods of high and low output, usually in 11 year cycles.  Right now we are in a low point.  Years where the sun's activity is high are the years where you will get some spectacular Aurorae as the solar winds will be more active in flowing cosmic rays toward the atmosphere and the earth's magnetic field tends to flow the Cosmic Rays out toward the poles. 

Wow! Super cool huh?  That, of course, is my simplified understanding of what's going on.  Here's the wikipedia article you can peruse:

CosRay Building! 


Kathleen is taking out the styrofoam to check the equipment. This is one of the three units where CosRay lives. 

Don't you love the decorations? And look at Jamie helping out! 

Old and No longer used equipement.