Category Archives: Life in The Alice

Ranging Westward

With no launch opportunity available until Monday, today we spend a good Friday driving westward to see the MacDonnell Ranges.  As in the East MacDonnell Ranges, the gaps, pools, and chasms were stunning.  The additional height of the ranges to the west made our stops even more incredible.



The last few days have been so momentous that there hasn’t been a spare moment to post about it.  Now that leaves me the challenge of summarizing recent events!

With the total system coming nicely together, we set ourselves a goal of performing a compatibility test with CSBF by the end of the week.  Compatibility is the last major task before declaring flight readiness.  It involves hanging the balloon gondola from the launch vehicle and performing mechanical, electrical, and communications tests to ensure that all interfaces will work correctly on the flight line.  Given the science instrument’s reliance on CSBF equipment for commanding, telemetry, ballast, launch, and cutdown, it is a crucial test for ensuring a successful flight.

With that goal in mind, we set about checking off the final few little items on our checklist.  Wednesday morning we rolled outside early to gather a little bit more data from our aspect systems–our differential GPS, our precision magnetometer, and the magnetometer we use to point the gondola relative to the Earth’s magnetic field.  Unfortunately, just when we got lined up with our north-south reference, the venerable back tire on the gondola cart exploded!

Definitely the last campaign for this tire...

The CSBF mechanical crew volunteered to find a new wheel for us over lunch, but without the ability to maneuver the gondola, we had to postpone the pointing tests.  With that task tabled, we asked the CSBF electronics crew if they could mount the SIP, the electronics package which rides underneath our gondola and handles all of the communications.  Despite the extremely short notice, seemingly the entire CSBF crew appeared instantly at our gondola and set to installing the SIP and its many accessories.  Installing the SIP occupied most of the rest of Wednesday afternoon, but the task went smoothly and we confirmed that all the interfaces worked flawlessly.  One of the advantages of legacy hardware and flight code is that the bugs have been worked out many flights ago!

The electronics crew starts the SIP.

Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning we spent on some thankless, tedious, but crucial jobs:  tightening all the jack screws on all of the cables not yet firmly connected.  While we are testing the system, we leave the cables plugged in through friction alone.  Sometimes this causes a cable to work lose and give buggy readings, but it’s far easier to determine that and plug it in again than it is to screw things in and out every time we need to make a small change.  Still, it leads to a Augean task at the end.  Many of the screws–particularly on the flight computer–are very difficult to access.  Others are bent, twisted, or nearly stripped.  We got everything fastened eventually, though, so the cables should remain secure for flight.

Two other small tasks proved time consuming.  We distributed small temperature sensors throughout the gondola, taking care to place them as on the previous flight.  We also installed the mylar solar shields which surround the instrument cradle and deflect the extremely bright visible sunlight at float.

With the SIP in place, yesterday afternoon we were ready to check the final balance of the gondola.  One more piece remained to be integrated, though:  the SIP cage.  This metal frame mounts under the gondola and helps protect the SIP from damage on landing.  On our last flight, though, we landed directly upright, and both the SIP cage and the SIP were crushed.  When our machinist at SSL rebuilt the SIP cage for this flight, he changed the mounting of the cage as well.  Before, it hung on brackets from the bars at the base of the gondola.  In an effort to strengthen the gondola and improve the cage’s strength on impact, the new version slides over pegs that stick out the bottom of the gondola frame.

I’ve been worrying about those pegs since I first laid eyes on them.  I knew if they bent, we wouldn’t be able to get the SIP cage on, and we’d have precious little chance of repairing the pegs.  We’ve taken great care to keep the pegs off the ground and out of trouble, and we’ve been successful.  The SIP cage itself has mostly been in storage, out of the way.

Yesterday, though, when we went to slide on the SIP cage, it didn’t fit.  The front two tubes were more than an inch out of alignment!  Whether due to the heat in the container or pressure in transit, at some point the cage had warped.  In an instant, we went from planning for compatibility the next day to being unsure if we’d need to rebuild the cage.  Despondent, we went home to sleep on our options.

This morning, we had some lengthy discussions with the CSBF mechanical crew.  The approach we converged on was to jack the cage arms outwards with a 4×4 and a hydraulic jack.  The original hope was to push the arms beyond our desired length and create a permanent bend, but we quickly found that the cage just sprung back to its original dimensions.  Instead, then, the CSBF crew cut a 2×4 to length and wedged it into the arms.

Setting up the jack.


After finishing some tests of the instrument electronics, after lunch we took a deep breath and tried to fit the SIP cage again.  We installed tapered tips on the pegs to help guide them in, applied plenty of grease, and then used the gondola weight to lower the gondola onto the cage.  Everything came together so smoothly it was hard to remember that there’d been any problems!  Elated, we finalized the placement of the ballast hoppers before taking the cage off.

It fits!

With the problem of the SIP cage solved, we’re now ready for compatibility.  Unfortunately, another problem looms: the weather.  There have been frequent thundershowers the last few days, and the ground outside the hangar is too wet to drive the crane.  Also, since there are more showers in the vicinity we’d run the risk of getting caught out in the rain.  So, we’ll hold off on compatibility until probably Monday.  It’s no great loss, as the airport is too wet for TIGRE to launch, either!  We’re all in a holding pattern, then.  We’ll use the time to catch our breath, perform calibrations with our recently-arrived sources, and finalize our observation planning.

Cranes live in lakes, right?

On interesting side effect of all this rain: we’re seeing the Todd River in flood a second time!

The Todd flooding through the Gap.

Several roads crossing the Todd were closed.

Bug City

Check up, tighten up, button up–things are looking up.  Today we worked on a number of “odds and ends” projects needing completion before flight:  verifying the shield thresholds, repairing the small thermometers that help us monitor our temperature in flight, and planning our detailed observation schedule for flight.  Launch weather is still bad; TIGRE is taking cat naps in the meantime.

The rest of us are trying to figure out when Alice Springs turned into Bug City.  The flies we were familiar with, but they stay mainly outside.  In the past weeks, we’ve seen a remarkable profusion of grasshoppers in a wide variety of sizes and colors–yellow and black, green, orange…  This week it turned a bit more creepy.  I’ve seen no fewer than three fist-sized (!!!) spiders in and around the hangar.  The first Jane thought was an April Fool’s joke from another group–until it started moving!  For your sake and mine I’m not posting the pictures.  Today–perhaps due to the rain–we were suddenly overtaken by some nasty hybrid of grasshopper, cricket, and roach.  Every box with a quarter inch of space under it in the high bay had a solid swarm of them underneath.  Given how clean things were when we moved in, it’s been quite the shock!  We swept as many outside as we could.  Still, I finished the day working on my computer as the bugs jumped over and around me.  The subtle crawly noises as they crept up the walls was particularly insidious.

Much more of this and I’ll end up in the bughouse myself.

Slow Motion

The testing proved a bit protracted, but the detectors seem to be working nominally.  Today we made what we hope are final adjustments to the cabling to pick up a channel that had gone out due to a bad connector pin.  Jane has begun finalizing the harnessing–taping up the signal cables to keep them secure and noiseless.  Alan and I spent a mercifully brief afternoon applying thermal compound to a few boards–most of last year’s efforts are still good.  Next steps include integrating the shields and harnessing the signal cables in the electronics bay–and then we hope to move on to things like rotation tests and full-system calibration.

Time seems to have slowed a bit as we’ve become more familiar with our surroundings.  I don’t think twice about driving on the left anymore, we’re all saying “no worries” a lot, and I find myself wondering what else I can put beetroot on.  I suspect things will start to feel faster as we near flight readiness, though.  TIGRE should declare readiness sometime next week–it will be fun to watch them come together.

In the Dark

(Posting has been more sporadic in the last couple of days because of problems with Internet access.  I hope to sort that out soon, but in any case I probably won’t post every day going forward unless there’s something interesting to share.)

This morning we had a power outage in the hangar, which delayed but did not divert the first significantly bad news of the campaign:  one of NCT’s nine detectors didn’t cope well with the long journey from Berkeley.  Jane, Steve, and Alan did lots of tests, but it appears the problem is inside the cryostat–perhaps a damaged connection.  Since the detectors are kept under vacuum at 85 Kelvin, there’s no chance to make a repair in the field.  We’re all pretty disappointed about the loss of sensitivity, and it’s frustrating not being able to shed more light on the root cause.  We’ll try a few more tests in the days ahead to see if we can learn more.

Looks like bad news.

The new battery boxes.

We press on, though.  Jim and Zach have nearly completed assembling our new battery boxes; all that remains is the wiring.  Zach and I also prepared the card cages for insertion into the electronics bay.  To ensure the electronics can exhaust their heat in flight, we’ve been applying lots of white heatsinking compound, known only semi-affectionately as “thermal gunk” for its sticky ubiquity.  By the end of the day, the card cages were in and Alan, Jane, and Zach had connected the signal cables.

Zach cleans off some old thermal gunk.

Routing the harness.

Today was Jim’s last day working with us–he’s going to go walkabout a bit in the outback before heading out through Sydney.  To celebrate the trip, he and I went out for dinner and tried some Australian game–kangaroo, emu, barramundi, and camel.  All of it was excellent, but the kangaroo in particular was tender and had great flavor.

I've been accused of running a food blog here sometimes...

Holding Pattern

Not much news or progress today.  Our 40′ container is in Alice Springs, but the side-lifting trailer needed to deliver it was out of town.  Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get it; then we’ll be able to begin work in earnest.  It was a beautiful, cool day today, though–our first without rain–and most of us managed to squeeze in a walk or a run.

Tonight we went to the grocery store to stock our kitchen for the weeks ahead.  That proved a bit of an adventure, with fruit prices per kilogram, sliced lunchmeat costing AU $60/kg (US $24/lb), and scarcely any familiar brands or products in sight.  (Even those which we recognized had renamed their products:  viz., Kellogg’s Frosties, Rice Bubbles, and Sultana Bran.)  Still, it was a pleasure to come home and realize we could grab a quick snack or an easy meal when we wanted.

Settling In

Today was a relaxed day in which a few more pieces fell into place.  We started the day out at the hangar, spending some time setting up our workspace.  Alan and Zach arrived on a morning flight from Melbourne.  We picked them up, went for lunch, and enjoyed a chance to catch up with them a bit.  The train carrying our container from Sydney was delayed by the flooding about a day’s journey south of Alice Springs, so our ability to really get started will await its delivery in the next few days.  With no pressing responsibilities, we wandered around the Todd Mall a bit together, seeing the sights and getting a sense of our new home.

Eventually we were able to check into our new digs–a nice “self-catering” hotel here.  With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a balcony overlooking the Todd, it should house the four of us quite comfortably for the near future.  We celebrated in true bachelor style with takeout KFC–Alan’s favorite.

Alan checks things out.

Below:  A few pictures of the flooded Todd River.

Looking towards The Gap.