Travelogues, part 4: Expanding PAPER

Welcome to my series of posts about my research trip to South Africa in June/July! See also parts one and two and three

(As usual, all writing on this blog is solely my opinion and does not reflect the attitudes of any of my projects, institutions, colleagues, etc…)

June 24: Field Work Begins

I was excited for this trip for many reasons. One was the physical aspect. I get to do field work and not just sit in front of a desk all day! But by the end of day 1, my muscles were sorry I said that.

Okay, back up. Before the ouchiness, there was the beauty of the site. On the first ride out from the visitor dorm, we crest over a hill to see the Karoo Array Telescope, or KAT-7. And I just LOVE interferometers and think they are so pretty! The road then continued on to our array. I use the word “road” very generously at this point to signify a washboard-like dirt path. We pondered over the bouncy, bumpy path, wondering if such a pattern could occur naturally with use. Or was it the wind? Something else? This question would be answered several days later…

KAT-7 on a rare cloudy day


I had never seen a PAPER array so big before. There were just about 32 antennas already in the field and about 32 more groundscreens had been assembled by the first team. (These were James and David from UPenn, Dave from Berkeley, our intrepid guide to the SKA, William, and three smart and talented interns, Ray, Zulu, and Monde.) So there they were, 64 bright white metal structures, ready to receive radio light from the entire universe. Then we got to the ugly part: unraveling tangled up cables so that we could sort out the inputs to our state-of-the-art radio-sealed container with all of the back-end electronics. (Thanks to SKA Africa for that one!)

Soooooo many antennaaaaaas...

Examining the feed-throughs, about to open the container

When we got “home,” we started our communal dinners that would last throughout the trip. Pat, the wizard-tech from Charlottesville, coordinated much of that. That woman is as fierce and skillful in the kitchen as she is in the lab and in the field!

I absolutely had to shower, as I had grit from the Karoo lodged in every pore of my body at that point. However, I had already experienced the “water situation.” The well water had been “compromised.” Really, it reeked of rotten eggs. But I desperately needed to clean off, so I held my nose, tried to think of how much I love hard-boiled eggs, and took my sulfuric shower before passing out.

June 25-June 26: Gettin ‘er dun… or something

There were the cables. Oh MY there were cables. 500-foot-long ropes of dual-coaxial cable to take out to all the new antennas. With Rich and Pat busy inspecting groundscreens and the UPenn/Berkeley crew building the correlator inside the hut, I decided to try and cable the new antennas by myself. I even devised a (mostly) clever way of handling the heavy, awkward spools as I pulled the coax in to the center of the array. Though I was quite proud of it, the job was sped up by a factor of several when Ray and Zulu came to my aide, holding the spool on a slowly straining pole while gracefully looping the slack across the desert. Still, I laid down a LOT of cable that second day, and once again passed out almost as soon as we had eaten dinner.

Give me your scrap parts, and I will build something! It even worked, as long as the cable wasn't already hopelessly tangled on the reel.

At some point, someone thought it was a good idea to let me drive. Remember now, I’m used to driving on the left side of the car on the right side of the road. This was the right side of the bakkie on the left side of the dirt path. I have to admit, it was unnerving at first, but I got used to it. So much so that when I picked up my car in Virginia weeks later, I actually had to stop and remind myself what side of the road to be on! I have yet to drive on “the other side” in actual traffic, so I don’t think my trials are over yet.

KAT-7 in the rearview mirror, and cool iron-rich rocks out the window.

Once the cables were settled, it was time to put out the actual dipoles. Oh, and there were SO many dipoles that had been lovingly assembled by team 1. It was like a waiting army of copper and aluminum, an army for science! Of course, we had to find a way to get them safely from the antenna assembly building to the site, and somehow my advisor and I jury-rigged a way to do this.

It's a beautiful sight.

We made it mostly safely over the washboard roads

In all of this, I got to talk to Rich, my advisor, for hours on end as we inspected groundscreens and dipoles. We riffed on each other all day, New York attitude vs. Pittsburgh attitude, and we had a friendly competition of who could do each task faster and better. That kind of goofing around was one of the highlights of the trip. You get to play around a bit more when running around a desert, rather than meeting in an office. Think scientists and engineers are all stuffy and boring? Yeah, think again. Although, I did get a bit nervous when he jumped into the open back of the trailer and thumped for me to start driving around the array. “Don’t let advisor fall off truck… don’t let advisor fall of truck… don’t let advisor fall off truck before you graduate!”

As you can imagine… I did NOT lose my advisor in the desert. More to come!

1 comment for “Travelogues, part 4: Expanding PAPER

  1. Joel Kandel
    September 10, 2011 at 08:50

    Very enjoyable. Puts the human factor into what is genrally presented as cut and dry scientific results. Would like more info on antenna design, perhaps with diagrams. Thank you and continued success.

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