A high-stakes drop onto Juneau’s icefield could lead to better monitoring of Antarctic ice

an ice penetrator
The ice penetrator, developed by researchers at MIT”s Haystack Observatory, was dropped from 5,000 feet above the Juneau Ice Field (Photo courtesy of Chester Ruszczyk, Jeff Hoffman, and Parker Steen of MIT)

Earlier this month, engineers from MIT teamed up with Coastal Helicopter and the Juneau Ice Research Program to pull off a high-stakes version of an egg drop. It’s just like the ones you did in school, except the egg is a very fragile, very expensive seismometer. And the drop point is 5,000 feet above the Juneau Ice Field. 

The dropping device, which looks like a 6-foot lawn dart, is called the ice penetrator. Eventually, they’ll be used to place seismometers in the ice sheets of Antarctica to help scientists understand climate change. But before that, MIT’s team will have to figure out if their design can keep the metaphorical egg from breaking. 

Dr. Chester Ruszczyk leads the project, and he joined KTOO’s Anna Canny to talk about how it went.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chet Rusczyk: It looks like a, basically, a six-foot lawn dart with an antenna on top — a mast. The top part is much wider — it’s like a disc. It stays on the top because the mast has to be up above the ice and snow for communications. But the piece that holds the sensors and the batteries to provide power continues going into the ice shelf itself. 

Really, the main thing is, it has to have enough speed so the two pieces can separate. But it also has with it the electronic cables to provide connection between your antennas and the actual receivers that need to get data to and from it. 

Anna Canny: And the goal eventually will be to drop the ice penetrator from a helicopter to deposit seismometers in Antarctica to measure changing ice. Can you explain to me why that is such a difficult feat?

Chet Rusczyk: Because the seismometer is so sensitive. Usually they’re only meant to be dropped out of the back of a pickup truck. So when you tell them, yeah, we’re going to drop it from 5,000 feet above the ice shelf, they tend to freak out. So the goal of this was to get accelerometers inside the system, do a few drops. And then from the drops, we would be able to go to the seismometer people and say, this is what we expect that you have to survive.

Anna Canny: And the reason for putting accelerometers in there is to measure force, basically? Like the amount of force that these seismometers will eventually have to endure?

Chet Rusczyk: Correct. 

Anna Canny: This prototype is sort of a dummy version. It doesn’t have those really fragile seismometers in it yet. But when it does, they’ll measure motion in the ice shelf in Antarctica. Why is that so important?

an ice penetrator
Dr. Chet Rusczyk retrieves the “ice penetrator” prototype after its inaugural drop (Photo courtesy of Chester Ruszczyk, Jeff Hoffman, and Parker Steen of MIT.)

Chet Rusczyk: Well, it’s climate change. Because if large chunks of the ice shelf break off, you get seawater rise, sea level rise. So part of this is really to look at, how do you predict this a little better? So think of the Ross Ice Shelf as suspended on a layer of water. So you’re gonna have impacts from the water underneath it, but you’re gonna have waves coming in at the front of it, and then you’re gonna have atmospheric conditions pushing down on it. So what the seismometer is really looking for is, how is the ice responding to all three of these different type of waves? 

Anna Canny: Are there any other factors you’re considering, in terms of successfully deploying the ice penetrator?

Chet Rusczyk:  So it really wants to go straight in. Because what happens is, with the seismometer, there’s a gyroscope that can only straighten it out if the tilt is so many degrees. So, um, there was a whole slew of things that could have gone wrong, but it actually worked out okay. 

Anna Canny: And why is remote deployment so important? Why is the ability to be able to drop the sensors from a helicopter like this useful? 

Chet Rusczyk: So one of the things is, a few of my colleagues have worked with people in the Arctic and Antarctica, and people’s lives — scientists’ lives — have been lost there. So this kind of mitigates that problem by removing that from the equation and making it a little bit simple. And they do have sensors out there that were manually placed. But it’s not enough. So being able to just throw a bunch out of the back of a helicopter or the back of a plane is a lot easier.

Anna Canny: Well, thanks for joining me, and it’s pretty exciting that Juneau got to play a little role in this really cool science.

Chet Rusczyk: Juneau was very important to us having success in Antarctica. So that was good.

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