The Antarctica Diaries: week six

You probably wouldn’t try to drive across Antarctica in a regular Hilux. Michael Ashley

Professor Michael Ashley recently returned from Antarctica where he was deploying a telescope to one of the most remote locations on Earth – a place known as Ridge A, 850km from the South Pole.

This is the sixth instalment of Professor Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries. To read the previous instalments, follow the links at the bottom of this article.

January 16 – Reflecting on Amundsen and Scott

The sky was crystal-clear this morning, and we were rewarded with a nice view of the waning moon. At the South Pole, the moon is up for two weeks continuously, and then down for two weeks, and so on. It takes some time to get used to the strange consequences of being at latitude 90ºS.

The sun, of course, is in the sky all the time at the moment. It is very slowly spiralling towards the horizon, which it will meet at the equinox on March 20. At the Pole the sun takes a day or two to finally disappear below the horizon, after which it won’t reappear for six months.

As the sun’s altitude decreases during late January and February, so does the average daily temperature – at a rate of about 1ºC every day.

It was time today for our team to take stock of progress and ensure we were on schedule for a possible deployment at Ridge A this week. As soon as the runway at Ridge A has been groomed – which could be as early as two days from now – our experiment could be on the next plane out.

We must be ready.

Fortunately, [Craig Kulesa, University of Arizona] reports that our HEAT [High Elevation Antarctic Telescope] is in rather good shape. The gamble we took in disassembling and reassembling the detector from the working prototype instrument a mere two to three weeks before the Twin Otter flight has paid off.

We find ourselves in possession of the most sensitive 55 Kelvin (-220ºC) 810 gigahertz heterodyne receiver on the planet. The performance improvement will make our experiment ten times faster at mapping the sky than it would otherwise have been.

After dinner we attended an evening lecture given by Lt. Col. Henry Worsley of the Royal British Legion. Henry was the leader of the 2008-2009 Shackleton Centenary Expedition recreating Shackleton’s Nimrod journey that came within 180km of the South Pole – the furthest south until Amundsen’s expedition. Shackleton’s route was essentially the same as the one that Scott took when he reached the Pole on January 17, 1912.

The ten-metre South Pole Telescope, in the “Dark Sector” at the South Pole. Michael Ashley

Remarkably, Henry arrived at the South Pole just last week after having retraced Amundsen’s route. He was with one other person, and they man-hauled all their provisions and equipment.

So Henry has essentially retraced the two most famous journeys to the South Pole: Amundsen’s and Scott’s. This gives him a unique perspective on the accomplishments of the two explorers.

His talk was riveting (all the talks seem to be good here – maybe it’s the altitude?). He compared the two journeys, with excerpts from the diaries of Scott and Amundsen, and illustrated with photos from his own trips. A highlight was when he climbed Mount Betty to find a cairn and a container of paraffin that Amundsen had placed there 100 years ago. This gave Henry (and us, his audience) a tremendous feeling of connection with the great explorer.

Henry also showed side-by-side comparisons of photographs taken in 1912 with those of today – there is essentially no visible difference. At least climate change hasn’t yet had an obviously discernible influence on the interior of the Antarctic continent.

Before heading to bed we receive an update on the skiway grooming situation. Our “groomer” – the person who will operate the grooming machine – is Shawntel, and she is currently at the AGO-1 field camp. If the weather co-operates she could be flown to Pole tomorrow, and have the skiway ready at Ridge A by Wednesday.

Shawntel, who operates the snow-grooming machine for making runways. Michael Ashley

January 17 – 100 years ago today Scott reached the Pole

Gazing out over the plateau from the galley at breakfast time I notice a group of five newly-arrived expeditioners taking “hero photos” of themselves out by the Ceremonial Pole.

Nothing unusual there, except these folks had taken the Australian flag and raised it a metre into a position of prominence. Suspecting they might be fellow Aussies, I clambered in to my Extreme Cold Weather gear and went to say “g'day”.

They turned out to be fellow Sydney residents who had skied the last degree of latitude (111km) to the Pole, raising money for the Humpty Dumpty Foundation – an Australian charity that provides equipment to children’s hospitals. They were all obviously excited to have arrived at the Pole, and were none the worse for wear. They will be flying out tomorrow or the next day.

Meanwhile, I learned from Andrew – a kiwi diesel mechanic at the Pole – that one of the station’s three one megawatt diesel engines is currently stripped-down for maintenance. I can’t resist a quick visit to the power plant.

Engine number two undergoing routine maintenance. Michael Ashley

The power plant is the most critical part of the station’s infrastructure. It provides heat, electricity, and – indirectly through melting ice – water. If the power plant went down, life here would become very difficult within a matter of days. It is reassuring to have people such as Andrew keeping the power plant in top shape.

A single fuel injector for the station’s diesel engines. Michael Ashley

The station needs only one of its three big diesels to survive. Each can pump out 1.2MW of power at sea level, which has to be de-rated to 750 kilowatts at altitude.

There is an supplementary engine to cope with peaks in demand, and there is an entirely separate backup power plant in the elevated building, just 20 metres from my bedroom, to cope with a catastrophic loss of the main engines. A lot of thought has gone into making us safe.

Today was a busy day preparing to ship our experiment. We have to move everything about a kilometre from our work area at MAPO [Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory] over to the “flight line” where cargo is staged, ready to be loaded on to the Twin Otters.

There we plan to turn the experiment on and conduct a full-scale test of the remote operation of PLATO-R. I will be running it from a computer in my bedroom, using two Iridium satellite links (one from the Pole to UNSW, the other from UNSW to PLATO-R) to make contact. Due to radio noise restrictions that apply near MAPO, this is the first time we have been able to conduct such a test.

Prior to moving PLATO-R we attend a ceremony at the Geographical South Pole to mark the 100th anniversary of Scott’s triumph in reaching the Pole, and the tragedy of his death. The ceremony lasted about half-an-hour, and included a particularly memorable and moving speech by Lt. Col. Henry Worsley (the chap who gave the evening lecture last night). A documentary television crew (from the BBC I believe) filmed the proceedings.

At the conclusion of each of the half-dozen speeches, the audience of almost 100 applauded, making an unusual sound with everyone wearing thick gloves.

The ceremony at the Geographical South Pole to mark the 100th anniversary of Scott’s arrival. Michael Ashley

Campbell and Luke completed packing PLATO-R at 10:40pm, and it was then moved by tractor to the flight line.

The PLATO-R Instrument Module loaded onto an Air Force pallet near MAPO. Michael Ashley

January 18 – Mt. Loomy

We have now assembled all the equipment and people we need for the snow-grooming flight to Ridge A. Loomy (our mountaineer guide) and Shawntel are ready and eager to be dropped in to prepare the skiway.

I suggest to Loomy that, given Ridge A is only 30 metres or so lower in altitude than Dome A, if he could make a sufficiently large hill of snow he could claim the highest point on the Antarctic plateau! I’m sure this wouldn’t overly please the Chinese who are establishing a permanent base 150km away at Dome A.

Testing PLATO-R near the flight-line has uncovered one problem: the observatory doesn’t automatically make Iridium satellite contact as expected. Debugging this isn’t easy. The outside temperature is -30ºC and there is a moderately stiff breeze blowing. We have a small computer monitor in the Instrument Module, but it is hard to see in the dazzling polar sunlight.

Also, typing on a keyboard at -30ºC requires using the lightest mittens, which means I have only a few minutes before I have to retreat to a nearby aircraft maintenance shack to warm up. All in all, it takes me two hours, with painfully cold fingers, to fix a problem that would have taken ten minutes or less under normal conditions.

That’s me typing away on a keyboard inside the Instrument Module. Campbell is in the foreground. Luke Bycroft

January 19 – Groomers away

At 7am, Loomy and Shawntel learn that conditions are perfect for the camp “put-in” at Ridge A.

The flight information displayed on the “galley scroll” showing our first flight (KBC heading to AGAP-Ridge A, third from the bottom). Michael Ashley

With the snow-grooming machine, skidoo, the minimal safety equipment for a camp, and passengers, the flight weighs almost exactly one tonne. This is 10-20% heavier than the normal conservative take-off weight limit for a Twin Otter from the Pole, but still possible.

The flight is uneventful, and by early afternoon Shawntel is busy making a kilometre-long skiway, while Loomy is digging out a camp kitchen and setting up tents. Shawntel works for eight hours straight, and is reluctantly convinced to stop by Loomy’s entreaties to join him for a warm evening meal.

Fortunately, enough of the skiway preparation was complete by then, since the following morning they were unable to restart the skidoo, which had cooled down to -40ºC overnight.

Meanwhile, back at the Pole, we’re all busy with final packing and checks of the instrumentation to be ready for our first flight, which could be as early as tomorrow morning.

The journey, from Sydney to Ridge A. Luke Bycroft/Google Earth

January 20 – We’re off!

At the 7am briefing we hear that weather conditions are perfect today, both at Pole and Ridge A, which means our flight is on!

The pre-flight briefing in COMMS. Michael Ashley

I have decided to stay at the Pole so that I can handle the remote communication with the observatory once it’s set up. Another complicating factor leading to this decision is that my Chinese colleagues at Dome A are leaving on January 24, a few days earlier than planned. It’s essential that I am in good contact with them over the next few days.

So this means Craig, Campbell (UNSW) and Luke (UNSW) will be the deployment team at Ridge A, assisted by Loomy.

At 7:30am we rendezvous at the aircraft to assist with packing the cargo. Our top priority is to take the solar panels and the PLATO-R Instrument Module so we can have the experiment powered up and communicating via Iridium as soon as possible.

The Instrument Module fits in the Twin Otter with only centimetres of clearance, as designed. With three passengers and the cargo, we are once again nudging the maximum allowed take-off weight.

The PLATO-R Instrument Module being loaded into the Twin Otter by fork-lift. It is a very neat fit. Michael Ashley
All packed and ready to fly to Ridge A. Michael Ashley
Luke, Craig, and Campbell ten minutes from take-off. Michael Ashley

At 8:50am the Twin Otter takes off for the 2.5 hour trip to the AGAP-South refuelling stop. It is then a little more than an hour to Ridge A.

For the next three days I am basically cut off from the rest of the team. To communicate we have a simple email-like system using the PLATO-R computer, and Iridium phones.

At 6pm the Twin Otter returns to the Pole and I meet the pilot and co-pilot where they refuel on the side of the skiway. Everything went smoothly, and there weren’t any dramas extracting the cargo at Ridge A. It was cold (-38ºC), but with a low wind (5 knots), so conditions were quite reasonable for outside work.

Two hours later I receive the tell-tale signal that PLATO-R is alive and communicating on the internet. This allows me to log in to the Instrument Module computer and run some tests – everything is looking good.

January 21 – The rest of the equipment is sent to Ridge A

Another perfect flying day today, and after the usual 7am weather briefing, I head out to the aircraft to assist the pilot and co-pilot load the cargo. This is a strenuous process, despite having a forklift to raise the boxes roughly 1.4 metres to the height of the Twin Otter deck. Of course, at Ridge A my colleagues won’t have the luxury of a forklift, but at least they have gravity to help them.

In my hurry to race out to help with the loading, I left my normal gloves behind, and the only ones I now have are thin leather mittens. This makes the 45-minute process quite an ordeal, and I keep my fingers from frostbite by occasionally grabbing hold of the exhaust pipe of the diesel engine being used to warm the aircraft engines.

When we were planning the cargo on-load/off-load back in Sydney, we were wondering how many people we would need and whether we could expect any help from the pilots. One school of thought was that the pilots wouldn’t want to get involved in man-handling the cargo. Fortunately this was far from the case, and our pilots could easily have held down summer jobs as piano movers.

Our pilot, Gary, climbing out over the 350kg Engine Module after having loaded it into the Twin Otter. Michael Ashley

Another worry we had during the planning process was unloading the cargo at Ridge A. We were told there was a special off-loading ramp for the Twin Otters but, try as we might, we could get no technical data on the ramp. Would it collapse under the weight of 300kg of batteries? For future reference I took some photos of the ramp. And yes, it is capable of supporting 300kg, but perhaps only just.

The Twin Otter off-loading ramp. Michael Ashley

After watching the Twin Otter take off, I trudge out to the MAPO building and begin the process of preparing the Polar Haven tent for disassembly and tidy up the huge mess we had made over the past few weeks. I also work on Gattini-SPUV – an ultraviolet imaging camera experiment on the roof of MAPO that I am involved with.

It is frustrating to be isolated from the rest of the team and not know what is happening at Ridge A. I try phoning them several times, but their phones are not on. I send four emails to the PLATO-R computer, but get no response.

I later learn that the cold temperatures meant the Iridium phones were almost impossible to use, and that Craig was in fact replying to my emails but a confusion in the naming convention meant I didn’t see them.

Later in the day I can see that the PLATO-R batteries are connected and being charged by the solar panels. This is huge relief, as the batteries are the most critical part of the experiment. There are 120 individual cells, and 36 microprocessors monitoring their voltages.

If we lose the ability to monitor even one cell – which can easily happen through static electricity damage – it severely compromises the performance of the experiment.

Another exciting development is that we now have seven webcams running at Ridge A, as well as an all-sky fisheye camera called HRCAM3 (High Resolution Camera number 3). I download some images and eagerly pore over them, looking for clues as to how the installation is going.

While webcams are not directly related to the science, they provide useful diagnostic information such as: is the HEAT telescope covered in snow?

An image from one of the seven web cameras on the roof of the Instrument Module, showing the HEAT telescope. The device on the pole in the foreground is a flashlight that can be used to illuminate HEAT when it is dark.
The campsite, with the observatory partially deployed. Luke Bycroft

January 22 – A 500-mile journey to the South Pole with bikes, skis and kites

It’s morning. In COMMS I look out the windows that give a panoramic view of the plateau and see a couple of people on bicycles approaching the Ceremonial Pole. You get used to seeing all sorts of crazy things here.

The cyclists turn out to be Helen Skelton and her travelling companion Niklas Norman who have just completed a 500-mile journey to the Pole using bikes, skies, and kite-skis. Helen is a presenter for the famous British children’s television program Blue Peter. They are raising money for the charity Sports Relief.

I hurriedly put on my ECW gear and race down to the Ceremonial Pole to meet the adventurers and take some photos. They were both clearly very tired from the enormous physical effort they have put in over the last month.

Helen has a nasty cough, which might be due to slightly frostbitten lungs. Despite this, she surprised me by jumping off her bike and almost sprinting across to the Geographical Pole for photos.

Helen Skelton and Niklas having just skied, biked, and kite-skied 500 miles (800km) to reach the Pole. Michael Ashley

The choice of bikes as a mode of transport is a dubious one. If the snow surface is icy and hard, then low-pressure bike tires can work well. But on many parts of the plateau, and near the South Pole in particular, the snow is dry and powdery – it you pick it up in your gloved hands it just flows through your fingers like fine sand. This makes wheeled transport very inefficient.

While Helen and Niklas were cycling in, three Toyota Hiluxes from “Extreme World Races” turned up. According to their website they are “pioneers of ultra-endurance, multi-disciplinary and extreme adventure sports in the most hostile environments of sea, land and air on the planet”.

To avoid crevasses the lead truck used a ground-penetrating radar on a boom about five metres ahead of it. I was chatting to one of the drivers, and he told me they had a lot of trouble with crevasses the first year they drove from the coast, but since then they have found an essentially crevasse-free route.

Three Toyota Hiluxes, having driven from the coast. The tires are inflated to 5 psi and each vehicle has a 400-litre fuel tank. Michael Ashley

The trucks are mainly support vehicles for the race itself, which features seven groups of three skiers covering about 800km to reach the Pole.

Our team at Ridge A is hard at work completing the installation of our experiment. Having resolved the email communication problem, I am now able to exchange emails with Craig and have a better feeling for what is going on.

Craig is only able to type for ten minutes at a time on his Macbook Air before having to put it away to warm up. The sleek metal exterior of the laptop is definitely a hindrance when the temperature is nudging -40ºC!

Craig working on his laptop computer in his tent, connected by a 50 metre spool of cable to PLATO-R. Luke Bycroft
Luke rugged up against the cold at Ridge A. Luke Bycroft

Craig is working like a demon to ensure HEAT is fully functional. In fact, he only gets a few hours sleep in the 24 hours leading to the camp pull-out.

Craig working on the HEAT telescope. The large flat mirror reflects light into a second and third mirror before reaching the detector in the cryostat (to the left of Craig). The detector is cooled to a staggering -220ºC. Luke Bycroft

Back at South Pole, I am working hard on the software. I need to be absolutely sure PLATO-R is bulletproof when the team flies out of Ridge A. If something goes wrong with the software and we lose contact with the observatory, all our efforts will have been in vain.

PLATO-A/HEAT at Ridge A appears as two black dots on the horizon. Luke Bycroft
Luke’s sketch of what we thought the Ridge A deployment would look like. Luke Bycroft
Reality. The yellow boxes and solar panels are behind the camera. Luke Bycroft

The final instalment in Michael Ashley’s Antarctica Diaries will appear on The Conversation in the next week.

Follow the links below to read the previous instalments:

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