South Pole Diaries 1995    


28th January 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

You are allowed two 2-minute showers each week, and I took my first one this morning in the ``Inferno'' - the toilet/shower block near the Jamesways. The name is a perfect description of what it feels like when you go in there with your Antarctic gear on. The other shower blocks have similar names, e.g., ``Hades''. In fact, there are lots of humourous names on things down here, particularly on the vehicles (you will have to take my word for it, since I can't think of any of them at the moment).

Hopefully John will decide to have a shower sometime soon.

He spent part of the previous evening, while waiting for sleep to come, composing the JACARA song. We propose to sing this to the tune of Waltzing Matilda at the CARA meeting on Monday - in retaliation for Tony Stark's rendition of the CARA song on Friday. Where is Mike Dopita when you need him?! (Aside: for those who don't know, Mike is capable of, and indeed difficult to restrain from, singing intricate multi-verse ballads as part of conference after-dinner speeches).

Today is our first day of real work on the IRPS. At 9am we head out to the Pomerantz Building and meet the plumbers who are going to install the vacuum and exhaust lines between the pump (in the warm building) and the roof (where the IRPS dewar is located). It takes them most of the day to put the lines in, and they do a magnificent job. The vacuum solenoid is installed with an adjustable bypass - this will be necessary to automate the LN2 filling of the inner can. John puts together the LN2 solenoid system and the Taylor-Wharton 50 litre dewar (I forgot to mention earlier that some of the parts for this system were couriered to John's home the evening before the flight to Christchurch), and we both work on wiring up the cables between the solenoids, the solenoid control unit, and the computer. We are unable to start work on disassembling the IRPS dewar, or on putting the computer back together, since there is still no spare bench-space - this should be rectified tonight when GRIM is scheduled to be put on the SPIREX telescope.

This is our first opportunity to have a good look at IRPS and the ``dog-jacket'' and o-ring heater that John Briggs made for it during last winter. We are very impressed with John's handiwork, and are also beginning to better appreciate the huge amount of effort that John put in during the year to keep IRPS going. Even a simple task such as filling the dewar with LN2 is difficult enough at -37C, but John had to contend with ambient temperatures down to -73C, not including perhaps an additional 20 degrees of windchill, and with complete darkness. All the while he kept a precise, voluminous logbook of his activities, which is an invaluable aid to us. If you are reading this John, thanks again.

The community spirit down here is great. Everyone gets on really well, people are always willing to help, and humour is never far from the surface. John has a theory about this: there was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald not long ago about research which showed that most disagreements between neighbours are about dogs or trees; since there are neither dogs or trees at the South Pole, there are few disagreements.

At lunch we chat some more with Jack Doolittle about AGOs. The LC-130s have trouble working at the AGO sites due to the high altitude and unprepared runways. They sometimes take multiple attempts (up to 20) before they can take off, and final success is often because they have burnt so much fuel in the previous attempts that the plane is lighter. The powder snow is a real problem - Jack measured the depth of the ski tracks from a departing LC-130 at 20 inches, the length of the tracks was 5.5 km. It is amazing that they can take off at all. The pilots are naturally very concerned about the snow conditions since it would be easy to put a plane down in an area from which it couldn't take off. On the other hand, if the engines are pushed really hard the LC-130 can take off with maximum payload from the South Pole skiway on only two engines - but this is the military envelope and would only be used in emergencies.

The LC-130 payload can be dramatically increased by the use of JATOs - these are small solid-rocket boosters (as used in the space shuttle) that are strapped to the sides of the fuselage. However, JATOs have not been used in Antarctica since the 70's after several nasty accidents. The basic problem is that in cold conditions the solid fuel tends to develop cracks, and so when ignited, rather than burning from a central hole outwards, the fuel burns along all the crack surfaces as well. The greatly increased surface area of combustion results in a huge increase in thrust, the JATO breaks free and drills a hole through the wing and propellers. Despite these problems, JATOs (presumably modified ones, without engineering advice from Morton-Thiokol) are being reconsidered for use in Antarctica.

We learn from Jack that there are two AGOs at Willy Field (near McMurdo) awaiting deployment. He invites us to have a look at them when we fly out of the Pole, so we'll try to do that and get some video footage.

Today we travelled to the Pomerantz Building from the SPART station outside the dome. SPART stands for South Pole Area Rapid Transit - a pun on BART (San Fransisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit). The transit is hardly rapid, but comfortable in a 6-cylinder Caterpillar vehicle with custom built treads. Unfortunately, the treads mess up the snow on Bob Loewenstein's ski route, and he finds the ski trip back slow. People use all modes of transport here: one person has a bicycle with snow tyres, another guy has a unicycle (he is also living in an igloo about 1.5 km from the dome).

After dinner we buy some US stamps from the South Pole post office, and write postcards to send back home to loved ones and influential people. It can take a few months for these to get to their destinations, so if you don't get one by May, either it was lost in the mail or you aren't loved or are not perceived to have any influence.