South Pole Diaries 2001/02



Saturday 26th January

From John Storey.....

The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is to go and stand in the shower recess (without the water turned on; I'm only allowed two showers per week), because it offers such a splendid view across the ski-way to our AASTO. I like to see the friendly little cloud of water vapour billowing from the exhaust stack, which tells me all is well with our Stirling engine.

Early this morning I grabbed a shovel and took to the snow engulfing the AASTO. Webcam devotees will have noticed that several tons of snow have now been removed from the surroundings, and the AASTO is no longer in any danger of disappearing. It's amazing how much snow you can shift in a couple of hours once you're properly acclimatised - especially when you've got "JP" and a D6 Caterpillar bulldozer helping.

Shortly after that the station power went off for 45 minutes, taking the heating with it. This was yet another breakdown in the new 750 kW power plant, which has not been spectacularly reliable. In the AASTO, however, the only difference it made was that the computer went off-line and that dreadfully noisy Ethernet switch went suddenly quiet. This was truly a proud moment for our Stirling engine, which continued to purr along sweetly, as it has for several days now. In fact, the engine is becoming a major impediment to making any progress on our instruments. There seems to be a constant stream of visitors knocking on the door of the AASTO to see this latest toy. It is definitely the talk of the Pole!

The big station powerplant had a major "event" a couple of months back when, allegedly as a result of prolonged detonation ("pinging") and/or pre-ignition in the engine, it dropped a couple of valves and thoroughly trashed itself. It is believed that the fuel temperature had been allowed to go to high. Interestingly, computers "ping" each other as a way of saying hello, but this never seems to cause much damage. Stirling engines don't ever "ping". Nor do they suffer from pre-ignition. And, even if they did, it wouldn't matter because they don't have any valves to drop.

Urged on by colleagues back in Sydney, I made one last attempt to get our old Supervisor computer to recognise the flash disk. This involved a lot of huffing and puffing and wrestling the computer in the confined space of the AASTO. From this came only two outcomes: first, the back of both my hands are now torn to shreds by the sharp metalwork of this nastily-built little computer, and second the computer can no longer read even the floppy disk. Now we were in big trouble. While all our software was also on a hard disk and a flash disk, Tony has shown that none of the available computers on the station could recognise either of them. Our single readable copy of the code was on a floppy disk that was now as dead as a dodo. (Retry, Abort, Fail?) I am leaving in two days. How was I going tell my colleagues back home that I didn't even have a backup disk?

I thought up a story that there was this skua, see, and it flew 1600 km from the coast to the South Pole in search of food and it saw the floppy disk and mistook it for a slice of Vegemite on toast, and..., but I couldn't make it sound at all convincing.Then, just when total gloom and despair was all around, Wilfred Walsh, a former PhD student from UNSW who is now about to spend the winter with the AST/RO telescope, mentioned that his new laptop had arrived and so he had a PC he didn't really need. So, we popped our hard disk into his old machine, and bingo! Everything worked first time, no mucking about. We achieved in about 15 minutes what Tony and I had struggled for days over. In retrospect I think Tony was unlucky to find some old computers that were unusually non-compliant even by PC standards. Then, when he finally found the GLI that seemed to work, it was in fact a very troubled beast that must have had a most unhappy childhood.

The new Supervisor is a giant brute manufactured, paradoxically, by Micron Electronics - it is so tall it dwarfs the Stirling engine. In it is a Pentium processor with a heatsink the size of a house brick. It will help keep the AASTO warm. Hopefully this is the end of the Supervisor computer saga. I never want to see an A:> prompt again.

Tonight I will leave all the instruments up and running and connected to the Supervisor computer, which will give my UNSW colleagues the chance to try out the remote observing. Depending on whether they are successful, tomorrow will either be frantically busy or a chance to put some labels on things and write some documentation (and give more guided tours).



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