Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03



Friday, February 14, 2003

Le radeau de la meduse

I think this is the last diary entry I'll make this year. I don't think I'll be able to write much more. No, I haven't gone sentimental. It's just that the sea is rocking hard and it's almost impossible to concentrate in front of a computer screen. Let's just say that I strongly regret the conditions we had on our way to DDU. This time, although we haven't met a storm yet, the weather is quite bad and 6 people have not left their bed since the departure. Jon and I are not sick (that's why they sent us: we are tough) but we are not happy campers either. We have two more days to go and I can tell you that so far, each day has been interminable. Also, instead of 15 passengers, we are now 40 on board. You can forget about sitting comfortably in the lounge. The place is packed and that's another reason to spend most of the day lying in bed. Nothing exciting happens either. Someone saw a whale this morning but that's about the most amazing event since we left DDU. Personally I can't wait to be in Hobart to sleep and eat in a place that does not move. I also can't wait to be in Sydney to negotiate to go back to Dome C next year by plane. Now I should stop winging and finish this year's diary in a positive way. Jon called Sydney yesterday and the AASTINO is working like a charm. The first photos of Dome Concordia "post-summer" should now be on the web (there should be a link from this page). They prove that our mission has been a great success this year. I hope you'll all tune in next year for more science in the cold. See you next year...


It's been now almost 4 days in DDU. One thing is for sure, if I stay any longer I will become like a Roman emperor (of the decaying era, of course). I spent a lot of time here sleeping, eating and playing pool. To my defence, I had planned to do some work. After all, I have my laptop. I could have been writing papers and working on my data. Unfortunately, I could not do that because I had left all the power adaptors with Jon back in Dome C. All my batteries were drained and being the only Australia in DDU, my only chance was to wait another 24 hours for Jon to arrive. The morning Jon was due in DDU along with a large part of the Concordia builders, the DDU station manager realised that this horde of barbarians coming down from the plateau would not fit in the remaining dorms and so he decided to make them sleep on the Astrolabe. That was not a total surprise; we had done the same thing a month ago. So they would sleep on the boat at night and come back to the land during the day. The plane landed a bit after lunch. I was not surprised to see a very tired face when the helicopter dropped Jon in the station. We spent a bit of time talking about what he had done the past two days in Dome C (the content of his last diary entry). After dinner he and the other guys were taken to the boat only to come back the following morning. Knowing his lack of sleep, I was counting on him to come back to the base rather in the afternoon than in the morning. So when I got up (I won't tell you what time...), all the Dome C storm-troopers where here, armed with their cameras and looking forward to the couple of days of relaxing time in DDU before flying home. Jon was still on the boat, fair enough, making up for the last two difficult days in Dome C. Through the afternoon, however, the weather started to get bad. The blue sky I've had since my arrival was gone and the wind was becoming a lot stronger. In consequence, no one could go in or out of the Astrolabe. Jon was therefore stuck on the boat with the crew as the only company. Unfortunately for him, the weather remained like that for three days. I guess he didn't miss much since we all stayed inside the whole time. The wind was too strong to make a walk even remotely enjoyable. Still missing my power cord I was doomed to wait the day of departure to be able to write those lines. The rest of the Dome C team and I got plenty of time to compare the lifestyle of Dome C with Dumont D'Urville. Of course, there is the difference of size. Dome C peaked once at about 45 people when Dumont D'Urville easily reaches 60. The buildings of DDU are a lot older but much larger and more comfortable than the summer camp of Dome C. Being a winter base, the entertainment is well catered for. The island itself is great. I don't think it's possible to get sick of walking around it. The amount of changes it has gone through in a month is amazing. I could barely remember having walked through the same paths. The ice has melted a lot so all the places I remembered white were now rocky and muddy. I mentioned before the changes the penguins have gone through and they make a difference in the look of the landscape since there are some may of them. The place was all black and white before and now it is grey, white and brown essentially. The sea looks also different. With the temperature rising, a lot of the glacier has melted and the ocean is totally covered with icebergs. This adventure is almost over. We now have to face 6 days in the Astrolabe, let's hope they go quickly.

Back to DDU

Where were we? That's right, a succession of events made us lose contact for quite a few days now. Last time you heard of us was from Jon alone in Dome C. We got separated after I left on the 5th as planned by the Dome C logistics. Between that time and Jon's last diary entry things happened rather fast and this is now the first time since that I have the chance a sign of life. On the evening of the 4th I was announced that my flight would leave the next morning at 4am. In other words, there was no point going to bed since I would have inevitably slept through my imaginary alarm otherwise. I packed everything and gave a last gaze inside the AASTINO, confident that Jon would easily eat away the few remaining issues. The SODAR was fully working, the engine made an acceptable noise and the inside temperature was probably the warmest of the whole station. The flight itself was quick and painless. We were only two passengers, myself and a French scientist from Grenoble. It would probably have been more comfortable if we didn't have 800kg of boxes lying around the plane. The conditions inside the plane were probably comparable to the ones at the beginning of Indiana Jones (except we didn't crash). I lost interest in the landscape outside my window after the first 10 minutes. The four hours of the flight were then inexistent. I was wakened up by the co-pilot just before landing. At our arrival the wind was blowing as you would expect it to on the coast of Antarctica. We got every single box out of Twin-Otter within 10 minutes. The helicopter came to take us to the base and that was definitely the most entertaining thing done in weeks. The pilot of DDU is known here for his speed. As soon as we got in, he lifted the helicopter right up and turned the machine around while backing toward the station (I guess you had to be there). We flew to the island a couple of meters above sea level, only rising to avoid the few icebergs along our path. I think I'd be happy to go back through DDU next year simply to enjoy another helicopter flight. In DDU, nothing had changed since our short stop on the way to Dome C. The main building containing all the sources of entertainment is still everybody's dream. It has a cinema room, a pool table, a baby-foot table and walls covered with books and comics. There are chocolates, cookies and candies laid out on the tables and even a whole ham waiting for you to carve it. I found Fabrice and Patrick, two Swiss EPICA scientists, who had left Dome C a couple of days before me. They were fully immersed in their comics; I had to make myself noticed to pull them out of their trance. It was only a couple of days later that I would realise I would be just as easily drawn by the same books. Like all the other Dome C people, I was given a shared room in the summer dorm. It's a good 10 minutes walk from the rest of the station but I would be dumb to turn down another opportunity to walk amongst thousands of penguins. A lot has changed about them by the way. A month ago the colony was populated by young parents living in nests accompanied by usually two eggs or two small babies never more than 10cm tall. This time, however, the situation was quite different. Most of the adults were gone and nests were replaced by nurseries. The baby, grouped and protected by some remaining adults, were now full size and only differentiable by their grey feathers that they were losing day by day. The older babies only had this layer of feathers on their heads such that any group of them looked like the Jackson 5 dressed in tuxedo. All of the youngs spent their time scratching themself trying to get rid of as much feathers as they could. With their quantity and with the strong wind, the air was always filled with feathers taken away to the sea or in the eyes of Australian tourists. One of the most amusing sights was when a baby penguin would run after one of the guarding adult to beg for some food. Looking bigger than the grown ups with their thinner fur, I can see why the adult would in fact run away from the baby. So imagine this picture of about 20 Michael Jacksons gathered together around a security of about 5 body guards in tuxedos focused on the outside threat and one of them running in circles inside the nursery, chased by one of the Jacksons (making the sound of a baby chicken). And it was the same show in every single nest. It must be tough being a penguin.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The Last Day

I am writing this diary from the astrolabe- it is currently moored by the island station Dumont D'ville. I arrived here yesterday afternoon after leaving Dome C yesterday morning. The door is now closed on the AASTINO: but it was not exactly under the circumstances I had anticipated. After a couple of hours sleep from the previous night - and an early breakfast I had spent all of Thursday in the AASTINO finishing of the muiltitude of small tasks left and keeping an eye on things. I also continued to work on the engine management script and on making sure the instruments were running and collecting data. I worked through "night" but ave to admit to simply staring out the window appreciating where i was for a lot of the time. The view of the empty white horizon that stretches out towards the South Pole is amazing. Particularly late at night when the sun is threatening to set. My plane was due at 6.30 am, so at 5.30 am when everything looked like it was behaving itself and there was only a few things left to do, i began to write the last days diary. This diary was descibing how well everything was working and that i was just about to "close the door". This was to be a very ceremonial and symbolic event, given the extra finality involved in sealing it with silicon and taping it closed with aluminium tape (to keep out the cold winter air). At 6 am, i logged onto the newtork via the iridium phone to send off the diary entry. There was one new message. "Hmmm...strange" i thought, it was from Michael Ashley. It said: "There's something wrong with the computer system, we need to fix this today, please ring me". A mild panic then ensued as i thought about how two years of work was about to implode just before kick-off and that Micahels "today" actually only meant "20 minutes". A quick phone-call to Michael confirmed that 20 minutes wouldn't do, so i raced across to the station (naturally my skiddo wouldn't start as it had been sitting out in the cold all night) and asked about the next flight. There was a Twin Otter scheduled at 10.30 am, this was the last flight to Dumont D'ville!! Okay back out to the AASTINO and the iridium satellite system decided to go cactus - calls only last a minute before dropping out and you can only understand half of what is being said. After about an hour, and 10 phone calls to Michael, the head of station Camillo, came out to the AASTINO. He suggested that if i couln't fix the problem, i could stay on till station close the next day, then fly to Terra Nova Bay - the Italian coastal station. He also described the logistical nightmare involved in getting me from Terra Nova to Sydney, that i may not make it to Dumont D'ville before the astrolabe left, could possibly get home via McMurdo and Christchurch but nobody could know when.There was also a slight possibility that i would have to work my way home (via Norway) on a Norwegian whaling vessel. It is typical of the help we have been getting here that despite this logistical nightmare, he was perfectly happy to accomodate me. "But, he said, "the Dumont D'ville flight is early - you have 10 minutes to decide, and half an hour till the flight leaves". Another 10 phone calls to Michael, some frantic keyboard hammering, and we seemed to have fixed (or at least diagnosed) the communications problem. Then the station radio starts screaming at me "Pedro, Pedro, where are you, the plane is leaving". So i had a last look around the AASTINO, throw everything in the back of a skidoo, slam the door closed, squirt a bit of silastic in the gaps, and race off to the plane. After which, i spend the 4 hour trip trying to remember what i forgot to do {Yes, John, the solar panels are ON: i think...}. Back on the astrolabe, i have just rung Michael who has fixed the computer problem, and reports that everything else is looking good. I really have no idea if the whole system will crash and burn tomorrow or last until next summer, but 1/300 th of the way there is a lot different to 0/300 th, so i think we are in with a good chance. The amazing adventure is not yet over for me: I will spend the next few days in Dumont D'ville, before another 5 or so days on the astrolobe. I can easily sum up those times now though. My time here will be spent sleeping, watching penguins, improving my newly acquired babyfoot skills, trying to beat Tony at pingpong, eating the excellent food (hopefully no more snails) and taking advantage of the free beer. The astrolabe voyage will be five days spent enjoying the extremely placid state brought on by the sea-sickness medication, followed by bouts of vomiting over the bough. Should be fun!! By Jon Lawrence

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

And then there was one:

I awoke, as usual, feeling like I had just eaten a whole packet of sao biscuits and then brushed my teeth with sand. This is a common malady - known as Antarctic desert mouth, brought on by the extremely dry air, suffered mostly by those who drink too many double expressos and smoke too many cigarettes. As usual, i just missed breakfast (it finishes at 8 am sharp) so had to make do with a double expresso and a smoke. I then walked out to the AASTINO, and found myself alone. Tony left for Dumont D'ville on the 4am Twin Otter flight this morning. He has to forgive me for not getting up (or staying up) and sending him off - he made me eat a snail last night - so I think we are even. Jon LawrenceFirst thing this morning I sat down and wrote a list of everything I need to do in the last two days here. I stopped at about 34 things, some of them simple (like wash my sheets - which is compulsory before leaving) some of them not so simple (like install and debug Paolos' 17 pages of perl script to analyse the sub-milimetre tipper data). Its now 3 am and I have crossed off 5 things (which don't include either of the above). I still think I can get it all done, as long as I don't sleep tomorrow night, can find someone to wash my sheets, and don't install and debug Paolos' 17 pages of perl script to analyse the sub-milimetre tipper data. Half of the remaining tasks are software related - writing and debugging scripts that will remotely control (and log data from) the two instruments and the two Stirling engines. The engine control is a particularly interesting and difficult problem. We have to give the engines enough intelligence that they will run without any intervention (because the iridium satellite communications link is very slow and it would be impossible to solve engine problems in real time), and decide what to do if a problem arises (ie one of them stops, develops a fault, or needs its oxygen sensor recalibrated). The software also needs to be robust enough that is wont crash or tell the engines to do stupid things. Another week or so of testing the program would be ideal but then I would have to winter alone in the AASTINO, as the station closes on Saturday. Saverio, the station electrician (and saviour of the SODAR) tells me that there is actually enough food here for four people to survive until next summer. I am convinced that the food supply is nothing but boxes and boxes of canned mushrooms and snails, and so I think I'll make sure to finish working on the engine software tomorrow. Jon Lawrence

Easy like a sunday evening

Let's see. Today I am writing yesterday's diary a bit later than usual and with my short attention span, I had to ask Jon: "What happened yesterday?" After 5 seconds of reflection, Jon gave me the summary of the day: "Frog legs, the party, midnight pasta" Now I will try to expand these concepts and for once try to avoid putting our readers to sleep with our usual work related problems or with details about Dallas switches. So let's follow Jon menu, starting with entrée: "The frog legs" For once the special meal was not for dinner but for lunch. This is because Jean-Louis takes Sunday evening to Monday evening off. Before lunch nothing too exciting happened. Jon was on the engines and I was on the resurrected SODAR as you can imagine. At 12:00 we got back to the summer camp. As usual, took off our shoes, walked in the restaurant. I checked the day's menu which is always posted at the entry. When I saw written "grenouille" I immediately turned to Jon and saw the most worried look on his face as he was staring at the hundreds of pairs of legs lying in the dish. It was however surprisingly easy to convince him to try some, mentioning that it taste exactly like chicken. They were cooked with garlic and parsley and I think he liked them. I can't wait to see him in front of a plate of snails (I hope there is some before we leave). In the afternoon, nothing too exciting or at least "heroic-sounding" event. We are still very focused on what we are doing. The time is running out and we still have a few crucial details to get working. Something worth mentioning however was the last weather balloon launch of the season. I might be gone on the 4th so I prefer to give myself tomorrow to pack the whole equipment. My colleagues in Nice (who are reading this diary with a lot of interest, right Karim?) will be glad to know that all the launches went well and that the data is on its way via the internet. Right! Now I have talked enough about work. Let's go back to the menu with the main course: "the party" The Sunday night party was this time courtesy of the two Swiss of the station, Patrick and Patrice. They are part of the Science team of EPICA and in fact, the last two remaining members left at this stage of the competition. They had planed their party well since they got some quality Whisky shipped on the traverse that left DDU a couple of weeks ago. They had the music ready in the free-time tent and even made some cocktails with pineapples and orange (fresh ones). As usual, most of the station showed up, even if some, with larger responsibilities could only make a short appearance. The baby-foot was, of course, extensively used (It's amazing how good you get after a few drinks) but most people just chatted about their life back home or about their previous Antarctic adventures. With smaller amount of people left, it feels like the bonds between us all are getting stronger and stronger. I am sad I won't be there when the station closes (the 8th). I seems confirmed on the other hand that Jon will be able to stay until the 7th to do further testing on the system. At midnight, we moved on to the dessert of the day: "midnight pasta". The cook was Fabrizio, one of EPICA's driller. The pasta cooked with a lot of spices was served to everyone still up (most of the station). It was quite popular since he had to go back and do more twice. We even found some Norwegian omelet left in the freezer. The meal went on until very late. Everybody was talking louder than their neighbor. It felt like one of those big Italian family meeting except I am not sure who the padrino of the station is. The day was a lot of fun and it makes me a bit sad to leave it so soon.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

The miracle

When someone dies, you call for the priest. When a SODAR dies, you call for the schematics. That's right we are not the type of people to give up so easily. Through the night, I got the schematics of the beast faxed to us by the manufacturer in France. In the morning my trusted multimetre and I probed the life-less body in the hope to find a sign of weakness. This weakness revealed itself in the form of power converter which was not converting anything and taking a huge amount of space on the electronics board. This was good news only if a replacement could be found in Terra Nova and easily shipped to Dome C. At lunch at I explained all that to Saverio, the station electrician who has been a wonderful ally so far. He was going to ring Terra ova to get to see if they had replacement parts and also check around his lab if there was anything useful lying around. In the mean time I started pulling the faulty component out of the board, an exercise that required a large pair of pliers and Jon's assistance to get the little ripper detached from the rest of the circuit. We then had to wait for the replacement to arrive before attending more surgery to the SODAR. So I went outside with my video camera to catch a few scenes since the last remaining days might be too busy to do so. Walking around the station to get a few shots of the main tents, I felt again the solitude of the place. The station population had gone down again that morning and will again tomorrow morning when the Twin-Otter takes the Americans Scientists down to Mc Murdo. The two advantages of having less people here are that, first of all, there is less snoring in the tent and secondly Jean-Louis can prepare more exotic dishes that he could not do before because of the lack of ingredients. Tonight for example we are having tartar steak and tomorrow, duck with orange sauce. In the mean time, Jon was working on the remote connection of our system with Sydney. He and Michael Ashley had been trying to get it going for a few days now but had a few problems that are too boring to list in this diary. At the end of the day, they finally succeeded and we will be able to spend the remaining days doing some tests to see if we can control everything from Sydney. At 5:00pm Saverio walked in the AASTINO with a replacement converter. We were wondering with Jon how he got a hold onto such an uncommon piece of equipment. He told us that he ripped it off the wind generator (which was not working, so who cares?). Of course it was a bit bigger than the original one so there was a lot of wiring and soldering to be done to get it in place. Now the SODAR looks a bit bigger than it used to be. The converter in place, we fired up the SODAR and we heard it singing with a little voice. This created a smile on our faces but we were not done yet. We plugged the oscilloscope and cranked the gain of the brain new car amplifier until we got the proper signal strength coming out of the antenna. Victory! It was all working. We could hardly believe it. That was probably the greatest moment we've experienced in Dome C. Two days ago, we thought the machine was dead and ready to be shipped back in Sydney, and now it was making a racket of a noise that can be heard from both the new station and the summer camp. The man of the hour is of course Saverio, who has deserved to be taken out to diner the next time he comes and visit Sydney. The day finished pretty well as you can see. And we hope that the remaining couple of days will be just as successful. I also negotiated with the station manager for one of us to stay until the 7th now. So it's likely that the fellowship of the AASTINO will be broken soon and then reunited in DDU to relax amongst the penguins. Ciao

Friday, January 31, 2003


It is with grief that I have to announce the death of our beloved Sodar. He will be remembered to all as a happy lad, always singing. His ashes will be buried in a suitcase tomorrow at 15:30 and taken to a better place. More seriously though, this is a real disappointment to us that this very important experience will be missing our first winter at Dome C. It turned out that more than the amplifier was damaged. It would be very hard to figure out exactly what else got damaged let alone receiving the components on the little time we have left. So now we have to concentrate on getting the rest of our mission fully working, something we are very confident about. Jon had a better day than me, doing a lot of progress on the second engine which is more reluctant than the first one. We got the rest of the fuel delivered in the afternoon. We now have the two tanks filled up to the top. The amount of fuel should be just enough until we come back at the end of the year. In fact, the amount of fuel we will use will be also dependant on the amount of energy we can get out of the solar panels. We installed them facing north in order to get every glimpse of sun as it will make a short appearance in spring and autumn. Today was also memorable for being the coldest yet. It was not so much the temperature but rather the wind which was at a record high. The 20 knots made all our flags stand straight. So straight they looked like the one on the moon which I guess is just as lonely as ours will be when the station closes. The wind made it difficult to do just about anything outside and it reminded me of the conditions we experienced last year at the South Pole. I should probably mention that the South Pole, being on the slope of the plateau, has stronger winds so we had to be fully covered when going outside. Dome C on the other hand is at a local maximum and the wind is usual negligible. Today, this was not the case and our clothes felt a little short on protection. Even our AASTINO which usually can get to any temperature we want (we like it at 28C) could barely maintain a temperature above 15C. The wind was infiltrating itself through our vents which were designed to minimise that effect. With 2,500 litres of cold fuel now inside the AASTINO, it should take a couple of days to get our 28C back and work around in shorts. I guess that's all for today. I don't fell like saying much because of the frustration. That is one thing about working in extreme environments. If something goes wrong, either you came prepared for it or there is simply nothing you can do. Now that all our readers feel sorry for us (and are on their way to make a donation to our cause), I'll finish with the good news of the day: we got one extra day in Dome C (we are leaving on the 5th instead of the 4th) to get the bambino running.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

A good day today

I woke up early today. In fact it was the first time I was able to catch breakfast. Normally I use the breakfast hour to sleep a bit longer but today I knew was going to be a good day. Jean-Louis rubbed his eyes not believing it was me making an appearance so soon. He normally sees me amongst the fist people at lunch but never for breakfast. He checked out my pulse: everything is surprisingly in order. In the morning Jon and I were trying to go ahead with our work, but it proved harder than expected because the people of the raid having the morning off, all decided to visit us at regular intervals through out the morning. They have spent the day before unloading their trucks with the help of some Concordia people. They had plenty of material to transfer to the construction site, mainly panels used to separate each floor into the different rooms. There was also a whole container of food which will stay frozen until next season. Most importantly, 10,000 litres of JetA1 were brought along out of which we will use 2,500 litres to run the Aastino during winter. So the morning felt a little like last Sunday. Every hour a person or two from the traverse would come in the Aastino and I would put on my car salesman hat to repeat over and over again the wonderful characteristics of our experiments. I think that my speech was getting shorter and shorter towards the end, and by the time the last guy came in, I just felt like saying: "There it is, have a look". Don't worry I didn't say that. Jon realising that my patience was diminishing filled in the blanks and so I think every person got given the full story. Amongst the ten or so raid people, were two very recognisable Australians. I am glad that I am not the only one dressed in yellow now. They are mechanics and have worked with the Australian Antarctic Division in the past. They both were wintering over last year in the coastal base of Casey so we had plenty of things to talk about when they came to see us. They were hired for the traverse because it is cheaper for the French polar institute to hire already "Antarctic trained" personnel than doing the training themselves In the afternoon, things got exiting because a Twin-Otter flew in carrying my long awaited amplifier. This gives me a chance to rescue my PhD thesis and make the season a lot more worthwhile for all the people involved in the project. This data is very important for many people in the world waiting to see if the turbulence of Dome C is well-behaved and therefore if the site has more real-estate value than the swamps in Florida. So I spent the afternoon adapting the new amplifier to the SODAR and I'll tune it tomorrow to collect the first data. It seems that all our technical problems are running away. There Aastino should be fully operational by the time we say goodbye to the station. To top it all up Jean-Louis prepared I believe was the best dinner yet. There was duck magret served with green pepper sauce and with an assortment of several type of mushroom. For dessert, a Norwegian omelette which is a frozen cake made of ice-cream sandwiched between sponge cakes and covered with meringue and finally flamed Grand-Marnier is poured on the whole thing. Needless to say I had several servings of each dish. The day finished with a bit of fun. Fabrice, a Swiss physicist working for Epica, and I had a game of Chess. It's good to drop baby-foot for once and find another source of entertainment. The game was very intense and finished with a draw after an hour of play. We took appointment tomorrow for another game. I have now all night to tune my strategy.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

the caravan

Late last night, Dome C lived one of the major events of the season. The last traverse (or raid as they call it) from Dumont D'urville arrived after 10 days spent driving on the ice. We were aware of their approach from the Aastino by the conversations the station had with them on the radio. The first message they emitted was the report that some of the traverse had mechanical problems and had to stop to repair 20km away from Concordia. Imagine how you must feel so close to a warm meal and shower and suddenly your engine stops. Being so close, some of the raid kept on driving and left the others to their problem. After another hour, the radio screamed: "I can see the camels!" The camels they were talking about are carved out of plywood and sticked at the entry of the station (if there is such a thing as an entry). I think they symbolise the similitude between the raid and a Touhareg caravan going through the Sahara. This meant that they were arriving. Jon and I dropped everything, ran out of the Aastino with the video camera and watched the first part of the raid driving in the base. There was two large snow trucks, each pulling about 4 containers worth of supplies and attached one after another making the whole procession look like an Australian road train. The first two containers were clearly the habitable ones. With doors and smoke coming out of them, they looked from the outside easily as comfortable as out tents. Driving the leading truck, I recognised Georges, the Doctor who fixed my skull on the Astrolabe. It was good to welcome him in Dome C. He even came with a present: a shirt I had forgotten just before taking the helicopter at DDU. After arriving with Astrolabe, he helped with the unloading of the Astrolabe and the loading of the traverse. We witness a bit of this work while we were at DDU. A helicopter goes back and forth between the station and the boat, picking up a box roughly every 3 minutes. It was simply unbelievable to see the ease at which the pilot made those manoeuvres. We didn't stay around to see the rest of the traverse arrive a couple of hours later. This morning however, the station, fattened with 10 extra people and a lot of trucks and containers, was busy like a bee hive to unload everything. At 10:32am, Jon decided it was time to use brute strength on the supervisor. He took the ribbon cable out of the guts of the beast and after hesitating between running over it with the skidoo and squeezing it with pliers, he chose the later option. Like a surgeon, he then placed the tortured cable back in place and switched the power on. Having lost all confidence by that stage, we barely looked at the monitor when the miracle happened. The computer started normally and gave us the usual prompt as if nothing has happened. Time for Champagne! Unfortunately none of it was left from Sunday so we celebrated with the packet of biscuits I steal every day from Jean-Louis' reserve. This misadventure did cost us 4 days of work. We are now left with 6 days to complete the mission. This should be just enough to get the Aastino fully operational. The only uncertainty is the Sodar. I am still waiting for the amplifier from Mc Murdo to fix it. According to the station manager there is only one flight left out of Mc Murdo to Terra Nova on the 1st of February.

Monday, January 27, 2003

Baigno day

Today is Sunday the 26th of January. Our overseas readers may not be aware that it is the Australian National day. For this reason, we had organised a couple of special things for today. I'll pass very quickly over this morning. Jon and I spent it again trying to figure out what could be wrong with our compact flash. We did enough test to be now sure that this is not a software problem and that the card itself is in perfect shape. This is puzzling us a bit since the rest of the system works with another card. It's probably time to call the exorcist again. Lunch is when it started to become a bit more out of the ordinary. A week before I had explained Jean-Louis about Australia day. I asked him if it was possible to get something special for lunch (he has Sunday dinner off). So back then he asked me what a typical Australian meal was. I obviously mentioned kangaroo steak, although it is not all that popular in Australia, and it turned out that Jean-Louis had some (as you would if you were in the middle of Antarctica). I turned to Jon for the rest of the menu. Jon proposed sausage sandwich, an answer Jean-Louis pretended he didn't hear, and sponge cake. When I translated to Jean-Louis what it was, he kept on asking me "but what else do they put in it?". I thought he was going to faint when I repeated for the third time that it was nothing but sponge and icing. In the end he asked us to leave it to him and we are quite glad we did. Here is the menu: Tasmanian smoked salmon. Sydney's little Italy, tortelini. Kangaroo steak. Chocolate and cornflakes sponge cake. We even had taken the Australia flag from the AASTINO and put it on the ceiling of the restaurant. Our only failure was to be unable to answer what event triggered the choice of that date for the national day. For the afternoon, we had planned an open day in the AASTINO. Sunday being the only day off for the workers of the Concordia station, we had advertised a week in advance that this Sunday would be the day to come and visit us, with Champagne as an extra motivation. The AASTINO being a bit small to fit the whole station, we had spread the visit over a major part of the afternoon hoping that people would not come all at once. We also cleaned the tent up and layed out a table inside with Champagne, summary sheets of all the instruments and technical parts of the AASTINO and our "Physics school annual report" that we are so proud of. The visit was extremely successfull and most of the people of the station came (I have the names of the ones who didn't!). The Italians came first. Very civilised people, they came is small groups of two or three. I was serving the Champagne while Jon was giving out the details of the AASTINO with the energy of a car salesman. After the first hour, more and more came in the AASTINO and it became so busy that Jon and I were giving parralel talks on our system, completely forgetting the tent. Logically enough, the Concordia people were more interested by the engines and our strategy for the winter while the scientists spent more time gazing at the two instruments. By the time the American scientists came in, the AASTINO was completely full and I was regretting that we didn't ask for an entry fee. I think everyone was fairly impressed by our work and even completely baffled when they heard that no one in our team was a mechanical or electrical engineer. Eventually the AASTINO emptied and we were left only amongst English speakers. When we got out of the AASTINO, the tent which we had completely forgotten about, was making a lot of noise and even shaking a little. I opened it and found 16 people inside going through the Champagne as if it was orange juice. It was quite a view since the tent is made to fit between 4 and 6 people. After the tour of the AASTINO people had simply gathered there and had no reason to get out until there was no Champagne left to drink. Since we had 12 bottles, it took until 7:30pm to clear everyone out. What started as a tour, became a real social gathering. Everybody told their Antarctic story and it was probably one of the most fun time we have had so far. It's a shame John left so early because it was today that the AASTINO became a real part of the station. A smaller group kept on toasting to the AASTINO and Australia day after dinner, although Gianpiero prefered to sing: "To baigno day!". With our new spirit up tomorrow should see our victory over the supervisor. Ciao Tony

Sunday, January 26, 2003

balloon day

I woke up this morning, hoping that the previous day was just a bad dream. I rose out of my tent and the first thing I saw was the station doctor tanning outside his tent only wearing boxer-shorts and sun glasses. Ok I dreamt the whole Antarctic thing; I must be still in Tahiti. This idea didn't last long, it was still -30C and when I joined Jon in the AASTINO, the supervisor was still not working. This is not coming at a great timing either as I had organised today to launch a weather balloon every two hours between midday and midnight. Let's not panic! First thing, let's call Michael. We've called him every weekend since we have arrived at Dome C, he is probably wandering how small our brains got with the altitude. Nevertheless, we decide to call him. He leads me for half an hour through a series a linux command into a fight with the SODAR laptop to find out why it won't start up. Eventually the fight comes to an end: Michael 1- Computer 0. Jon on the other side of the AASTINO is waging another day of war against the Supervisor. He only stops to answer another wrong number on the Iridium. It was the same guy as yesterday, who we know now is trying to reach someone in Mc Murdo (close enough). At the end of the day however, the compact flash memory card is still not working. We have on the other end, another flash card which works. It is not ideal because it does not contain all the programs that the original did, but if worst comes, we can work something out from it. Tony launching a BalloonI spent my days doing the balloon launches, helped by Brad, a South Pole meteorologist I had seen there the previous year. He is at Dome C to work on some satellite validation which also benefits from the balloon data. We launched our first sonde at midday when the temperature was a comfortable -26C. But every other launch after that became harder and harder as the temperature dropped regularly and reached -41C on the midnight launch. At this temperature, tying the knot to the balloon is very painful to the fingers and sometime you can barely do one before needing to get your hand back in the gloves. Between launches I went back to the AASTINO to help Jon on the problem of the day. Every time I passed the door wishing to see the computer up and running. Unfortunately it never happened and the day finished with this problem still in the air. The evening was a typical Dome C Saturday night: A few people on the baby-foot (the competition was won by Gianpiero and Fabricio by the way), 5 French men playing Tarot and the same amount of Italian playing another game of card. The rest of the people are usually spread around a movie or simply talking around the fire place (ok, there is no fire place. I just meant heater.) The evening being the last for half of the Epica crew, the evening dragged on for a bit longer. At midnight, a bunch of Italians went to the kitchen to prepare some "midnight pasta". The French replied by an even more predictable "5am French fries". It's a shame Jon and I were not around at that time because we would have probably answered to that with a "6am meat pie" A domani...

Saturday, January 25, 2003

computer breakdown

Well, when we thought that everything was going as planned, the gods of computing decided that going to Antarctica and not sweating anymore than that was not acceptable. So they stroke a couple of time and now the pressure is up. The day went a bit like that: All was well in a pleasant morning at Dome C. The wind was low and the birds would have been singing if there had been any. Jon was happily working on the oxygen sensor whistling to the tune of the CD player. Tony was outside, the temperature was so nice that he didn't even have his jacket on. He was joyly shovelling snow, dreaming about the apple donuts awaiting to be eaten at dinner. Late morning he walked back inside and was greeted by Jon smiling, resetting the computer and saying: "the oxygen sensor program is almost working!"... And then... the shock. The computer screen, black, with four satanic letters: "GRUB", probably a curse word in the holy tongue of the computing gods. Well organised, we had brought with us a dictionary to this forgotten tongue: "Red-Hat for system managers". This book, so thick it takes two people to lift it, is supposed to tell you how to use the operating system. After kneeling in front of it, I turned the pages while Jon was singing incantations to calm the fury of the gods. The translation to GRUB revealed itself in all its modesty: "GRand Unified Bootloader". This translation was followed by a few descriptive lines as useful to us as a touristic guide to South-East India. So what do you do when a computer does not boot? You change I mean you change the disk. So we tried our back up disk. But it was not more successful, so we called our exorcist (Michael) to tell us how to get rid of this demon. Amongst the possible fixes he suggested was to try to read the compact flash disk on the SODAR laptop. I tried once, failed and when I was about to give it a second shot, the SODAR laptop refused to boot, claiming a file was missing. The curse had managed to invade our entire fleet of Unix machines (maybe fleet is exaggerated). A the top of our despair, the Iridium rang. And would you believe it, it was a wrong number! How can you get a wrong number when there is so few Iridium phones and when the number to dial is so long (12 figures). So we left the AASTINO, back to the base, and drowned our sadness in apple donuts. Tomorrow it will all seem like a bad dream...

computer breakdown

Well, when we thought that everything was going as planned, the gods of computing decided that going to Antarctica and not sweating anymore than that was not acceptable. So they stroke a couple of time and now the pressure is up. The day went a bit like that: All was well in a pleasant morning at Dome C. The wind was low and the birds would have been singing if there had been any. Jon was happilly working on the oxygen sensor whisling to the tune of the CD player. Tony was outside, the temperature was so nice that he didn't even have his jacket on. He was joylly shovelling snow, dreaming about the apple donuts awaiting to be eaten at dinner. Late morning he walked back inside and was greeted by Jon smilling, resetting the computer and saying: "the oxygen sensor program is almost working!"... And then... the shock. The computer screen, black, with four satanic letters: "GRUB", probably a curse word in the holy tongue of the computing gods. Well organised, we had brought with us a dictionnay to this forgotten tongue: "Red-Hat for system managers". This book, so thick it takes two people to lift it, is supposed to tell you how to use the operating system. After kneeling in front of it, I turned the pages while Jon was singing incantations to calm the fury of the gods. The translation to GRUB revealed itself in all its modesty: "GRand Unified Bootloader". This translation was followed by a few descriptive lines as usefull to us as a touristic guide to South-East India. So what do you do when a computer does not boot? You change I mean you change the disk.

Friday, January 24, 2003

Competition day

Today was a very quiet day at Dome C. Having reached a population minimum since we have arrived, and adding to that the total absence of wind, the main street of Dome C is reminiscent of an old western ghost town. From now on the population will slowly decrease until there is 5 people left on the 9th of February to close the station. Jon and I will be amongst the last scientists to leave with a date range from the 3rd to the 5th of February. Personally I prefer the later, with hope that the replacement amplifier for the SODAR will arrive very soon. Jon worked all day on the Summit and the second generator (Nancy) which we had problems getting started. The day started pretty well with the Summit collecting its first data of the season. Unfortunately, Jon found a bug in the system. It looks like every time we power cycle the Iridium phone, every Ethernet connection on the hub flashes and disconnects the instruments for a few tens of a second. Somehow the Summit does not appreciate this little kick and replies by stopping its duty. Nancy on the other hand was much more docile today. Jon figured out the magic combination of parameters to get it started. In some way, playing with the engines is a bit like preparing a chocolate soufflé. If you get one of the ingredients wrong or if the oven is at the wrong temperature, the soufflé will do its best trying to rise but will eventually collapse back at the bottom of the dish. Nancy had been doing that for the last few days. Today however, it started 4 times in a row without complaining. With this victory in hand, Jon will try tomorrow another recipe: 2 soufflés in parallel. What I mean by that is that we need to have a method (a script) that manages the two engines in order to always one working at any time. Jon has been working on that in Sydney and he will now tune it to make it work in those more extreme conditions. With a few things now crossed out of our job list, I realised that until the amplifier makes a landing in Dome C, all the remaining jobs could only be done from the one computer. Jon being stapled to it with a time bomb around his neck, I had to resign myself to the last job away from the keyboard: the evil inventory. This task is definitely the most boring there is, but it is also an important one for the planning of next year's deployment. I won't go through the details. I bet no one cares how many flat-head screw driver we have in stock in the AASTINO. I took the opportunity to do a bit of a clean up as well. So far it had been almost impossible to take a descent picture of the interior of the AASTINO without having a bunch of tools messing the view. The tent was also the subject of this clean up and is now ready for the open day we have organised on Sunday. We thought it would fit well to give a tour of the AASTINO to the people of the station on Australia day. We have the Champagne ready and now a spotless, state of the art, scientific facility. After dinner (and a few slices of lemon meringue pie), a station wide baby-foot competition was organised. Let me first describe for our non-Latin readers what baby-foot is. To put it simply, baby-foot is a table soccer game. Each side (you can have one or two people per side) has four handles which controls a line of soccer player figurines. The aim is to use them to kick the ball into the goal of the opposing team. Where Australian pubs have pool tables, the French and Italian ones have baby-foot tables. I introduced Jon to the rules of that game in Dumont-D'Urville where they have a table and he liked it enough not to spend a day without playing it now. In Dome C however, the baby-foot is Italian and there is a few differences with the French one. In the French baby-foot, the feet of the figurines are made of rubber so you can get a hold of the ball. This leads to a game focused on pass and fake shoots. In the Italian baby-foot, the figurines feet are hard plastic and the sides of the table are curved. The game is therefore based on speed. There is also a few minor rule differences, but the game is essentially the same: scoring ten goals before you opponent. Most of the station entered the competition which should last two or three days (playing in the evening, after dinner). Two people per team, best of three games. The teams were drawn from a hat and the first games have started at 8:30 tonight. I will keep you posted of the results when the competition is finally over. So far the Italians are doing well (playing on home ground and rules it was to be expected). At eleven I left to do my balloon launch and set another record with a ground wind speed of 0.1m/s. More tomorrow...

Thursday, January 23, 2003


Thursday, 23 January 2003 With this diary entry I will hang up my gloves (and my parka, boots, etc). I.m now in McMurdo, on the way home, and Christchurch is only 4 or 5 flying hours away by C-141. Last night was spent tidying up some last-minute things, and flowed smoothly into today via the usual path of midnight. A short time later I was bidding farewell to all my friends and colleagues at Dome C, and preparing to board the Twin Otter. Shortly before closing the doors the co-pilot produced a full-sized sledgehammer from one of the hatches and walked purposefully towards the front of the plane. I wondered if perhaps the GPS or one of the radios needed some fine-tuning, and he'd been given the same set of electronic tools we had to work with at Dome C. As it turned out, he placed a block of wood against each ski in turn, set his foot against it, and then gave the wood an almighty wallop with the sledgehammer. This broke the ski free from the ice, where it had frozen solid over the past few days. The flight to McMurdo was about 5 hours in total, broken by a short stop at "Mid-point Charlie" to refuel. Mid-point Charlie is nothing more than a fuel bladder, some drums, a couple of flags and a patch of yellow snow. It's actually quite eerie to set down in such an isolated location, and to appreciate just how empty Antarctica is. McMurdo, on the other hand, is a bustling metropolis after Dome C. Soon after arriving I withdrew $60 from the Wells Fargo automatic teller machine . not because I needed any money, but just because I could. I can surf the net, ring up anyone I like, and have just looked in horror at the 720 emails that have gathered in my inbox on the UNSW computer. At McMurdo I have been given the status of a "transient", in recognition of the fact that I am just passing through. This gives me a bed in the "bunk room", a medium-sized room packed to capacity with 15 double-bunks. McMurdo probably has many fine features . I know that some folk like it a lot. To me it's too big, and is always a bit of a rude shock after the utopian social environment at South Pole or Dome C. I'm too busy adjusting to the idea of locked doors and keys (and things you have to pay for) to appreciate its finer points. Having now been away from the real word for over a month, I've got quite a bit of adjusting to do. Farewell, dear reader, and please join me in wishing Jon and Tony every success as they complete the preparation of the AASTINO to spend its first year alone at Dome C.

Bikini weather

Hello world. John is leaving tonight to Mc Murdo. So as the French say: "Le roi est mort, vive le roi!". In other terms, I am proclaming myself the new king of the diaries. It was a simple thing to do since Jon is in the AASTINO working on summit (at 11pm, mind you). Unfortunately for you readers that will mean that the diaries will be a bit shorter. You have probably already compared my style with John's on last year's diaries and the most obvious difference is that mine are twice as short (but I prefer the term "to the point"). To compensate, I will try to increase the amount of things to tell by throwing myself from the top of the AASTINO or mixing some Jet-A1 into Jon's water bottle (kids, do not try this at home!) With John it's 1/3 of the work force gone and 3/4 of the experience. It will be a tough job for the two kids that we are to get everything done on time. We made a list of things left to do and it barely fitted on a sheet of paper. We are however quite confident that we will succeed since John has done all the jobs requiring an advanced knowledge of electronics. We are now essentially left to get the 2 science instruments working and get a better hold on the generators starting procedure (and mood). Today the two J's mastered the Wakey-Wakey board. This job was mainly composed of a speed competition to see who could get the fastest pulse from a 9V battery. John won by a few tens of milliseconds which is not much in any Olympic event, but a huge lead in this AASTINO event (The AASTINO games include events such as solder iron jump, fire extinguisher throw and SODAR short-circuiting race). The big problem with the Wakey-Wakey rather came from the supervisor computer which is supposed to tell the Wakey that it is still alive by sending this electrical pulse through the 5th pin of a parrallel port. Not seeing any pulse, we digged into Michael Ashley's software and concluded the " echo 'Ee' " line did not send a pulse to the 5th pin but to the 6th. We thought we were pretty clever to have figured that out but unfortunately Michael shattered our egos by emailing us the real fix which had nothing to do whit this 'Ee' line. In the afternoon, while Jon was hand-wrestling with the Summit, I went down the crypt. This place is the scariest place in Dome C (I take that back, the top of Richard's 30m tower is scarier). It has a few features in common with hell. For example, it is buried deep underground, it is hot and there is no candy dispenser. It is also very uncomfortable since it is as high as my shoulders. Once in the crypt I fully defended the Icecam from any alien intrusion by surrounding the machine with red tape and many labels forbiding anyone who speaks English to touch the holy instrument. After this I did my daily weather balloon launch. I can't remember exactly how much did john say about that, so let me explain what this is. I am effectively in Dome C to work for our group and also for the University of Nice. Both our Universities have the common goal to quantify the astronomical properties of the atmosphere. So instead of staying in our respective corners, we have decided to collaborate together. for this reason I spent 2 months in Nice last Summer in order to be trained on weather balloons that I am now launching every day on the behalf of my french colleagues. The balloons are filled with helium and carry a sonde that measures pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed. It sends the data to a receiver tuned to the frequency emitted by the sonde, giving us profiles of all these parameters up to about 20km. Today was a very successfull launch. There was no wind so the balloon went straight up. It showed that the ground temperature was -19.3 degrees Celcius, the warmest temperature we have had so far. When you come to think about it, it is actually warmer than what they have in the North-East of the USA (aren't we lucky). In the late afternoon I played a bit with the web camera. Testing it and fixing it to the bench in order to have a permanent centrered view of the Concordia station (this is my cameraman side speaking here). In the mean time Jon helped filling the 2 tanks with 200 litres of Jet-A1. This is only a preliminary step to make sure there is no leak in the tanks before pouring the whole 2,500 litres in them. Once again the highlight of the day was the terrific dinner made by Jean-Louis. This time, Civet de Lievre and Crepes au Grand-Marnier. If you don't understand what it is, it is probably better since you won't know what you are missing. At midnight we accompanied John and the 4 other passenger to the Twin-Otter. The farewell took forever because two of the passengers were journalists who wanted to get the whole scene on tape. We had to shake hands about 10 times before they were satisfied and got on board. Once the doors locked the plane warmed up for about 10 minutes before taking off in the clouds of ice it lifted off the ground with its propellers. One down, two more to go. This situation is almost reminiscent of the adventure shows we get on TV these days. That's all for today.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Bikini weather

Hello world. John is leaving tonight to Mc Murdo. So as the French say: "Le roi est mort, vive le roi!". In other terms, I am proclaming myself the new king of the diaries. It was a simple thing to do since Jon is in the AASTINO working on summit (at 11pm, mind you). Unfortunately for you readers that will mean that the diaries will be a bit shorter. You have probably already compared my style with John's on last year's diaries and the most obvious difference is that mine are twice as short (but I prefer the term "to the point"). To compensate, I will try to increase the amount of things to tell by throwing myself from the top of the AASTINO or mixing some Jet-A1 into Jon's water bottle (kids, do not try this at home!) With John it's 1/3 of the work force gone and 3/4 of the experience. It will be a tough job for the two kids that we are to get everything done on time. We made a list of things left to do and it barely fitted on a sheet of paper. We are however quite confident that we will succeed since John has done all the jobs requiring an advanced knowledge of electronics. We are now essentially left to get the 2 science instruments working and get a better hold on the generators starting procedure (and mood). Today the two J's mastered the Wakey-Wakey board. This job was mainly composed of a speed competition to see who could get the fastest pulse from a 9V battery. John won by a few tens of milliseconds which is not much in any Olympic event, but a huge lead in this AASTINO event (The AASTINO games include events such as solder iron jump, fire extinguisher throw and SODAR short-circuiting race). The big problem with the Wakey-Wakey rather came from the supervisor computer which is supposed to tell the Wakey that it is still alive by sending this electrical pulse through the 5th pin of a parrallel port. Not seeing any pulse, we digged into Michael Ashley's software and concluded the " echo 'Ee' " line did not send a pulse to the 5th pin but to the 6th. We thought we were pretty clever to have figured that out but unfortunately Michael shattered our egos by emailing us the real fix which had nothing to do whit this 'Ee' line. In the afternoon, while Jon was hand-wrestling with the Summit, I went down the crypt. This place is the scariest place in Dome C (I take that back, the top of Richard's 30m tower is scarier). It has a few features in common with hell. For example, it is buried deep underground, it is hot and there is no candy dispenser. It is also very uncomfortable since it is as high as my shoulders. Once in the crypt I fully defended the Icecam from any alien intrusion by surrounding the machine with red tape and many labels forbiding anyone who speaks English to touch the holy instrument. After this I did my daily weather balloon launch. I can't remember exactly how much did john say about that, so let me explain what this is. I am effectively in Dome C to work for our group and also for the University of Nice. Both our Universities have the common goal to quantify the astronomical properties of the atmosphere. So instead of staying in our respective corners, we have decided to collaborate together. for this reason I spent 2 months in Nice last Summer in order to be trained on weather balloons that I am now launching every day on the behalf of my french colleagues. The balloons are filled with helium and carry a sonde that measures pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed. It sends the data to a receiver tuned to the frequency emitted by the sonde, giving us profiles of all these parameters up to about 20km. Today was a very successfull launch. There was no wind so the balloon went straight up. It showed that the ground temperature was -19.3 degrees Celcius, the warmest temperature we have had so far. When you come to think about it, it is actually warmer than what they have in the North-East of the USA (aren't we lucky). In the late afternoon I played a bit with the web camera. Testing it and fixing it to the bench in order to have a permanent centrered view of the Concordia station (this is my cameraman side speaking here). In the mean time Jon helped filling the 2 tanks with 200 litres of Jet-A1. This is only a preliminary step to make sure there is no leak in the tanks before pouring the whole 2,500 litres in them. Once again the highlight of the day was the terrific dinner made by Jean-Louis. This time, Civet de Lievre and Crepes au Grand-Marnier. If you don't understand what it is, it is probably better since you won't know what you are missing. At midnight we accompanied John and the 4 other passenger to the Twin-Otter. The farewell took forever because two of the passengers were journalists who wanted to get the whole scene on tape. We had to shake hands about 10 times before they were satisfied and got on board. Once the doors locked the plane warmed up for about 10 minutes before taking off in the clouds of ice it lifted off the ground with its propellers. One down, two more to go. This situation is almost reminiscent of the adventure shows we get on TV these days. That's all for today.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Poodle for dinner

Well, I'm still at Dome C. However I didn't get much done because I've already started to mentally disengage from the AASTINO, and shift into travelling mode. The AASTINO on top of Robert hill, with the
new station in the background.  Photo credit:  Tony TravouillonThe weather here is good, though a little overcast, with a remarkably high temperature of -19 C this afternoon. At McMurdo however, things continue to be crook. Our Twin Otter will probably leave for there around midnight tonight, although once I'm there it's unclear how long it will be until the C-141 is able to come and take me back to Christchurch. Although the Twin Otter can land on anything, the conditions have to be just right to satisfy the more finicky C-141. Even after a storm like this abates, it can apparently take up to two days to clear all the snow off the runway and the access roads. About the only useful thing I did today was to help track down the missing 5 microsecond pulse. This is the pulse that the Supervisor sends every minute to the Wakey-wakey board to reassure it that it's still alive, thereby avoiding a premature burial. Watching for a pulse which is only 5 millionths of a second long and only occurs once every 60 seconds would normally try the patience of a saint. Fortunately, our multicolour multilingual all-singing all-dancing Tektronix oscilloscope takes such things in its stride, and did all the hard work for us. To convince ourselves that the oscilloscope was actually watching out for pulses, we generated a few of our own by striking a wire across the terminal of a 9-volt battery. This led to a competition to see who could generate the shortest pulse. A few milliseconds was the norm, but I managed one lucky hit of 112 microseconds. That was about it for me. After lunch I did some of the videoing I'd been too busy to do up until now, including some "Skidoo-cam" of variable success, and then went to bed. Jon and Tony will fill you in with the real achievements of the afternoon, including putting the first 200 litres of fuel into our big tanks. Dinner was the usual Jean-Louis triumph. Main course featured "lievre" which, judging by the size of the bones, was an animal about the size of a miniature poodle, but probably wasn't. Either way, it was delicious. Crepes, hot from the pan and drizzled with Grand Marnier, finished things off nicely.

Ready for launch (almost)

Today was my last day at Dome C (probably). The storm is till raging at McMurdo, but chances are it will move on tomorrow, and so will I. For most of the day we checked out the various devices and sub-systems that we will depend on once Jon and Tony close the door to the AASTINO at the beginning of February, and leave it to its own devices, so to speak, for the next nine months. Some of these things worked well - for example we can use the solar panels to charge the batteries, or we can switch that power to heat one of the instruments. Other things just plain didn't work, for example the pressure sensor that is supposed to let us know how much fuel is left in the tanks by measuring the "head" of fuel. However, we think all the "mission critical" things are now working. We tested out our ingenious scheme for shutting down and restarting a recalcitrant engine control computer, but it was a bit of a disaster. I idea was a bit like that apparently used in nuclear-armed submarines: before anything as monumental as shutting off an engine can occur, both the webcam and the Dallas bus have to agree to do it. Then, we perform the electronic equivalent of pulling out a fuse, waiting a while, and putting it back. While our scheme worked exactly as planned, the effect on the Stirling engine was not good. We tried it on Nancy (we're leaving Sid to chug away continuously) and she threw a major tantrum, sending the display screen black, locking us out from remote control, and screeching shrilly via the beeper - and that was after we put the fuse back. Clearly, we don't quite know what we're doing here and we think we'll abandon this whole idea. I don't think the engine computer will crash, anyway. A second scheme, for fooling the engine control computer into thinking the flame is still burning while we quickly shut off the fuel and reset the oxygen sensor, worked perfectly. You win some, you lose some. For me this was a long and somewhat stressful day, trying to finish off the electronic control systems so that Jon and Tony can concentrate on the science instruments and on shaking down the engines. For Jon and Tony, tomorrow will be a chance to have some extra bench space and a spare coat-hook in the AASTINO. We've had a hell of a good time and, as the photos show, put a beaut little laboratory together. Let's hope it all works now. This will be my last diary from Dome C, but I'll try to send back a couple of reports of my journey home. Dinner tonight include fresh waffles by Jean-Louis, a good way to conclude a stay at Dome C.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

The Dallas Lama

The day dawned white and overcast (as opposed to grey and overcast) with winds of up to 11 knots (~20 km/hr). It's also snowing a bit - not big fluffy snowflakes but gritty little ice particles that are sometimes called "diamond dust". The wind makes it feel a lot colder, and is all the more biting because we're not used to it. It seems like a gale (and it makes our flags fly nicely!), but in reality it's about equal to the average wind speed at South Pole. The light makes a big difference to the way the station looks. You might think that snow is snow and just basically white, but it's remarkable how the appearance changes. With a clear sky and the sun low (as it is most of the time), the sastrugi are highlighted with bright facets and dark shadows, and the ice crystals sparkle from different angles as you walk past. When the sun is higher, the surface is starkly white and the surface features are flattened out. Today, with the sun behind clouds, the sky and the ground blend together into one big fluffy ball of cotton wool. The bad weather is apparently the edge of a major storm that has hit McMurdo - the big US station on the Antarctic coast. No planes are flying in or out of there, so the Twin Otter that arrived here around lunch time will stay here until conditions improve. When it does leave, possibly tomorrow or Wednesday, it will take me with it to McMurdo, on the start of my journey home. Unfortunately, that will bring my diaries to end, as I return once more to being a mild-mannered professor of physics. With any reasonable luck Tony and Jon will keep us all up to date on what is happening back in the AASTINO. For now, however, I'm still at Dome C, and we're largely engrossed in getting all the electronics to work. Our big challenge today as to get the Dallas bus operating, and the wakey-wakey board working so that the Supervisor computer would be properly power-cycled. The latter involved modifying an existing wakey-wakey board, and jollying up the 1 Hz oscillator that drives it. This all would have been made a lot easier if we'd remembered to bring any electronics components, and if aliens hadn't made off with every single one of our 6,100 spare resistors. (We're working with automotive wire strippers, a few automotive crimp connectors, some diodes Tony salvaged from the old Icecam battery pack, and two boxes of very large and unlabelled resistors the Station crew found somewhere.) By late afternoon the Wakey-wakey board was running nicely and ready to install. (Development and testing time was speeded up by a factor of 1,000 because Tektronix had thoughtfully provided a 1 kHz output on the front panel of the oscilloscope - no doubt with exactly this eventuality in mind). Although it all worked perfectly on the bench, installing the Wakey-wakey board into the Supervisor computer resulted in a shower of sparks, a brief flame, and lingering smoke chillingly reminiscent of the great SODAR disaster. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, except perhaps to my pride. In order to improve the cooling of one of the electronic witches, I had mounted it on a conducting piece of the circuit board, which made that part of the circuit board "live". This would have been fine - if I hadn't then connected this live piece of circuit board to the chassis with a dirty great bolt. My other great feat of incompetence today was less spectacular but more amusing for the onlookers. Making an insulating spacer by carefully cutting a piece of sleeve off one of our automotive crimp connectors, I sliced through the final piece of plastic which went "ping!", ricocheted off my right ear and disappeared. After I'd made a futile search of the floor and surrounding areas and resigned myself to having to make another one, Jon and Tony let me in on the joke - it was stuck in my beard. Another moment of excitement occurred when the Station power went down. We dug out our inverter and were just about to demonstrate our total independence from the Station power when, unfortunately, it came back on again. In truth, all we're using Station power for is to run the computer monitor, soldering iron and oscilloscope. The two solar panels, and Sid the Stirling engine, are providing more power than we can use. The first webcam imageMost of the day was spent "dangling Dallases", i.e. daisy-chaining together the little circuit boards that will measure temperature, fuel level, solar panel current and so on, and also switch on and off the room circulation fans, some parts of the engines and other important things. The "Dallas one-wire bus" is a wondrous thing that allows all these things to be done with just a single wire. This, in principle, simplifies our lives a lot. However in practice it's a trifle tricky to get working properly - especially when armed only with automotive electrical tools. To make things a bit more reliable we're planning to use the webcamera to switch the engines on and off. We think this is a good idea, but then again we are at 13,000 feet and it might be wise to review the concept tomorrow - after a good night's rest.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

The two towers

Fresh orange juice (make it yourself with the electric juicer) and straight-from-the-oven croissants, baked by Jean-Louis, make a good start to any day - especially a Sunday. We began by getting our various networks up and running in the AASTINO, and practised remotely switching on and off the various pieces of electronics and other hardware crowded into the AASTINO. It is a sad fact of electronic life that, from time to time, computers and other things simply stop working. The reasons are known only the computers themselves; the Macintosh "bomb" icon and the Windows "blue screen of death" are final and totally unenlightening. Fortunately, turning the offending device off, then on again, usually clears the problem. In the AASTINO, however, there will be no-one to push buttons, unplug power cables, or hit "reset". We've therefore tried to foresee every eventuality, and have provided a way of remotely shutting down and restarting every single device. Most of these things can be done by us, from back at UNSW, via the Iridium and the Supervisor. But what happens if one of these two devices crashes? Here's what we plan: the Iridium phone will be restarted once per day, automatically by the Supervisor computer. The Supervisor itself will be allowed to run continuously; however if it sulks and refuses to talk to us for a day, or if it crashes, the wakey-wakey board will step in and hit it on the head; restarting it 4 minutes later. The TentTrickiest of all are the engines. We are finding that they run beautifully once they are alight, but that starting them at this altitude is not easy. Jon is working away to find the magic combination of air, fuel, and other factors, but in the meantime we're very reluctant to periodically shut down an engine just to keep it on its toes. In particular, we don't want the Supervisor to go feral and shut an engine down accidentally. Solving this one will be today's challenge. Just before lunch a pair of journalist from the Italian national TV network RAI Uno arrived at the AASTINO. They had a camera that was much bigger than Vanessa's and a tripod that would have brought tears to her eyes. They settled in and started filming everything they could but, as lunch was approaching, we decided to leave them to it. After lunch we read our emails and were horrified to learn the terrible news that Mount Stromlo Observatory, near Canberra, had been largely destroyed by fire, along with some 380 homes in Canberra. Our hearts go out to our friends and colleagues who are putting the pieces back together after this tragedy. Returning to the AASTINO we found the RAI Uno crew back at work. They had erected a 5-metre long boom with the camera on one end, all counterweighted and mounted on a tripod, with a remote TV screen to see what they were filming. This allowed them to take sweeping shots from high and low, and achieve otherwise impossible camera angles. It's going to be an awesome production. Following the weekly all-station briefing meeting, we actually took some time off (it is Sunday, after all). Our relaxation took the form of a two-hour tour of the new station, kindly organised for us by Mario Zucchelli, head of the Italian Antarctic Program. Our tour guide was Jean-Paul Fave, construction advisor. Standing on the roof of the new station, with the old station in the background. Photo by:  Serge DrapeauThe station consists of two 16-metre diameter 3-storey cylinders, linked by an elevated passageway. One cylinder will be for "noisy" activities, and has the restaurant, kitchen and lounge room on the top floor. On the floor below is a gymnasium and lots of storage, while the lowest floor has workshops and mechanical services. The other cylinder, the "quiet" one, has laboratories on the top floor, and the sixteen bedrooms on the floor below. Some of the rooms have a quite outstanding view of the AASTINO and the Nice tower, and the astronomers are already queuing up for the best windows. The lowest floor has an extensive medical facility, offices, flight operations and the all-important radio and communications room. A unique feature of the design is that each cylinder is supported by six hydraulic operated legs. These can be adjusted in height to compensate for creep of the ice and for snow accumulation. It's going to be a magnificent facility when finished. It will operate year-round, starting in about 2005, and will have a complement of 16 winter-over people. Meanwhile, RAI Uno continued to zoom and swoop across the AASTINO from all possible angles. I think they like us. To complete our afternoon off, we headed out to the Atmospheric Science area, where Rich, Delphine, Bob and Von have created a most impressive little research facility over the past few weeks. Rich (from the US) and Delphine (from France) have erected a 30-metre high tower, an incredible feat in these conditions. They did it all by hand, the only motorised assistance being in the form of a Skidoo, driven by Von, that hauled each new 2-metre section up via a pulley fitted to the top of the most recently constructed section. We climbed to the top and enjoyed incredible views of the station, the AASTINO, and the vast, empty horizon. The purpose of the tower is to allow extremely accurate measurements to be made of the reflectivity of the snow, from various angles. Complementing these measurements are those of Bob Stone, who has an instrumented sled (appropriated dubbed the "Bob-sled") which is towed behind a Skidoo to ensure that the measurements from Rich and Delphine's tower are representative of the snow over a wider area. This work is all aimed at checking (or "validating", in NASA parlance), the performance of a earth-observation satellite launched last year. Meanwhile, Von is making very accurate measurements of the infrared sky brightness - something of great interest to astronomers as well as atmospheric physicists. It looks as if my stay at Dome C will come to an end on Wednesday, giving me just over 48 hours now to make whatever contributions I can. I'll be flying by Twin Otter to the US coastal station of McMurdo, then north by C-141 to Christchurch. Jon and Tony will remain here until 4 February - hopefully enough time to really shake the system down. After the tours we settled back into our routine of making things work in the AASTINO. A major success was getting the webcam working. We hope to be able to put images online soon - Iridium satellite phone willing. We've set it up inside the AASTINO, looking out the window towards the new station. When we finally leave at the end of summer, we will add a large mirror on a pole outside so that we can also see the AASTINO. We've identified just the mirror we need - it's screwed to the wall in the bathroom. Sounds like a job for delicate negotiations, followed by some quick work with the cordless screwdriver.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Switching it on

After two long and difficult days, it's time to get up to date with the diary and other important correspondence. The weekend got off to a bad start on Friday evening when we brought a very full jerry can of Jet-A1 into the AASTINO from outside, unfortunately forgetting how much this stuff expands with temperature. When we opened the lid a fountain of fuel sprayed out across the room, covering Jon and me and anything else that was in the way. The worst thing about jet fuel is that stinks, and it takes forever to get the smell out of your clothes. On a more positive note, it seems to make quite a good floor cleaner, and now our antistatic mat looks like new again. Most of Friday was devoted to Icecam and COBBER. Working on these twin instruments is awkward in the extreme. The electronics is in a narrow "crypt" several metres below the ground, which is accessed via a long ladder. Inside the crypt it is poorly lit, bitterly cold and there is not enough room to swing a cat - assuming you could get hold of one in Antarctica. The walls are lined with banks of batteries, under which are two huge, long tanks of glycol. It is not a place for the claustrophobic. Icecam and COBBER share a common computer system, and a battery power supply that lasts all year. They achieve this feat by spending most of their time "asleep"; the only thing happening is that a very low-power piece of electronics is steadily counting the seconds. Every two hours this piece of electronics, appropriately called the "wakey-wakey board", prods the computer into life. Within two minutes the computer has completed the measurements, stored the data onto a Flash Disk, sent a synopsis of the data back to us at UNSW via ARGOS satellite, and shut itself down again. If for some reason the computer crashes, or decides it would like to stay on a bit longer and play Minesweeper with itself, the wakey-wakey board shuts it down anyway. Like the gods of death and rebirth, the wakey-wakey board has a dual role. ARGOS, by the way, is a system of satellites designed especially for data gathering from remote, low-power sites such as ocean buoys. It is possible to send data to it using very low power; whichever ARGOS satellite is overhead at the time grabs the data and then beams them down to a ground station later in its orbit. It's therefore ideal for this experiment, the chief limitation being that we are limited to just 32 bytes (32 letters) per satellite pass. Still, it's remarkable how much information can be conveyed in those 32 bytes. Speaking of cats (which, like all exotic animals, are totally banned from Antarctica) I was saddened to learn from Jean-Louis that the Dome C cat had died just before we arrived. According to Jean-Louis, the Station got low on food and they had to eat it. (It sounds almost plausible in Jean-Louis' solemn French accent.) On my previous visit here two years ago, the cat was very much alive. Mind you, the only evidence for its existence was in the form of fresh droppings each morning, in the tray of kitty-litter that Jean Louis kept, carefully placed where it would just be noticed, in a corner of the kitchen. Nevertheless, Dome C is the poorer for its loss. The Twin Otter that had arrived a couple of days ago finally left this morning. The plane was here for two days because the pilots needed to discharge their compulsory requirement for 36 hours rest before they could leave again. Next job I get will have a clause like that in the contract, too. It was fun to chat to the pilots during mealtimes - like all pilots I have spoken to in Antarctica they were fiercely proud of their aircraft, and immediately leapt to fend off any criticism of its manifest deficiencies (such as being as slow as a slug). Sid the Stirling engine continues to run well, and for most of this afternoon we ran Nancy as well. One particular triumph is the exhaust system. The design of this probably generated more debate in our group at UNSW during the year than any other technical issue, as keeping the pipes ice-free when the exhaust is roughly 50% water vapour is a tough challenge. In the end we went for two slender pipes joined together along their length, rising vertically and uninsulated about for about a metre from the top of the AASTINO. After several days of running there is not a single crystal of ice on the exhaust stack. Amongst the minor afflictions the UNSW team are suffering from, my frostbitten nose seems to have attracted the greatest comment. I am convinced that the injury occurred while we were assembling the AASTINO in the first few days, but others are unkindly suggesting that excessive fanging of the Skidoo is to blame. Not wishing to see me end up like Tycho Brahe, the Station crew have helped me fashion a possum-skin nose warmer that attaches to my goggles. I think it is very becoming - Jon and Tony say it makes me look like a dag. (Possums of course are a feral pest in New Zealand, after some moron introduced them there from Australia. New Zealanders are therefore always on the lookout for inventive new things to make out of possum fur, and they seem to have succeeded in flogging the Italian Antarctic Program a bag of offcuts. I don't know who the person was who introduced possums to New Zealand, but it was possibly the same one who introduced rabbits, cane toads and four-wheel-drives into Australia.) Another major achievement of today has been setting up all the flags. Tony did this all himself, and did such a good job that already people are coming out to the AASTINO to be photographed in front of it. Basically we have the flags of the four nations involved in our project (Australia, France, Italy and the US) flying in a row at the entrance to the AASTINO site. Above the AASTINO, attached to the copper pipe we brought along as a spare for the Stirling engine exhaust, the UNSW flag flies alone. (Flag protocol formally dictates that it should not be any higher than the Australian flag, so we could be in for a hard time from the Governor General when we get home - assuming he doesn't have anything else on his mind.) In the course of developing the AASTINO we've gone from a naively simple concept to a very complicated realisation. While a single computer (the Supervisor) is basically in control of everything, somehow every item seems to need a different interface. Thus, we have an Ethernet, RS232, RS422, and a Dallas 1-wire bus strung around the walls. The challenge for the next few days will be to get it all to work, but by the end of today we were merrily switching major pieces of hardware on and off with just a few keystrokes (well, lots of keystrokes actually - it is Linux after all). Friday was a particularly frustrating day for me because, as a result of the intense cold, the tips of my thumbs have cracked and split in several places, making it painful and awkward to do any fine work. Now that we have some resistors, it's essential that I get on with building the various pieces of electronics we need. Unfortunately it proved impossible - even if I battled on, the circuit components ended up with blood on them, which probably reduces their life expectancy, and makes all the resistors look like 2.2k, 2% tolerance. Sergio, the Station doctor, pays a house-call to the AASTINO.  In the background is the However, on Saturday help was at hand. Attracted by our new flags, the station doctor (Sergio) dropped by. He was just taking some time off, but I took the opportunity to ask him about my thumbs. (Yet another advantage of Antarctica - a couple of days ago it was Internet shopping, today it's a doctor who pays house-calls.) He prescribed some magic cream for my thumbs and they're feeling better already.(Technical note - flag poles are not curved, its just an effect from the camera) Just before dinner tonight Tony started setting up the webcam, which we hope to have online throughout the year. We're running short of wire (like everything else), so Tony set about joining two short lengths of twin flex to make a longer one. After carefully stripping the insulation from the ends, tinning, soldering, then meticulously sleeving the joint with heat shrink tubing, Tony was amazed to find he still had two pieces of wire - one of which was joined in a loop. Jon fell off his chair laughing. At this altitude it's inevitable you'll make mistakes, the secret is to make only those that won't kill you.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

A diary holiday

Things are a bit hectic here at present. We're all flat out getting the actual science instruments up and running (which is why we're here, after all). At the same time, our physical limitations are catching up with us, as minor frostbite, skin rashes caused by the dryness, decomposing feet and other little ailments slow us down. For me, cracked fingers and thumbs are making typing (and everything else, for that matter) a bit difficult. Please rest assured that we are forging ahead. However, we ask for your understanding if details of today's activities have to wait until tomorrow.

A serious setback

Today should have been the day that our acoustic radar burst into song. Instead, it burst into flames (well, lots of smoke anyway). It was like this... The acoustic radar (also called a SODAR) had been working just fine at UNSW, running off the mains. Prior to that, we'd run it off 24 Volts DC for several years, at UNSW, South Pole and at Calerne Observatory in France. Then, it went back to the factory to have the calibration of the antenna checked, and to have a new Linux operating system installed. And, unbeknown to us, while it was at the factory they... ...opened up the case and replaced the 24 Volt amplifier with a 12 Volt one... ...which would have been fine, had they told us, and especially if they had removed the sticker that says "Input voltage 19 - 35 Volts". Actually, even a little hint would have been nice - something like "Surprise!!!" written on the outside of the case. When we first switched it on it popped the 1 Amp circuit breaker. Now, we know it draws a bit more than an Amp, so this was not too unusual, but I was perhaps unwise to have "commented out" the circuit breaker with a short length of wire. This left only our main 32 Amp instrument circuit breaker in the line, and this was more than happy to provide the 30 Amps that the SODAR had suddenly acquired a taste for. We removed the obviously exploded electrolytic capacitors, but it's still a dead short from input supply to ground. Since the SODAR is an important part of Tony's PhD thesis work, he is understandably a bit put out. He's taking it well though, and we're now frantically trying to get a new power amplifier (and a 24 Volt to 12 Volt converter) flown in from Christchurch. It might just be possible in the three weeks left before the Station closes. Rather better news surrounds the Stirling engines. Sid is running continuously - so far without a problem - while we have been deliberately stopping and starting Nancy to learn more about the start-up behaviour. We can now set the AASTINO to any temperature we like, using a Eurotherm PID temperature controller to suck cold outside air into the building in exactly the quantities required. We set the temperature to +30C for a couple of hours, just for the pure pleasure of being truly warm for a change. One of the great mysteries of this trip has been what happened to all of our electronics spares. We had quite a good kit together, including a full range of resistors. The whole lot has, quite simply, vanished. It's possible that the aliens feel they have now abducted plenty of people, but are running short of resistors. If so, I can sympathise with them. Dome C is along way from the nearest Dick Smith store. This morning I put together a shopping list of resistors and also some Schottky diodes (see below). This afternoon, they arrived, via Twin Otter, from Terra Nova Bay! It was just like Internet shopping only better - delivered to our door and we don't even get a bill. This is just one example of the kind of pleasant things that occur surprisingly often in Antarctica. Another example was when there was a knock on the door of the AASTINO earlier today, and one of the Station crew presented me with two boxes of resistors, resplendent in their gaudy colour codes, and covering every possibility we could wish for. (A Schottky diode, by the way, is like a normal diode in that it conducts electricity in only one direction. However, it switches much faster, and imposes less of a penalty in terms of reducing the voltage. We use them a lot for two purposes. One is to prevent the voltage on any line from going higher than it should, and thereby blowing things up. The other purpose is similar - to prevent static electricity from destroying the computer and other instruments. Static electricity is a menace of plague proportions in Antarctica. Schottky diodes are the antibiotic pill of the electronics world.) During the course of the day we also installed our second instrument, SUMMIT, on the roof of the AASTINO. This required a bulldozer fitted with a crane. I never fail to be impressed by the precision and delicacy with which an experienced crane driver can manoeuvre tonnes of material around. (On the other hand, when he arrived he did run the bulldozer into the side of the AASTINO. I think it was just to save having to get out and knock on the door.) Prior to installation, we fitted SUMMIT with a canister of calcium hydride. Readers of diaries from previous years will know that calcium hydride is the stand-out champion at sucking up water vapour. We put it in many of our instruments to prevent ice forming on the inside of optical windows. Tony also sealed up ICECAM (again with some CaH2), and put in on the roof of the little orange building over the crypt. Finally, COBBER, an instrument to measure clouds at infrared wavelengths, was tested and readied for installation. The day finished on a good note. The same Twin Otter that brought some resistors and Schottky diodes for us also brought a new SIM card for our Iridium phone and, best of all, fresh vegetables.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

We have ignition

If there's one thing better than a the sound of a two-stroke going flat out, it's the sound of a four-cylinder double-acting Stirling engine purring away, producing over 500 watts of electrical power. Actually, even better is the sound of two such engines running simultaneously. During the day, Jon worked like a man inspired - first discovering that both of our spare oxygen sensors have a more sanguine view of the amount of oxygen in the air here, and then exploring the fuel/air ratios needed to get the engines lit and coax them into life. Both Sid and Nancy responded well, with Nancy at one stage producing 580 watts. This is more than enough to run all of our instrumentation. We rang the manufacturer of the engine in Christchurch via Iridium, and they were able to confirm that the problem had arisen simply because the engines are designed mainly to run at sea level. One of the major applications of these Stirling engines is in ocean-going yachts and, largely because of the effect that gravity has on sea water, oceans do not exist at 3,800 metres (at least, not on Earth). The highlight of today's lunch was having Rich, a research meteorologist from the University of Washington, show us some high-resolution contour maps of the Dome C area. These maps had been generated a few years ago by an Italian and British team, using GPS and airborne radar. From the ground, the surrounding topography looks to be as a flat as pancake, and indeed it is. Surprisingly then, at first sight the maps seem to show that Dome C is a major mountain peak, rising above the surrounding terrain like the Matterhorn. However, the contours are spaced at 1 metre intervals, and you have to travel at least 100 km from here to see the elevation change by 100 metres. After lunch we took a short break from work to go on a tour of the EPICA "science trench". This is a long laboratory in which the ice cores undergo some preliminary analysis. Piers, a physicist with the British Antarctic Survey, kindly led us through all the various stages of the process, which begins with some electrical measurements, followed by slicing up the 10 cm diameter core into long strips so that different laboratories back in Europe can each have a piece. The sawing is done with bandsaws that look like they belong in a butcher's shop, and Karen was able to show us an impressive scar on her finger, indicating that accidents do occasionally happen. However, she reassured us that you never cut more than halfway through a finger before animal instinct takes over and rescues the situation. She was obviously correct - all of the bandsaw operators still had the standard number of digits on each hand. Here at Dome C, photos are taken in polarised light to elucidate the crystal structure, electrical measurements are made to determine what was in the air at the time the ice formed, and a thin slice is melted in order to undergo chemical analysis. It is amazing to look at a length of core, perhaps 2 metres long, knowing that it contains within it a precise history of the earth's environment some 800,000 years ago. Within the science trench, the temperature is kept at around -21 C, in order to avoid melting the ice. Warmly dressed, the various scientists were perfectly happy sawing, measuring and recording, while apparently still occasionally finding time to write amusing graffiti of questionable taste on the walls. Volley Ball at -30C. Photo by: Patrick KaufmannMany of the EPICA team took some time off yesterday to play beach volleyball. Dressed appropriately (swimsuits plus boots) they survived the -30 C temperatures for about 10 minutes before calling it a day.Photos will follow (if I can get hold of them). Tony has installed the acoustic radar, or SODAR, on the roof of the AASTINO. We will fire it up tomorrow and see if we can detect the turbulence in the lower atmosphere here. In the course of this work Tony suffered yet another injury, slashing a finger on a piece of aluminium tape. It's easy to do, because skin gets so dry that just about anything will cut it. Fortunately Tony was able to raid the AASTINO first aid kit, which proved perfectly suited to the job of restoring him to full functionality. Our second science instrument, SUMMIT, has been sitting over in the carpentry shop for the last few days, trying hard not to look like a piece of spare timber. After lunch we put it onto a sled and towed it behind a Skidoo to our tent. It will require some minor work before it, too, goes onto the AASTINO roof. Our little tent is proving to be a very convenient additional work space. We are not heating it, but during the day the sun warms it up enough to make it quite comfortable to work in. We have rolled up the mosquito netting, as the mozzies don't seem to be much of a problem here at this time of year. -posted by John Story

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Priscilla, Queen of the Antarctic

If only we could have persuaded Tony to dress up in drag, stand on top of the AASTINO and trail 20 metres of bubble-wrap behind him, it would have been perfect. As it was, it was pretty good. Around about mid-morning the Kaesbohrer came out to the Astrophysics Tent. Two strong chains were used to attach the sled upon which the AASTINO sits to the back of the Kaesbohrer, the UNSW flag was carefully mounted on the sled, and away we went. Jon stayed in the AASTINO to keep an eye on things. Tony and I grabbed a Skidoo each, and while Tony took dozens of photos I captured what I could on video. We each had a radio, as did the Kaesbohrer driver, so that we could be in constant communication. The precession headed across the snow at no more than a fast walking pace. Inside the AASTINO, Jon reports that is was "rough", with lots of worrying creaks and noises. However nothing fell over, nothing was damaged, and we arrived at the summit of Robert hill about 20 minutes after setting off. There was quite a crowd of spectators lining the route - that is, if a station of now 51 people could constitute a crowd. Some even ran along ahead of the procession in order not to miss any of the highlights. The sky was fantastic, just a pure crystal blue hemisphere above the soft white snow. The AASTINO was gently pushed and prodded into position by the Kaesbohrer, we reconnected to the station electrical power, and that was that. Time for lunch. Well, not quite. First we all had to pose for photos in front of the AASTINO, in various combinations and postures, including the "official" photo with Mario Zucchelli. As is usually the case, the wind was so low that the UNSW flag refused to do more than a token flutter, but hopefully it's recognisable in some of the shots. After lunch, Tony set about putting up the tent, which we had bought from a camping shop at the last moment to give us a place to put the things that don't fit in the AASTINO while we're working on them. (We haven't had to use our tent yet, because we've been squatting in the Astrophysics Tent.) At the same time that Tony was putting the tent up, I started assembling the solar panels onto their stands. Both tasks took a ridiculous amount of time - as simple tasks sometimes do in Antarctica. After two hours Tony was still wrestling with telescoping rods that wouldn't stay together because the elastic was too cold, what seemed like acres of billowing cloth that had a mind of its own, and tent pegs that slipped gleefully out of the snow as soon as you turned your back on them. Meanwhile, I had assembled five of the six bright yellow steel bars that made up the solar panel frame, and the sixth was nowhere to be found. How one could possibly lose a 60 cm long, bright yellow piece of steel was a complete mystery, and all of us searched high and low for it. I even took off my yellow goggles so it would have more contrast against the snow. Just when I was about to trudge off to the carpentry shop and make a wooden substitute, and Tony was about to go totally insane, the tent suddenly erupted into a completed structure. Inspired, Jon and I picked up the fly of the tent and gave it a shake. Like a magician pulling a dove from a handkerchief, the yellow bar emerged and I was able to complete the frame. We've now switched on the 24 volt bus in the AASTINO, and we're happily charging the batteries from solar power. It's wonderful to see the control panel lit up with all the green and red digital displays. Jon has completed the exhaust system for the engines - something we didn't want to do until the great trans-Antarctic expedition (the whole 1.5 km of it) had been completed. Tomorrow we'll bleed the coolant and the fuel lines, and push the big button. As final statement of our readiness, last thing this afternoon I picked up 60 litres of Jet A1 from the station fuel dump.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Ready to go

On Sundays the station slows down a bit, but never really stops. The UNSW team are of course hard at work, completing the fit out of the AASTINO and installation of the engines. We're just about finished, and will try to start the engines tomorrow or the next day. We've also finished Icecam and, once the silicone sealant has properly set, will put it back outside to start its lonely year-long vigil of the skies. We're very pleased with how well things have gone during our first week at Dome C. All the re-assembly is now more or less complete, and the real fun will start once we switch it all on and see if we can get anything to work. The support from the Dome C station staff has been just wonderful. It's sometimes easy to forget the sheer complexity of operating a station on the Antarctic plateau - nothing is simple. Water for washing and general use is made by melting snow over an oil burner in a large container. A special area of the station is set aside as a clean snow area, and bulldozers go off there periodically to scoop up a large shovelful to dump into the melter. Unfortunately the water always ends up with a slightly unpleasant taste, but it doesn't pay to be fussy. Unlike at the South Pole, where each person is restricted to two 2-minute showers per week, there is no specific limit here on the frequency or duration of hot showers. Drinking water is brought here in 20 litre plastic containers from Dumont d'Urville, where a desalination plant operates. The containers are of course frozen solid, and have to be melted in the kitchen before use. Most people, however, drink mineral water - either Italian or Tasmanian according to taste. Lunch and dinner are served with wine, usually Australian cask wine, but good quality Australian wine is also trotted out on occasion. There's also lots of strange liquors that people put in their coffee - I'm reliably informed that Bailey's Irish Cream tastes a lot better in coffee than UHT milk. Although unlimited quantities of free alcohol are available all the time, no-one drinks to excess and most people don't drink at all. No-one wants to deaden their appreciation of an experience like Dome C. In addition, no-one wants to die, which is what could easily if happen if one were incautious here. On special occasions the ice-core drillers provide the station with "Christ ice" to put in drinks. This is 2000 year-old ice, and the air trapped in is so compressed that the ice fizzes and pops in a glass. Now that we have finished unpacking, we are continuing to discover that we have brought with us some very strange things, and left behind a few rather important ones. For example, amongst all our antistatic things we found a thing that looks like a dog muzzle. This is silly because dogs aren't allowed in Antarctica anymore, and even when they were allowed here they were never terribly good at soldering. We also found a clear liquid in an unlabelled glass container that we think is isopropyl alcohol. It seems to do a good job of all the things you'd use isopropyl alcohol for, so we'll just pretend it is. Essentially we have re-defined the term "isopropyl alcohol" to mean "the stuff in the bottle". Meanwhile, our colleagues back at UNSW are accusing us of taking every single Phillips-head screwdriver from the lab. We didn't. We swear we have only five here - not counting the little screwdriver things you put in the cordless drill and smash screw-heads to bits with. (This last comment is a gentle swipe at some of my younger colleagues.) Jon, Tony and John inside the AASTINO. Photo by Gianpiero VenturiThis afternoon we were working in the AASTINO and the phone rang. This can be unnerving when you're in the middle of nowhere, but we soon realised it was the Iridium satellite phone. Paolo was calling us from the South Pole, and we enjoyed a good chat with him. Later, we decided that having a phone in the AASTINO was really rather fun, so we rang up Michael Ashley, back to Sydney, to see if there was any sign of our electronics spares box back at UNSW. He checked; there wasn't. We're becoming more discriminating about which Skidoo we take. The worst is the beat-up yellow one that only reluctantly turns corners - especially right-hand ones. The best is the black one, whose only deficiency seems to be that the speedometer doesn't work below 80 km/hr. As was said in a different context: "Ah, the serenity! And the only thing better than the serenity is a two-stroke going flat out..." Today saw the arrival of a Twin Otter from the Italian coastal station of Terra Nova Bay, bringing with it the head of the Italian Antarctic Program, Mario Zucchelli. This is the first flight in since the one we arrived on. Apparently the weather at Dumont d'Urville has been dreadful since the day we left, so we were very lucky to be able to get here when we did. We could be still back in DdU, and the AASTINO could still be just a big pile of crates.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Happy birthday, Jon

Today we finally had to accept the awful reality that we left something back in Sydney - lots of things, actually - our entire kit of electronics spares. Tony even went to the heroic lengths of rummaging through all our old packing material, just in case we'd inadvertently chucked it out. Now, we just have to hope we don't blow anything up. We also had a crisis of confidence involving our anti-static mat, which covers the AASTINO floor and work benches. Not only is it excessively blue, but it doesn't seem to conduct electricity one jot. We even wondered if we shouldn't turn it upside down so that its black, electrically conducting surface would have the opportunity to do something useful. Fortunately Michael Ashley, back in Sydney, was able to confirm by email that indeed this is the most splendid antistatic mat available, that we didn't install it upside down and yes, it is meant to be that blue. That little matter out of the way, we were able to get back to installing things in the AASTINO, and thinking about how best to fix Icecam. Thinking is the hardest work, especially at this altitude. Although the physical altitude is only 3200 metres, because we are close to the Pole the air pressure is even less again, typically about two-thirds that at sea-level. This corresponds to a "physiological altitude" of 3800 metres (about 13,000 feet), high enough to make any mental task unusually challenging. Strangely, the altitude appears to affect our more intelligent instruments, too. Ding-dong is coping fine (all though there is the small matter of the capital "L" on the printer), but our wonderful multilingual multicolour multifunction Tektronix oscilloscope went belly-up yesterday, and refuse to display a signal trace. Fortunately switching it off and then on again brought it to its senses. The Nice TowerI had promised to describe the tower that the University of Nice have constructed to use for their astronomical work. Karim, who so kindly has lent us his Astrophysics Tent, put the tower together early this summer season. It is a handsome structure, some 6 metres high, and built of laminated timber. To some it is reminiscent of the base of "la Tour Eiffel". The Nice tower is 250 metres away from the new station, currently under construction. The new station consists of two cylindrical buildings linked by a passageway. Robert hill, future site of the AASTINO, is halfway between the Nice tower and the new station. It will be a very classy neighbourhood. The AASTINO is scheduled to move there on Monday morning. Everyone on the station takes turns to help with washing the dishes. Today was my rostered turn, so I passed a pleasant few hours in the kitchen. My companion there was a research student called Paolo, who comes from northern Italy but is enrolled jointly at the Universities of Grenoble and Venice for his PhD. Not a bad choice, really. Paolo is part of the EPICA team (European Program for Ice Coring in Antarctica), which is currently the major scientific activity here at Dome C. Talking with Paolo and with some of the other EPICA folk here, notably Karen from Denmark and Piers from England, has been fascinating. The idea behind ice cores is that as each new layer of ice is deposited each year, it preserves a record of the environmental conditions at the time. So, by drilling down through the ice you can extract a historical record of climate and other influences on the atmosphere. At the surface, each metre of depth corresponds to about 7 years of history. However, the further you go down, the more the ice is compressed. At the bottom of the core, some 3 km down, each metre corresponds to a century or more. Dome C is ideal for this work because there is 3,200 m of ice to drill through. The team are now within about 100 metres of the rock, which is basically at sea level. The Dome C ice cores are providing the longest historical record we have in ice, reliably dated now for the past 420,000 years, but potentially going back some 800,000 years. Happy Birthday JonPaolo's particular research is on trace amounts of heavy metals in the atmosphere. He tells me that the Dome C cores show evidence of lead pollution corresponding to the Roman Era, 2,000 years ago! Today is Jon Lawrence's birthday. His girlfriend sent him a block of chocolate and a bag of "Party Animal" sweets, both thoughtfully large enough that he could share them with us. At dinner time, Jean-Louise made a cake with candles, and some Italian bubbly was cracked so we could celebrate in style. The celebration also farewelled Carlo, head of the logistics team here, who have been so wonderfully helpful to us.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Totally wired

Friday, 10 January 2003 It's now two weeks since we left Sydney, so perhaps it's time to recap. Why are we here, and what are we doing? Three of us from the University of New South Wales, (Tony, Jon and John) are at Dome C, Antarctica, site of a new French/Italian scientific station called Concordia. Dome C is at 75 06 06 S, 123 23 43 E, 3,200 metres elevation, and is very likely the best astronomical site on earth. We are here to build the AASTINO, a self-contained laboratory that will make measurements of the sky throughout the year. The camp at Dome C closes at the beginning of February, and will not re-open until November. In the meantime, the AASTINO will generate its own heat and power with a combination of two Stirling engines (running on jet fuel) and two solar panels (running on sunlight). The AASTINO was developed by the Astrophysics Department at UNSW, building on experience gained with our AASTO at the South Pole. AASTO stands for "Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory", and AASTINO is supposed to just be "Baby AASTO" but, like many babies, has grown to be bigger than the original. The AASTINO will carry a series of instruments to help quantify just how good a site this is for astronomy. The first two instruments, which we will install in a week or two, will be SUMMIT and SODAR. The many adventures of the UNSW team on their way to Dome C via icebreaker, fishing barge, dingy, helicopter and Twin Otter, are described in earlier diary entries. Now we're at Dome C, where it's daylight 24 hours/day The temperature is ranging from around -25 C down to -38C, but there's very little wind. The AASTINO has been constructed, and is providing us with a warm place to work. Currently it's just outside the Astrophysics Tent, about 1 km from the main station. It will shortly move to a recently formed topographic prominence known as Robert hill. Then, we'll fire up the Stirling engines, install the two instruments, and start taking data! Now read on... The electrician (Jon) has finished the wiring of our little fibreglass house, and tomorrow the plumber (Jon) will come to install the cooling system. After that, the heating engineer (Jon) will install the fuel system and exhaust for the engines. Tony and I have been working away on other aspects of the AASTINO, and we're ready now to start installing the computers and electronics. I spent quite some time connecting an "earth", or "ground" wire to every piece of metal in the AASTINO bigger than a toaster. It is particularly important that we properly "earth" the fuel tanks, to avoid possible static electricity sparks that could start fire. Fire is a constant worry in Antarctica, where the extreme dryness increases both the ferocity and speed at which a fire can spread. Even a small fire could wipe out our experiments; a larger one could destroy the AASTINO. Not only that, but it wouldn't be very environmentally responsible, and would also make us look like complete dills. Some of our friends, and even perfect strangers, have questioned our sanity in cooping ourselves up for 12 hours per day in a small fibreglass structure containing 2 tonnes of fuel, in the middle of nowhere. However, that's exactly what you do on a power boat... Connecting electrical things to "ground" in Antarctica is a curious problem. Snow is an exceptionally good insulator (both electrical and thermal), and the nearest bit of "real" ground is 3.2 kilometres away, directly underneath us. So ground to us means "all the big bits of metal in the vicinity". The biggest things are the fuel tanks - so we ground everything to them, rather than vice versa. Tony amused himself for an hour or so making a sound-deadening gasket for the SODAR. The SODAR is an acoustic radar, which emits beeps of sound into the sky and listens for faint echoes from different pockets of air. This tells us how stable the atmosphere is, and hence how steady our astronomical images will be. Needless to say, it is important to keep other noise sources, such as the Stirling engines, as muted as possible. Tony cut the absorbing gasket from a 2 cm thick slab of special heavy plastic material that was recommended to us by Joe and John from UNSW's Musical Acoustics group. It no doubt has a name, but we just call it "meat". It has two remarkable properties. First it deadens sound exceptionally well. Second, the first time anyone touches it they immediately say "Yuck" and recoil in horror. It's hard to say why it is so repulsive, but it's probably to do with the tasteless pink colour combined with an almost belligerent hysteresis, together creating a "not quite alive but if it were it would leap on you and kill you horribly" impression. Tony's first attack on the slab was with a sharp knife. This proved tedious, and so a power jigsaw with a flesh-ripping blade was employed. This didn't work at all, so back to the knife. Eventually Tony emerged from the Astrophysics Tent triumphant, but we're all a bit worried about what revenge the "meat" might take on us tomorrow. Tony and I also descended into the "crypt" next to the Station to remove the batteries and computer from "Icecam". The crypt is a shipping container buried about 6 metres under the snow. There, the temperature remains remarkable constant at about -55 C. It's therefore a good place to put electronics and things that would prefer not to endure the minus 80 C surface temperatures of mid winter. Icecam is a small, automated camera that takes images of the sky throughout the year. It is another UNSW instrument, and operates completely independently of the AASTINO - relying instead on a pack of lithium thionyl chloride batteries to keep it powered, and sheer will power to keep itself operating in the cold. Icecam has been here for the past two years, and is credited with making the first ever winter-time astronomical observations from Dome C. The main thing of interest that it tells us is how much cloud cover there is - obviously a matter of great concern to an astronomer! The Icecam camera head is mounted on top of a small shed above the crypt. This year we're installing a new camera housing, one whose design owes a lot to the storm-water plumbing industry. Finding a Skidoo in the morning is always a challenge, and sometimes we have to walk out to the Astrophysics Tent. Today, however, we had a real treat - a ride in (or at least on) the "ambulance". The ambulance is the best Skidoo on the base, and tows a marginally more comfortable sled than the others. Normally it's parked outside the "hospital" (two doors down from the kitchen) ready to rush off and rescue anyone who might, for example, have set fire to themselves. Slightly overcast again today, with a few high clouds and absolutely zero wind. I have never before seen steam rising from a chimney, only to form ice crystals and fall down again, like water from a fountain. Dome C truly is a remarkable place.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Feng Shui

Thursday, 9 January 2003 Today we worked away merrily inside the AASTINO, warm and comfortable. There were a few tasks to do outside, which mainly Tony did. These included sealing up all the gaps between the panels with Silastic, and installing the air conditioning system. Once the AASTINO is running under its own power, the Stirling engine will generate some 4 kW of heat. This heat is dumped into the AASTINO by two big glycol heat exchangers. Even in the middle of winter, when temperatures can plunge below -80 C, we expect that this amount of heat will make the AASTINO too hot inside. To control the room temperature, we therefore have an "air conditioner". This is very simple - two fans blow air out of the AASTINO, causing cold, outside air to be drawn in. All we have to do is to switch the fans on and off appropriately, and the AASTINO will be at a constant, comfortable temperature throughout the year. Jon worked steadily and carefully preparing the Stirling engines. We need to get the fuel, cooling and electrical systems installed before we can switch them on. A mistake at this stage could cost us a year of data, so it is best to take things slowly. I spent the day singing "Bob the Builder", while putting up coat hooks, assembling furniture and unpacking more of the equipment. This afternoon we used a sled towed behind a Skidoo to shift some of the heavy items across to the AASTINO, notably the 200 Ahr batteries. It turns out that reversing a Skidoo with a sled behind it is a lot like reversing a car with a trailer, only impossible. Carlo also put in an appearance with the Kaesbohrer, towing away most of our empty crates and packing material. He also kindly levelled the snow around the AASTINO, making it much more photogenic. We are now proudly flying the UNSW flag above the AASTINO. It does look very splendid. On the other hand, it did spend almost all of today hanging limply from the pole, with the just the occasional half-hearted flutter. If the wind doesn't pick up soon, we'll have to add a piece of wire to stiffen the flag, just like they did for the Apollo moon landings. Tony and Jon launched a balloon this evening, and found that the wind was just 0.7 metres sec (about 2.5 km/hr) for the first 300 metres. The Kaesbohrer added a further 50 cm to Robert Hill, which is now a significant feature of the landscape. Another major milestone today was to send our first message via Iridium from the AASTINO. It is crucial that this link works, because Iridium will be our only means of communicating with our instruments once the station closes in about four weeks. We have our Iridium antenna inside the AASTINO, and rely on the fact that fibreglass is reasonably transparent to microwaves. Fortunately, it all worked extremely well - we received a good strong signal from the satellites and were able to send a brief message back to our colleagues at UNSW. They are probably still trying to figure the meaning of "Doigts dans le nez". (Literally "Fingers up the nose"; meaning "sweet as", or "A piece of cake".) Tomorrow we hope to service ICECAM and COBBER, two instruments that are independent of the AASTINO and spent all of last year here operating from batteries. Before doing so, however, I wanted to check that I had properly adjusted to the altitude and would therefore be less likely to make stupid mistakes. I devised a simple practical test - I would assemble an Ikea chest of drawers from the instructions and see if I could do it without error. Unfortunately I failed, belting a couple of big dowel things in where the little dowel things should have gone. The damage will not be noticed by a casual visitor, so I think I'll take a crack at ICECAM and COBBER anyway. They don't have any dowels. The AASTINO is now fully furnished, and looks remarkably bright and colourful. The Feng Shui is just about perfect. Entering through the main door, the visitor is immediately confronted with a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and a fire blanket. Hopefully they'll remember where they are if things go wrong later in their visit. To the left is a gracefully curving work bench, covered in a bright blue antistatic mat. The blue is accentuated by three violently purple high-back stools. Above the bench are two clocks - one showing Dome C time and the other Sydney time. Below the bench are two Ikea chests of drawers (one of which has a couple of ever-so-slightly-split dowel holes), a bright yellow workshop vacuum cleaner, and a plastic bin whose colour would normally be described as blue were it not so dramatically outdone by the anti-static mat. Turning to the right, the eyes flick past a fire-engine red tool chest, a set of yellow electronics drawers and the inappropriately bland electronics rack to take in the full expanse of the AASTINO. This reveals the two 1200 litre aluminium fuel tanks, with a narrow corridor between them leading to the "power plant" end of the building. The Bright Colourful AASTINO The far end of the AASTINO is much more muted - except perhaps for the festooned bright orange 200-Amp power cables. The two Stirling engines, each about the size of a bar fridge, have gleaming white covers atop cheerful blue bases. Everything else is pure functionality - electrical switchgear, digital meters, stainless-steel braided coolant pipes. Only a second red fire extinguisher and the four surprisingly colourful 200 Ahr batteries assault the senses. A second door is at the far end, mainly to act as an emergency exit. The only colour not represented to excess within the AASTINO is green. We feel we used enough of that on the outside. It's a real shame our digital camera is no longer working, and readers cannot judge for themselves just how jolly the AASTINO interior design has worked out. However, Gianpiero has kindly offered to take some photos, which we'll email back shortly.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Making a house a home

Wednesday 8 January, 2003 Last night the temperature in our dormitory tent was 1 C, not really enough for comfort. I suspect somebody left a window open. To make matters worse, we had another case of "absentee alarm clock owner". This is a well-known dormitory phenomenon, whereby someone sets their alarm for some ungodly hour. Inevitably it is a high-tech alarm that gets increasingly raucous and impossible to ignore as time goes on. The owner, no doubt subconsciously wishing to avoid being woken in this way, wakes five minutes earlier, dresses, and heads off to work. The alarm then goes off, and wakes everyone in the tent who pretend to be still asleep in the hope that someone else will go and switch it off. After about ten minutes someone's nerves finally crack, feet are heard padding across the room followed by a dreadful alarm-clock crunching sound, then silence. One of the first tasks for today was to bring an extension cord across from the Astrophysics Tent, and start heating the AASTINO up. By the end of the day it was +10 C inside, and a very cosy place to work. The heater was in fact the subject of a last-minute crisis before we left Sydney in December. We knew we needed a 2 kW fan heater, and assumed we could just walk into a shop in Sydney and buy one. After unsuccessfully trying all the major department stores, we finally realised that nobody sells heaters in Sydney in December. Admittedly it was 38 C in the shade outside, but you'd think somebody would want one. In the end we stole the heater from Michael Ashley's office at UNSW, and now will have to find another one for him that looks just like it before next winter. This morning was cold and cloudy, with the wind above 10 knots. We were glad to have the AASTINO structure completed yesterday, as most of the work could now be done in relative comfort. Working outside at -30 C is difficult for all kinds of reasons. The human body, properly clad, can cope. However, that clothing makes many tasks extremely difficult; doing any fine work wearing thick, insulating gloves is nigh impossible. In addition, most common plastics are frozen rigid. Electrical cables will snap, rather than bend, unless specially made for the job from Teflon or silicone insulation. Other items become incredibly brittle. Our precious plastic bins and tool chests have be taken inside carefully and warmed before use. Adhesives don't set, paint doesn't dry, sealants don't seal. Spirit levels freeze (all except for the bubble). Mercury thermometers freeze. There are lots of good reasons for wanting to get our AASTINO built and warmed up as soon as possible! By the end of today our AASTINO looked no different on the outside. However, we'd all been hard at work inside, installing the bookshelves, bench and other fittings that will make it into a proper laboratory. Having reached "lock-up" stage yesterday (not that anyone ever locks anything up at Dome C), progress today would have appeared to a casual onlooker to have been low to non-existent. In that respect it was no different to building a house. The structure is up, but it will be a day or two before everything inside is ready for the new occupants to start doing serious science. The bulldozer crew have started work on Robert Hill, and it is now about 50 cm high. They will build it up over a few days to allow it to consolidate. It will be 10 m by 10 m in extent, large enough for the AASTINO, tent, solar panels and a skidoo. Speaking of which, we found ourselves again this morning to be without a skidoo. However the walk isn't so bad first thing in the morning. The main activity at Dome C is currently the construction of the new, permanent, year-round station. This will be complete within two or three years, and will house 16 people in relative comfort. Roughly half will be scientists, the remainder support crew. At the present Dome C station there are several other scientific programs already underway. The largest of these is EPICA, a European ice-coring project. Two US teams are here for the first time this summer, involved in different aspects of the reflectivity of snow. Astronomy is represented by the Nice group (Karim and his colleagues) and by UNSW. The current station, which is operated jointly by France and Italy, is designed to hold 40 people, but there are presently 54 here - 51 men and 3 women. Most folk are French or Italian, but so far we have met four Americans, a German, a Briton and a Dane. With the three of us representing Australia, it is a lively international mix. In complete contrast to Dumont d'Urville, Dome C is utterly devoid of wildlife. The only living creatures here are humans. I realise now that I probably disappointed bird-fanciers with my failure to describe the many other bird species that were present at DdU. In truth, I was so besotted with the penguins that I paid the others scant heed. I can, however, report that there were basically three types - white ones, black ones, and black-and-white ones. These last ones may have been the result of interbreeding between the first two, but I suspect not. The white ones were particularly successful at pretending to be little patches of snow, and were amazingly hard to see amongst the rocks. In addition to the Emperor and Adelie penguins, there were also of course the ubiquitous skuas. These are a mottled brown colour, and look and behave like an overgrown seagull on steroids. In contrast to the penguins, which look cute even if they don't always behave in an exemplary fashion toward one another, skuas do not even look cute and their behaviour is even worse. When skuas are not stealing baby penguin chicks from their nests, they're looking around for anything else that is not bolted down so they can make off with it. Perhaps one day, on one of these Antarctic expeditions, I will meet a skua enthusiast who will reveal to me their better side. On the other hand, I have yet to see a skua stuffed toy. Ding-dong has been happily printing things on the station printer, although there is some misunderstanding about what an "L" should look like. Ding-dong and I both agree that a symbol made up of two straight lines at 90 degrees - much like the angle brackets we've been unpacking out at the AASTINO - looks just fine. The printer, however, feels that a solid triangle resembling a Qantas tail fin is better. It's not something to lose sleep over, but I know I will.

The Winter Diaries

Paolo has now returned to the South Pole to where he will spend the winter supporting the VIPER project, but will also keep a close eye on the AASTO. Please visit Paolo's winter diaries.

Monday, January 06, 2003

A monster day

Tuesday, 7 January 2003 Where a pile of crates and boxes and panels sat this morning, an assembled AASTINO sits tonight. This represents a major milestone. Putting the AASTINO together was always going to be a tough challenge. Estimates of how long it would take ranged from "a few days" to "it might not even be possible in the time available". We knew that until we actually got it assembled, we'd all be a bit nervous. So, soon after breakfast we laid out the floor panels on top of the sled and got to work. The AASTINO is based on the famous bright red "Apple" huts used by the Australian Antarctic program. We modified ours to make it (slightly) easier to assemble, and added some additional strengthened sections in the middle so that we can put our instruments on the roof. We also had it built in a deep green colour with gold trim, in a symbolic tribute to the original AASTO. It actually looks more like a giant kiwi fruit than an apple, and some people on the station here have taken to calling it "The Kiwi". There are eight floor panels and sixteen wall panels, held together with about 250 1/4-inch (6 mm) diameter bolts. This means 250 bolts, 250 nuts and 500 washers, each of which is too small to be picked up with a gloved hand. Fortunately the weather was not to bad, about -30 C, with a 7 knot (14 km/hr) wind. We worked a panel at a time, retreating into the Astrophysics Tent to thaw ourselves out after each panel was erected. For each panel the first step was to place a line of silicone sealant where the panel met the floor. The sealant was kept inside the tent in between times, with the spare tubes sitting on top of a computer monitor to warm them up. Next, one person would hold the panel in place, a second would use the "persuader" (a tool that started life as a large screwdriver but has been bent and sharpened to a point to suit its current role) to line up the bolt holes, while a third would fit the nut, bolt and washers with bare hands or, at most, fingerless gloves. We could have used a fourth person to do the swearing for us, but with no such help available we had to do it all ourselves. During the course of the day we each quietly invented at least six different ways that you could devise an easy-to-erect fibreglass shelter for Antarctica. If there is ever a second AASTINO, it will snap together like a breeze in a matter of minutes. By lunchtime we had about a third of it done, but were ourselves frozen to the core. After lunch we put on just about every piece of warm clothing we could find in our kit bags and returned to the fray. Tony took a time lapse video of the whole construction, while I tried to capture some of the significant highlights. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that we remembered to lift into the AASTINO, before fitting the final panels, all the bulky items like the fuel tanks that don't fit through the door. We were helped here by Von and Rich - two US atmospheric scientists - who arrived on their skidoo just at the right moment to lend us some muscle (the fuel tanks weigh around 200 kg a piece). Von and Rich had come out to the Astrophysics Tent to launch a weather balloon, but thought better of it when they recalculated the time of the next satellite pass. John and his skidontAt half past seven this evening we finally tightened the last of the bolts and collapsed in a heap. We were cold and exhausted, with aching muscles and numb fingers. All we could think about was getting properly warm again, and getting fed. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the skidoo refused to move, belching forth acrid blue smoke by way of apology. A burnt-out centrifugal clutch was easy to diagnose but less easy to fix on the spot - leaving us to glumly face the stark reality that our skidoo had become, for all intents and purposes, a skidon't. There was nothing for it but to trudge the kilometre or so back to the station. Hardly an epic trek, to be sure, but through soft snow and clad in the full heavy clothing kit, it was something we didn't really need. It was like finishing a marathon only to be told we now had to climb up ten flights of stairs. Not much else happened today. We're enjoying the luxury of hot showers, and outstanding food. Astute readers will have noticed that these diaries have suddenly gone quiet on the subject of food. Food features strongly in Antarctic life. First of all, you get very hungry, and food matters. Secondly, mealtimes are a welcome break from the cold, and a chance to socialise and unwind. Thirdly, Antarctic bases (with a couple of notable exceptions) serve really good food. However, the acknowledged master chef on the frozen continent is Dome C's very own Jean-Louis. I have held off attempting to describe his masterpieces until my altitude-affected brain recovers at least some of its vocabulary. In a day or two I'll give it go, but for now please rest assured that we are being most well looked after.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

3, 2, 1 ready, go!

06 Jan 03, South Pole – by Paolo G. Calisse I left McMurdo today, abandoning for the last time another bunch of things, e.g. rocks, mountains (both visible altough pretty away from the station) and the sea, or the knowledge that there was sea water under my feet while I was waiting for the aircraft at Williams Field, the airport on the Ice Shelf. We wait, wait, and wait. Than we taken off, but as I was deeply concentrating in trying to contain a strong wish to find a toilet, the pilot aborted the take off while almost airborne and got back to the airfield. Actually, he said it was a technical problem, but the result is the same. Our baggages were moved to another LC-130 with a new crew, and we were moved there as well as about two hours later. Meanwhile, I spent most of the time trying to call back home unsuccessfully. A voice with an american accent was telling on the phone that my home number doesn't exist. What??? Maybe my wife already divorced from me. Anyway, we gained again our place in the aircraft, after a reassuring visit to the toilet, that made me feel better. While taxiing, I spotted the Boomerang gondola moved out of the Pig Barn onboard of a tall crane. They launched later in the day. I will consider my winter over started at 12:15 pm today 6th January 0. That's the time I walk out of the aircraft. This could not be very important for you, but let me say it is for me. After several meeting a lunch and a talk to all the people I know here, in the afternoon I taken a visit to the Viper telescope, the place where I will spent most of the next 10 months, buried under papers, electronics, cryogenics, and mechanical parts. It is a little room in the MAPO building, the Astrophysics Observatory about 1 km away from the station. You enter the building, suspended by a large frame sinking in the snow, you cross a wonderful mech workshop filled with any kind of tool and spare, and after crossing a nother corridor you find my room. I wrote it just in case you should visit me in the near futur. The room is surrounded by electronic racks and computer. I spoken with Bill, a scientist well known for talking at warp speed, and being introduced to the telescope, a gorgeous piece of technology rated to understand the best kept secrets of the universe. The Viper telescope looks complex, but by now I would say that is well designed and maintained. I hope I will not change my opinion. And that it has been well updated during the last summer, that will make my job easier during the winter. It is built around a 2m large aluminum mirror, built on the top of a tower, and protected by a sunshield cone-shaped even taller. You can lean down from the upper edge of the shield, the view is fantastic and look at the motor, the secondary, the tertiary mirror, and to the chopper, a mirror tilting its position at about 3 Hz, or to the dewar containing the detectors, hanging over the whole structure. It is pretty different from what people imagine when thinking to a telescope. I’ll send you a picture as soon as I will get a digital camera to be used (the one I used earlier is currently at Dome C with the Storey’s team). And will have plenty of time to describe any minimal detail and get any of you, wherever you are in the world, fully bored. By now, as usual, I feel my mood getting better any hour more. I’m not feeling very any high altitude sickness, probably a remember from my last trip. Tomorrow I’ll get, anyway, a day off, to avoid pushing too much ahead. I left Sydney a bit sad, thinking to all these time to be spent away from my partner and from my son, and to all the changes in my life that this winter will require. But Antarctica it’s really a great place, and is helping me to recover pretty quickly. Paolo

Dome C

Monday, 6 January 2003 I always find sleep elusive on the first night at altitude, and last night was no exception. However we are all in pretty good shape today. It's another "Dome C" day - temperatures ranging from -26 C at midday down to -38 C at midnight, and wind of 6 knots or less. It's cold enough that we're all dressed in our handsome Extreme Cold Weather gear, supplied to us for the first time this year by the Australian Antarctic Division. We are sleeping in Weatherhaven tents, each of which has six or eight beds arranged in two rows, dormitory style. An oil heater keeps the temperature reasonably cosy. A perhaps unexpected feature is a large ceiling fan, which circulates the air within the tent. Without it, the temperature throughout the room would become very stratified, with the ceiling as much as 20 C warmer than the floor. Now that we are at Dome C the diaries will come to you via Inmarsat, rather than Iridium. Email is sent to and from the station twice per day. We'll still use our Iridium phone for sending messages at other times when necessary. The advantage of Inmarsat is that it uses geostationary satellites, positioned high above the earth's equator. In principle, as few as three satellites could give coverage over almost the whole globe. From any fixed location on earth you can always see the same satellite - and it doesn't move across the sky like the Iridium ones do. On the other hand, because the satellites are much higher than the Iridium ones, a much larger antenna, and more transmitter power, is required. For us, however, the advantage of Inmarsat is far more mundane - the station pays for the calls whereas we pay for Iridium. We began the morning, logically enough, with breakfast. Jon and I sorted out our email connections, while Tony grabbed a Skidoo and took out to the Astrophysics Tent the "work" component of the unreasonable quantity of stuff we had bought with us last night. Carlo, who looks after station logistics, took me for a ride in the Kaesbohrer to look at some sleds. The Kaesbohrer is a lot like a bulldozer, except that it has very long and wide tracks. This means it doesn't sink into the snow as much, so it's ideal for snow grooming and generally towing things around. Before lunch we held a one-hour meeting with the Station Leader (Camillo), Carlo, and other key people, and discussed all of our logistic requirements for the next month. It was an interesting meeting, carried out in roughly equal proportions of Italian, French and English, but in the end we all understood each other. It was agreed that we needed a small hill, perhaps 2 metres high, on which to site the AASTINO. This will give it a solid base, and make it easier for the station crew to groom the snow around it. We'll probably call it Robert Hill, after the then Minister for the Environment who opened our AASTO at South Pole back in 1997. Senator Hill may feel that a 2 metre hill is nothing to be proud of, but in truth it will be one of the highest topographic features for several hundred kilometres. The final location of the AASTINO will be half way between the new station (more about this later) and the University of Nice Astrophysics tower (more about this later, too). The Nice tower is about 250 metres away from the new station, on the far side from the present station. We've decided to build the AASTINO on top of a sled, rather than directly on the ground. This gives us the advantage that we can move it around. Carlo showed me two sleds - one 6 metres long and one 12 metres long. After further discussions with Jon and Tony we decided on the smaller one. Having now endowed our AASTINO with the gift of mobility, we've greatly opened up our options. We'll put the AASTINO together initially out at the Astrophysics Tent, well away from the station. This gives us a big, warm, almost empty laboratory in which to assemble the bits that will go inside the AASTINO. In addition, we can be assembling the AASTINO while the station crew are building the hill, rather than having to wait until they're finished. We'll tow it to its final location once we've done the assembly, but before we light the engines up. The Astrophysics Tent is about a kilometre from the station, and is conveniently reached by Skidoo - especially if anything heavy has to be carried. The Skidoos are a lot of fun to drive, with plenty of grunt but woeful understeer. Maybe I just had the tyre pressures wrong. Once we've adjusted to the altitude we'll take a closer look at how they shape up as a serious form of transport. We've each been issued with a walkie-talkie, so that we can call back to the station at any time. The radio itself is worn in an inside pocket, so that body warmth keeps it warm (and hence functioning), while the microphone clips to your lapel. The general effect is very cool. Tony thinks it makes him look like a secret agent, and no-one yet has had the heart to tell him that secret agents don't wear bright orange overalls. The AASTINO arrives at Dome CThe real action started today with the Kaesbohrer dragging all of our crates out to the Astrophysics Tent. By the end of the day we were well ahead of even the most outrageously optimistic schedule. We've discovered that all 21 of our crates, plus the high purity nitrogen cylinders, had arrived intact. We'd unpacked all the big things like the AASTINO panels, and all the little nthings that looked interesting. It was a lot like christmas, unwrapping the various packages to find out what was in them - sometimes something really neat like our nifty electronic component analyser, sometimes a real dud like a 3/4 inch right-angle pipe bend. One of the items that helped make up our 4 tonnes of gear was a pair of wall clocks. Interestingly, both were still telling the right time when we opened the crate, despite enduring the 11 day traverse from the coast at temperatures down to -40 C. Meanwhile, the station crew have fitted a splendid custom-designed AASTINO-sized wooden floor to a sled, and parked it outside the Astrophysics Tent on a section of snow they'd levelled with the Kaesbohrer. Just before dinner the station computer guru, Sandro, helped us all get connected to the station network. Ding-dong is now happily communicating with the other computers here, and has even assured me that it can make use of the printer. In other major developments, Tony has assembled the tool chest and Jon has pulled the digital camera apart to find out whether the reason it no longer works is more to do with being drenched in sea water or being dropped onto the steel deck of the ship during a particularly exciting iceberg encounter. However, since the usual medical advice is to take it easy on your first day above 10,000 feet, I think we'll all be turning in soon.

High Heels

05 Jan 03 - by Paolo G. Calisse I'm now sitting, in McMurdo, on a chair in front of a long line of computer where people is writing email message or browsing the internet. Turning the eyes, but not the head, I can continue to type and look at the monitor of the blonde sitting at my right or of the fat guy on my left. The blonde is the more interesting view, and not for the reason you - and my wife - imagine. The reason is that she is trying to buy a couple of high-heels shoes on the internet and takes note of any ugliest model available on the market. At present is focusing on something called "Mary Popp platform shoes", that, if used in relevant amount, could be great to consolidate the coastline against stormy seawaves, but recently was evaluating to purchase a couple of "W-Fire 5" model, that is not the name of a fire department truck but looks exactly the same and would probably do the same noise when operating. That's life. If I would bet about where I would be when I was 44 years old, I never imagine I was here, waiting for a transfer flight to the South Pole and watching a person buying high heels shoes by the internet. The world is an amazing place. Turning back to the day, today was looking like the BOOMERANG balloon-borne telescope launching day, but the weather was really horrible and unfortunately they have delaied till tomorrow. That's a pity. I was still hoping to watch to the launch, that is amazingly spectacular. The balloon and all the payload chain, when fully extended, are taller than the Eiffell Tower, and pulling up a load of more than 3200 pounds. At floating altitude the balloon inflates to full size, assuming the shape of an upside-down onion with a diameter of more than 300 meters. It wouldn't easily fit into the Colosseum. The launch procedure is something quick and delicate. Shortly after the balloon has been inflated, it is released and immediately starts to raise up. But, as the balloon starts almost completely empty (it will infalte at floating altitude, where the external pressure will be 4% of the ground based barometric pressure), most of the balloon is firmly kept extended on the ground. A truck with the telescope have to move toward the balloon at the right speed, that is pretty high, to avoid stress on the balloon, that is made of a very fragile layer of mylar. After the truck get under the balloon vertical line, it have to slow down and release the gondola with the telescope, that will quickly raise up and start his 20 days trip around antarctica. All the team is pretty worried. Time is passing, the deadline for the latest good launching day of the season is quickly approaching but the Boomerang is still at ground due to bad weather. Meanwhile, another balloon borne experiment, the ATIC, has been launched and is happily turning around antarctica since the 29th of December. I really hope that everything will get better for Paolo, Silvia, Phil, Armandino and all the other team members. The Boomerang is really a great effort and deserve a victory over the weird weather of Antarctica. So, how we like to say in italian In bocca al lupo! (in the mouth of the wolfe) again to all the Boomerang team! p.s. Actually there is another version of this very popular Italian wish, more appropriate for the place: "in c**o alla balena", where the two stars hidden a short word used in "familiar" Italian to describe a part of at least any vertebrate that is better do not write completely, and "balena" stands for whale. Where does this form comes from I don't know and please do not ask me. Any way, listen to me: never say to an Italian "auguri" (best wishes) when he is waiting for something to happen. We all believe it will bring unluckiness. Is by far better to choose between the two above forms, it's really up to you.

Saturday, January 04, 2003

To the Plateau!

Sunday, 5 January 2003 Another peaceful night on the l'Astrolabe, then breakfast. Sunday is croissant day on the ship, much to Tony's delight. Being Sunday, we also allowed ourselves each a brief Iridium voice call back home. Standing on the helicopter deck of the l'Astrolabe with the hand-held phone, the link was almost as good as if I had been using a mobile phone in Sydney. Overnight they'd cleaned up most of the fish from the barge, making it more or less presentable again and allowing us to have an easy ride across to the wharf. Today the weather is even better than yesterday; bright sunshine, blue skies, almost no wind; in a word - perfect. We spent the morning idly watching penguins go about their daily lives. Overhead, the helicopter was ferrying boxes from the ship to the various buildings around the station. It's certainly a quick and easy way to organise an express delivery. The helicopter is very beautiful and is bright yellow, roughly the colour of the "Bananas in Pyjamas". Appropriately, its registration number is "B3". A surprisingly large amount of the ice sheet has broken away overnight, with the result that we can now see we're sitting on one of several small islands. When we had first arrived, it wasn't quite clear which bit of land was attached to which. We decided to take one more look for the Emperors, and to see if any of the seals had noticed that the piece of ice they were on yesterday wasn't there any more. Indeed, several seals were in the water, occasionally emerging to take a breath and have a bit of a look around. It appears that if you want to see any action out of a seal it's best to have an underwater camera. Meanwhile, back in the penguin rookery, a horrible scene was unfolding. A large chick, perhaps three-quarters grown, stumbled from its nest and into the nest of another pair of parents. The adult birds, rather than giving it a helping hand back to its own nest, viciously attacked it - pecking it savagely and pushing it until eventually they had killed it. It was exactly as one of the penguin researchers had described to me earlier: "It's war out there". I guess it's just as well that penguins don't have hand guns. One of the other interesting things about Dumont d'Urville is that it is just a few km from the South Magnetic Pole. A magnetic compass here points vertically downwards, rendering it worse than useless as a navigation aid. (One might expect that in a reasonable, properly ordered world you then be able to find your way around with a plumb bob. Unfortunately, this is not the case.) A GPS receiver is a wonderful thing to have at DdU. Over lunch Barbara explained that the fish they had caught last night (Trematomus Hansonii) was a member of the much larger order Notothenioidea, which comprise some 90% of all Antarctic fish. This order includes the Ice Fish, Channichtaxdae, famous for having white blood. All Antarctic fish have evolved with some amazing adaptations to cope with the cold - currently the sea temperature is about -1.8 C (It's not frozen because it's so salty, but fish blood is not nearly as saline, forcing nature to use other tricks.) The Trematomus Hansonii probably had an interesting tale to tell as well, but as far as we could see it was just plain ugly. Even Barbara seemed hard pressed to put in a good word for it. (She did, however, tell us lots of interesting stuff about the other fish, and also gave us some great tips for cooking pasta the Italian way.) We also chatted with Patrice, who heads the logistics section of the French Antarctic program. Patrice had just flown back from Dome C, having led the overland traverse that takes all the heavy gear (including the AASTINO and the other UNSW equipment) into Dome C. He told us that in a typical traverse there are nine vehicles making up the caravan. The first, a Kaesbohrer, levels the snow and clears a path, while the others, all Caterpillar "Challenger" tractors, pull the heavy sleds along. In the first 100 km from the coast, the elevation rises 1700 m. After that, the remaining 1100 km to Dome C is almost flat, with the plateau gently rising only another 1500 m over that distance. The traverse is currently on its way back from Dome C. Lunch was excellent, with diced beetroot, zucchini quiche and roast lamb. Dessert also looked promising, but we were dragged away from it for a ride in the helicopter (to be honest, we didn't take much dragging). Neither Tony nor Jon had been in a helicopter before, and for your first flight in one to be over DdU is a very special treat. "B3" rose effortlessly into the air, and once we were up a couple of hundred metres shot us across the station and out over the sea at 90 knots. We reached Cap Prudhomme, on the mainland, within a couple of minutes and flew up to the top of the ridge where the Twin Otter was waiting to take us to Dome C. We jumped out of the helicopter to find the Canadian Twin Otter crew busy refuelling the plane from 200 litre drums. Meanwhile, the helicopter went back to the l'Astrolabe to collect all our luggage, returning a few minutes later. We hoped no-one would notice what a totally unreasonable amount of stuff we'd brought with us. If they did, they were too polite to say anything. Unfortunately for Tony, a litre bottle of CRC-26 penetrating oil packed with his luggage was leaking, and the oil was doing what it does best - penetrating. So far it had managed to get into his boots, clothes, and a bag of little tools. We put the more disgustingly oily items into a plastic bag, and will try to sort out the whole sorry mess out when we get to Dome C. The four-hour flight to Dome C was smooth and efficient. We shared the back of the plane with three 200-litre fuel drums, some extra balloons we're bringing for the Dome C meteorologist, and a huge pile of luggage for which we had only ourselves to blame. About two hours into the flight Jon's eagle eyes picked out the line of tractors making up the traverse plodding its way back from Dome C. It was incredible to find anything in the vast featureless expanse of white. We arrived at Dome C in ideal weather. The initial impressions are of a hemisphere of pure blue sky arching across a flat disc of pure white ice that extends to the horizon in all directions, of flags hanging limply on their poles and occasionally giving a lethargic flutter as the merest puff of wind goes by, and of a group of camels tied together in a row at the entrance to the station. The camels turned out to be made of plywood, but everything else is real and underlines the exceptional potential of this place as an astronomical observatory. We were greeted by the Station Leader, who helped unload our gear from the plane and onto a Skidoo for transport to our tents. Clocks shift again by a further two hours, so the chef had thoughtfully prepared an early dinner for us. Karim, an astronomer from the University of Nice, showed us around the station, helped us locate our 4 tonnes of equipment that had arrived on the last traverse, and helped identify potential sites for our AASTINO. He also kindly offered us the use of his "Astrophysics tent" - a large heated Weatherhaven - to assemble our equipment in. This will be a godsend - thank you, Karim. Tomorrow should see a lot of action!

Friday, January 03, 2003

from the Black & White country

04 Jan 03 - by Paolo G. Calisse Today I said bye to grass, tv, radio, children, shops, mall, traffic, ties, restaurants and a lot of other things, including most of the colours of the world. For about 10 months I'll get rid of them. In McMurdo I found some residual, for example some cars. What I will miss a lot, I think, is the green. There is no chance at all to find also the most derelict grass or plant of any kind even at McMurdo. At South Pole this is completely true with the remarkable exception of the greenhouse, where some little vegetable that will soon be converted in a little salad can be found. The flight has been smooth, except for a 3 hours departure delay. We flown in a C-141, a 4-jet propelled high wing with the nickname "Airlifter". Its body is a bit longer, but not larger than the Herc, so I spent 5 hours of my life with the knees of a beared person jammed into my own. But the aircraft is faster, and takes 3 hours less than the C-130 to reach Antarctica. It sounds also different. Yes. At the loud and baritonal sound of the Herc it substitutes an high pitched noise before starting, looking more modern but by far more annoying. The landing at Pegasus field put us a long way out of the McMurdo station. Was snowing a lot. I have been asked to get into one of those strange medium of transportation used in Antarctica. This one was is like a big red truck with oversized and apparently overpressurized tyres, and a parallelepipoidal box not enough large for the truck where people should fit in. Was so warm inside that I spent all the trip 1 1/2 hours trip time keeping the back door open, that was a potentially dangerous exercise as at any bump (and there were a lot) I risked to slam the door in front of my nose or be thrown out of the truck on the ice. But people complained, the driver was unreachable and I was sitting at the end of the bus. After arrival at McMurdo, and an hour long briefing (that I missed almost completely because the above truck was the slowest of the 3 used to move the 84 people to the station), I got to my accomodation. This time it was the weird "Hotel California", the elected accomodation for the people in transit in the station. Room 207, bulk beds only for about 30 people in the same room. No worries. I do not pretend very much.

A day at the beach

Saturday 4 January, 2004 Today the weather was perfect - blue skies, warm and sunny, and just enough of an icy breeze to remind us that we really are in Antarctica. We wandered up to the meteorology office to get the facts: today in the early afternoon it's +2 C, with a wind speed of 15 - 20 knots. Yesterday the wind was typically between 40 and 50 knots (80 to 100 km/hr), which is definitely unpleasant. (This, however, is nothing compared to the wind that swept through Dumont d'Urville in 1972. The meteorologist proudly showed us a copy of the recording - 320 km/hr!) We all slept very well last night. It was great to be back on the l'Astrolabe being gently rocked to sleep. After breakfast we once again made our way down to the barge, although the trip through the bowels of the ship was easier today as they'd unloaded enough stuff out of the hold that we didn't need to clamber down the side of the ship. The only complication was that a large piece of the ice shelf had broken off during the night, blocking the channel between us and the wharf. This floating obstacle had first to be pushed out of the way by the barge, a task that at the time seemed surprisingly difficult. However, in retrospect it's easy to calculate that it must have weighed several hundred tonnes. The process was made more entertaining by the presence of 50 or so penguins that had taken up temporary residence on the piece of ice. Not all of them were convinced that they wanted to stay there once it started moving. Wracked by indecision they wandered up and down for a bit before all but four of them leapt into the water. The others just stood there and enjoyed the ride. Before lunch we got clued up on penguins. We're fascinated by their complex social behaviour. Barbara, the only biologist who came down from Hobart with us, was able to confirm that their social behaviour was not at all like that of fish larvae, but this did not greatly advance our knowledge. Further enlightenment came chatting to Armelle, a penguin researcher at the station. Armelle told us that the male builds the nest out of stones (which stop the eggs from rolling away and also provide some protection from the wind), and attracts a mate. After the chicks are born the parents take it in turn sitting on the nest and guarding the little ones. The other parent heads out to sea and spends the next 3 or 4 days catching a stomach-full of food. Returning to the nest it regurgitates food for its mate and its young, then takes over the baby-sitting while the other parent goes of to work. There are some 11,000 Adelie penguins on DdU, and about 30,000 in the immediate vicinity. We also asked Armelle about the juvenile Emperor penguins we had seen yesterday. She told us that the parents leave them with a stomach full of food, and from now on they're on their own. They can't swim yet because they still have their baby feathers. However, once they've moulted they'll teach themselves to swim along with all the other things that penguins need to know. At the height of the season there are some 1700 Emperors on DdU. Because they are not territorial their social behaviour is not nearly as complicated as that of the Adelies, perhaps being closer to that of fish larvae. Lunch today was not one of the cook's best efforts, but definitely enjoyable. After lunch we went off in search of the young Emperor penguins we had seen yesterday. Unfortunately they'd gone - presumably the piece of ice they were sitting on had drifted away somewhere. Undeterred, we climbed across a small hill to discover a group of three geologists deeply engrossed in a rock. This was clearly going to be a unique opportunity for us to observe three members of this rare species in their natural habitat, and we leapt at the chance. We approached carefully, mindful of the Antarctic convention on wildlife which states that we must not cause distress and must immediately back off if threatened. Fortunately, the particular geologists we had stumbled across were Rene-Pierre, Arnaud and Yann, who had come down with us from Hobart on l'Astrolabe and, like everyone else in Antarctica, were extremely friendly. It turns out that the rocks we were sitting on were roughly 1.7 billion years old, almost half as old as the earth itself (4.6 billion years). This part of Antarctica was once joined to the Eyre Peninsular of South Australia, and the rocks there are very similar. These particular geologists were studying the orientation of the strata within the rocks. This tells them how the rocks have moved over geological time, and leads to a better understanding of the processes that move rocks around. Within the basic rock (gneiss) were bands of other rock containing large crystals of quartz, feldspar, cordierite and sillimanite. These apparently are important because they give unambiguous details about the precise conditions under which the rocks formed in the first place. We've now all had our passports stamped with an official Terre Adelie entry stamp. It's very official looking and is sure to raise a few eyebrows on future international trips. It turns out that it is possible to just sit and watch penguins for hours. Late this afternoon I met up with some biologists who were studying this year's chicks. They had marked some of the nests with numbers, and every three of four days they weigh the chicks (usually one or two per nest) and measure various parts of the babies with a pair of callipers. This was great fun to watch. To remove the chick from the nest involves wearing a stout leather glove of the left hand. The adult penguin guarding the nest is distracted with the gloved hand and a loose cloth bag is slipped over its head. While the penguin is trying to figure out why it's suddenly gone dark in the middle of summer, the chick is deftly removed with the other hand and the bag removed. The parent doesn't seem at all concerned that the chick is gone, nor particularly pleased to get it back again at the end of the weighing. The babies are absolutely adorable - all grey and fluffy and with plump little tummies. They didn't seem at all put out by the indignities they were subjected to, although I suspect that this is largely a testament to skill of the biologist who was handling them. For most of the day the bright yellow helicopter was busy ferrying goods between the ship and Cap Prudhomme. Cap Prudhomme is on the coast of Antarctica (Dumont d'Urville is actually on a small island), and is therefore the starting point for the overland traverse that takes all the heavy equipment to Dome C. It's also where the Twin Otter landing strip is. Watching the huge crates swinging on ropes below the helicopter as it flew swiftly over the sea was quite awe-inspiring. Every part of our AASTINO, which we will be assembling at Dome C next week, will have been through this experience. Dinner was excellent as always - couscous for starters, then a main course of "lapin" (which, in order not to offend the sensibilities of our younger readers, I will not translate). The final surprise awaited us on our return to the wharf. The barge that previously had taken us across the bay to and from l'Astrolabe was full of nets and ugly-looking fish, and not really in a fit state to transport people. Instead, we were loaded four at a time into a 12-foot dingy with an outboard motor. Cruising across to the l'Astrolabe was a magical experience, sitting just centimetres from the water and sliding past great ice sheets dripping with icicles. One piece of ice had a large cave cut into it by the sea. Looking inside it appeared almost to glow with an intensely deep blue colour. We motored around the bow of the l'Astrolabe, looking up at her for the first time from water level, and along her side to the berth. Scrambling aboard via the hold we discovered that the hold was essentially empty, a vast empty space that 36 hours ago had been packed with boxes, bulldozers and earthmoving equipment. We briefly considered holding a spontaneous dance party but in the end we were all just too tired. Tomorrow we expect the Twin Otter to arrive at noon, and to be on our way to Dome C by 1 pm. Then the real work begins!

Bad-hair day

Last night we left, inside the AASTINO, a tank full of Jet-A1 with some open pipes not particularly connected to anything. We therefore decided not to leave the electrical heater on, in case a spark from the thermostat ignited the fuel vapours. We don't want the AASTINO to blow up while we're not there. If it's going to blow up, we want to be there to see it. As a result, it was -6.5 C in the AASTINO when we arrived this morning. We put the heater on and, over the course of the morning, the temperature gradually rose to more comfortable levels. One of the first tasks was to finish construction of the Supervisor computer, which will run all of the instruments once we have returned to Sydney. For this we required a small piece of three-ply timber or similar to mount the PC104 computer stack on. We cast our eyes around the AASTINO but of course there was none. You never have the right kind of junk when you need it - in fact, the AASTINO is totally devoid of anything not already important to the project. However, there are two items that we brought down that we haven't actually found a need for yet. One is a really nifty bright red tool-holder that I bought on impulse from Bunnings and which would obviously be incredibly useful if it were just ever so slightly different from the way it is. The other is a small whiteboard, which would also be handy under somewhat different circumstances (e.g., if we could find somewhere to put it), but which was now starting to look increasingly like a piece of three-ply. Fortunately for the whiteboard, lunch intervened, and I took the opportunity to raid the carpentry shop for a piece of three-ply that had no aspirations to be either a whiteboard or anything more ambitious. During lunch, Karen (an EPICA scientist) entertained us with tales from Norse mythology, including a creation story that described how the world began with a cow licking a large block of ice. This was as plausible as most such stories, and considerably more picturesque. It makes particular sense here, where some people spend their spare time making elaborate ice sculptures. For example, the entrance to the Communications Room is guarded by two very fine penguins, while across the "village square", between two of the dormitory tents, are an igloo, a Chinese pagoda, a fish and a giant snail. After lunch, we made final preparations for starting the engines, and experimented with various ways of displaying the flags we have of the four countries involved in this project (Australia, Italy, France and the US). One problem is that flags don't fly very well in the absence of wind. Jon and Tony tried hanging them like sheets from a clothesline, but the result was neither visually appealing nor structurally stable. We'll try something else tomorrow. In the AASTINO we plugged the Supervisor into the 24 Volt bus and immediately experienced the usual sanity-threatening problems that occur whenever you get involved with computers. Fortunately we were able to call Michael Ashley in Sydney by Iridium phone. Michael is a Linux guru and he was able to resolve the problems instantly. Sometimes I think Michael is a bit puzzled that I find this computer stuff so difficult, but he's very good humoured about it. We fuelled the engines and filled the coolant lines. One of the coolant pumps leaked, and was found to have a cracked housing. Fortunately we have a spare, but by then the faulty pump had thoroughly undermined our good intentions not to spill not a drop of glycol on the floor. Bleeding the fuel lines was straightforward but slow, as the fuel system is now a very complicated array of valves, filters, couplings, an auxiliary tank and two very large main tanks. At around six we were ready to fire up the engines, but ended up completely frustrated. Both engines suffered panic attacks during the start-up process, and shut themselves down. Part of the cleverness of the Stirling engines is that they are extremely clean burning, and hence ideal for Antarctica. To keep pollution to a minimum they use an oxygen sensor in the exhaust, similar to those used in modern cars. The oxygen sensor decides every second or so how much fuel is needed to keep everything working in an optimum way, and adjusts the fuel pump accordingly. Unfortunately, the sensors in both engines claim that there is not enough oxygen in the air here, even when the engine isn't running. The sensors are right of course, but they are going to have to live with it, just like we do. This may take some work. The weather today was quite different - completely overcast with thick white cloud, and snowing little crystals of ice. We were pleased that we had had such good weather yesterday when we moved the AASTINO. Even though we can't see the sun most of today, the solar panels are working well and putting out just enough power to keep the 24 Volt batteries fully charged. That was pretty well the only good thing about today. And Jean-Louis has run out of eggs and fresh vegetables...

1. don't read this!

03 jan 03 - Paolo G. Calisse While the Storey, Lawrence & Travouillon's trio is vomiting from Hobart to Dumont D'Urville on board of the Gastrolabe French vessel, I'm stuck in Christchurch as usual, trying to do my trip to the South Pole and start my first winterover in Antarctica. Now, given the fact that my reports can't cope with the one from the 3 guys talking about engines power and French movies, you don't have to apologize if you will not carefully read my chronicles. I'll write the remaining 299 in any case. This morning, as usual, I just awaken at 5 am in Christchurch. At 5:20 someone called from the reception and said that "sdlkgaj andv qeoriqvn asoda iagnpa aspoihat ajthqa- ihaja rfgbnber". I immediately understood that "the flight was postponed 24 hours due to bad weather". Well, I didn't really understood that, I supposed that there was only one reason to call me at that hour, and I realized that this should be the meaning of what the kiwi guy told me on the phone. I asked to confirm and the guy said that "sdlkgaj andv qeoriqvn asoda iagnpa aspoihat ajthqa- ihaja rfgbnber", that was good. So, I put the disgusting instant coffee cup, half empty, on the side table and switched off the light to sleep again. Including the change of local time, this was for me 3:30am. Unfortunately, there was no way to sleep. I started to turn over and over in the bed like an hungry crocodile. The problem was probably the amount of caffeine contained in my blood, and the fact that I was freightened by the chance that I didn't understand exactly what the receptionist said, and began imaging the people already sitting in the aircraft, ready for take off, and suddenly realizing that "the stupid Italian is again late". At the end I switched on the TV to watch at that "signature tunes only" american channell called "CNN". Well, I have to confess that in the middle, between one jingle and the other, for some reasons I couldn't explain, there were also some real news. Now, I think that CNN news have two unlikely effects on the whole world: first, the world itself looks at any time, on any day, as it is just on the border of the abyss. Also the International Flower Exhibition is presented by the CNN like if a thermonuclear war just started, and you will find that also the most likely tulip hide some biological weapon from Saddam like my boots after a whole season at the South Pole. Second, it helps in spreading out such a horrifying women suits and hairstyles than Monica Lewinskii looks like a beginner in comparison. And I don't know which of the two things is worst for the mental health of the mankind. Anyway, at about the 15th citation of Al Qaida and the Iraqi UN Inspectors, that means about 2 minutes later, I was able to gain again Morpheos' embrace, and be awaken at 11 am only by the person that came to clean up my room. I spent the rest of the days trying to collect the remaining things I need for my long stay in Antarctica. Nothing really needed, apart a spare umbrella, the grasscutter and the insecticide. At dinner I met finally with Giles. Giles is the PI of the instrument, VIPER, I will look about for the whole winter at South Pole. I spoken to him once in McMurdo in summer 2000, and a couple of times on the phone. We went to eat "a very good pizza". This is what Giles said. We went there and did that quick fork & knife job, talking about the VIPER, and an amazing number of other aspects of life. At the end we discovered that both of us are descendant from a pirates family, yes, true pirates, that is an amazing thing considering the low probability to meet a pirate, today, that is neither a lawyer nor a doctor. My ancestor was "operating" close to Ischia, a pretty Island close to Napoli still plenty of people called Calise (with one "s", I'll tell you why only if you will personally write me), while his own was "working" along the North Europe's coastline. For all the dinner I couldn't stop to imagine two person slightly resembling us dressing a bandage on one eyes and boarding the Empire's ships in a rough and stormy sea. The only real difference was that my ancestor was eating a really excellent pizza. Most amazingly, in terms of coincidences, his father was for a long period the first trumpet in the Italian Television Orchestra (Orchestra della RAI) based in Rome, my town. Giles told me he played the very popular signature tune that ended the programs at midnight till for several decades till about 15 or 20 years ago. Any Italian older than 30, can still sing it (but not, like people seems to think around the world, "O' sole mio"). So, amazingly, I probably listened him playing hundred times. The music, for the interested ones, was from the Ottorino Respighi "the Pines of Rome", but I'm not so sure about that (can anyone help down there?). Now, as I already told you I do not pretend you find this diary's entry so interesting, but I like the idea that everyone in the world, also if living 10,000 or more km away, is linked to each other by several, invisible and thin wires.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

Dumont d'Urville

Friday, 3 January 2003 Nobody got much sleep last night because it was way too exciting approaching the coast of Antarctica. The first icebergs started to appear just before midnight. (We're now far enough south that the sun never sets at this time of year, so it's actually broad daylight even at midnight. This takes a bit of getting used to.) When the first iceberg that was a few metres across started to approach the bow, the captain made some quick adjustments to our course. I assumed he was carefully trying to avoid it, but instead he skilfully steered us straight into it and scored a direct hit. It disintegrated with a satisfying crunch, and the sound of the crash reverberated through the ship. Clearly, driving an icebreaker is a lot of fun. By the early hours of today some really big icebergs floated past. The biggest was 10 km long, as measured on the sea radar. These are the ones that it is prudent not to hit. Dumont d'Urville appeared on the horizon around 8 am, and by then the weather had improved considerably. Almost everyone was either on the deck or crammed into the bridge. Packs of icebergs would slide past, the captain picking a course through them with sharp eyes augmented by radar. Eventually we started to pick our way through the small islands that mark the approach to DdU, and headed for the simple wharf that we would tie up at. Within a few hundred metres of the coast we were delighted to find that most of the small icebergs had penguins sitting on them, or - better still - diving off them or "flying" out of the sea to land on them. Ahead of the ship, penguins were leaping in and out of the water as they swum away from us, easily out-running the l'Astrolabe. Tying up the ship consisted of throwing light ropes to the shore. These ropes were picked up and attached to a tractor, which then headed up the road dragging the heavy mooring ropes behind. Once the ship was restrained by two ropes at each end, the unloading operations could commence. Unloading is made easy by the existence of a serious crane permanently bolted to the l'Astrolabe itself. This is not the kind of crane you would casually challenge to an arm-wrestle. When last seen it was plucking a complete caterpillar-tracked excavator from the hold and waving it around the landscape with consummate ease. The UNSW team, together with the scientists who will stay on the l'Astrolabe for the cruise along the coast, will go ashore each day we are here, eat lunch and dinner at the station, and return to the ship each night to sleep. This makes good sense because all the beds at the station are full. Meanwhile, the DdU crew who are unloading the ship will eat lunch and dinner on the ship, and sleep at the station. Confusing? Not really. It turns out that there is no easy way to get from the ship to the main part of the station now that most of the ice has melted. In fact, the trip has to be done by barge, which is how we arrived this morning. Packing everything we needed for the day into a backpack (in my case two cameras, a tripod and Ding-dong), we assembled on the helicopter deck at the back of ship. A rather precarious climb down a ladder attached to the outside of the ship brought us to the landing barge, which then zipped across the 100 metres or so of icy water separating us from the station. Alighting from the barge, everyone rushed to look at the penguins (and, in particular, the amazingly cute little fluffy grey chicks). Everyone, that is, except the three geologists, who rushed off to look at the rocks. Chacun ses gouts... It turns out that Dumont d'Urville is built more or less in the middle of an Adelie penguin rookery. There must be thousands of birds in and around the station, and the various walking paths take you right past the nests. The dining room is surrounded on all sides by birds - it's as if it was in the middle of a chook house. Looking out the windows one can see the whole drama of penguin civilisation unfolding before your eyes right outside - parents sitting on nests with their babies, parents returning from the sea to feed them, birds bringing little stones back to enhance their nests, and more or less constant arguments about whatever it is that penguins argue about. Nicolas, the physicist who will spend the next winter looking after the LIDAR experiment to study the ozone layer here, kindly took us new arrivals on a tour of the best penguin-watching sites. Hours of video footage and many frames of film were shot. The best thing about penguins (apart from the fact that they look like they're dressed in dinner suits) is that they are completely unfazed by the human presence. Indeed, they appear to be fascinated by these other creatures that walk past with an upright stance just like them. The simple act of setting up a tripod results in a group of penguins waddling up demanding to be photographed. I've tried to explain to them that I only have five video tapes and I've used two already and haven't even got to Dome C yet, but they don't take any notice. Perhaps these penguins only speak French. Lunch was a superb feast of German-style food - sauerkraut, pork, potato and sausage - served with a splendid French wine and, of course, cheese. At present there are some 50 - 60 people on the station. During the winter period this will drop to around 25. After lunch Nicolas took us out once again, this time to see even more penguins. It was on this tour that we discovered an irresistible snow-covered slope. Tony and Andrew decided to see who could slide head-first penguin-style down the slope with the greatest elegance. The penguins watched with barely disguised amusement for a while and then showed us how it should be done. They won the contest flippers-down, with the spectacle attracting an even greater crowd of penguin onlookers enthusiastically discussing amongst themselves the finer points of this method of propulsion. Next on the tour were the seals, which just lay around like slobs the way they always do. We videoed them for a bit in the hope that they would do something interesting, like change colour or levitate or maybe just twitch slightly, but we were ultimately to be disappointed. Meanwhile the penguins continued to entrance. Several wandered up and looked at us while we were watching the seals but, no doubt having observed seals in inaction before, decided that they had better things to do with their time and wandered off again. The final treat for us was the discovery of a small group of moulting young Emperor Penguins. All the adult Emperors cleared out weeks ago, so I'm not sure what these ones were up to. The evening's meal was of a generally Spanish theme, with sangria for pre-dinner drinks, then paella and some strange dumpling things ("quenelle de poisson") that plausibly could have originated in Spain. It was of course delicious. Desert was preceded by the ceremonial entry of a large cake in the shape of a helicopter, resting on a mountain of profiteroles ("croquenbouche"} and illuminated by fireworks. This was to celebrate the birthday of the helicopter pilot, who I was pleased to see is of mature years. (It is well known in aviation circles that there are foolish helicopter pilots, old helicopter pilots, but no old, foolish helicopter pilots.) We then sang "Joyeux Anniversaire" (Happy Birthday), all of us being familiar with the tune even if not the words. The helicopter was also delicious. Unfortunately it's blowing a gale at present. The clouds have lifted - though it's still overcast - and you could probably land a plane here if you were crazy enough. This is of some import to us as we are hoping a Twin Otter will come tomorrow from Baia Terra Nova (the Italian coastal station) and take us to Dome C. However, it's too windy to fly the helicopter that will take us from DdU to the landing strip, so we're stuck here anyway until the weather improves. There are worse places we could be stuck...

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Last day at sea

Thursday, 2 January 2003 Today we all set our clocks back 1 hour, and are now on Dumont d'Urville time. Tomorrow morning we will arrive at Dumont d'Urville, and the sea leg of our journey will be over. Once a day while on the ship we've been sending off our email via Iridium and checking that the outside world hasn't disappeared. A typical email session goes like this: 1. Climb stairs to bridge and plug antenna into Iridium phone, and plug phone into Ding-dong. 2. Observe French captain edging closer. He has learnt that these email sessions are an excellent opportunity for him to update his knowledge of contemporary Australian expletives. 3. Switch on the phone and Ding-dong. Ding-dong freezes on start-up, as it is wont to do. Restart Ding-dong. The phone reports that it can see satellites all over the place and is receiving strong signals. Ding-dong starts properly on the second attempt. 2. Launch "Outlook" (an email program) and then the "Apollo Iridium phone controller". The phone makes contact with the world and confidently announces "You are connected". We close our eyes and see dollar notes leaving our wallets, like a flock of homing pigeons released from a coop, heading across the world to the Iridium company's bank vaults. 3. Attempt to send message. Ding-dong tells me I do not actually have the modem driver installed that I am trying to use. 4. Remember I have to launch Apollo and *then* Outlook. Switch off Ding-dong, and start again. Ding-dong comes up with a blue screen explaining that my IRQL is greater than or less than it should be. Restart Ding-dong. Decline thoughtful offer presented by Ding-dong to send an error report to Microsoft. 5. Eventually get message underway to UNSW. Halfway through sending, the phone drops its bundle while switching from one satellite to the next and has to redial. For some reason this is unsuccessful, even though the phone says it can now see more satellites than you could poke a stick at. Tell phone to forget it and log out. 6. Phone refuses to reconnect to satellites. Remind phone that the Iridium satellites cost a couple of billion to put into orbit and that they're not just up there to look pretty. Phone stops sulking and reconnects. 7. Try to send message, only to be told again that my modem driver doesn't exist. Threaten Ding-dong with watery grave. Ding-dong suddenly remembers where it put modem driver and hastily connects to phone. 8. Outlook says message is "100% sent", but experience shows that this is pure bluff. In fact, the Iridium display of "bytes sent" is still ticking over like an arthritic taxi meter. 9. Close eyes and try not to think of dollar bills or homing pigeons. Eventually email message disappears from Outlook "outbox". This means message really has been sent. 10. Log off Iridium connection and imagine slamming door of pigeon coop shut. 11. Switch everything off. Wonder whether Shackelton ever had to put up with this kind of stuff. This afternoon the sea was reasonably calm. However it was very foggy, with a visibility of only a couple of hundred metres. The captain has turned on the radar, which will help us avoid clobbering an iceberg and "doing a Titanic". We've already seen a nice big one (1 km x 1.2 km) on the sea radar, but it was 4 nautical miles away and lost in the fog. Jon and TonyTony and Jon spent some time with Vanessa interviewing various members of the crew and some of the other scientists. They probably have enough material for several documentaries now, and for some absolutely cracker episodes of "Totally Wild". They were also kind enough to get some French and Italian interviews for me. I hope to use these in a multimedia multilingual blockbuster I'm going to produce. The Italian interview was with Barbara, the sole Italian speaker on board. Barbara hails from the University of Siena, and is doing a PhD on fish larvae. Barbara has the best job of all. Once the l'Astrolabe has unloaded the UNSW team and all the other unnecessary things at Dumont D'Urville, the ship will cruise up and down the coast for two weeks. Barbara will trail a net, catching little creatures which she'll pop into a bottle for later analysis. Barbara seems to be unaware of the basic scientific fact that astronomers are supposed to have more fun than anyone else. Once the l'Astrolabe has finished its coastal cruise it will return to Hobart, taking back Emilie, Emmanuelle, Andrew, Stephanie and Vanessa. Barbara will hang about in Dumont d'Urville catching fish from a little boat until the l'Astrolabe returns once more, then go back to Hobart on the same return trip as Tony and Jon. This afternoon's highlight for the UNSW team was a guided tour of the engine room. (Readers who find ships' engines boring, or just plain too big, might like to skip this bit.) It turns out that most of the bottom half of the ship is full of engines (the rest of it is fuel - 640 cubic metres of it). There are two main engines, each of which drives its own variable-pitch propeller. The engines are 8-cylinder in-line turbocharged diesels, with four valves per cylinder. Power output of each one is 2750 kW at 900 rpm. The engines use a glycol cooling loop with a heat exchanger to sea water. Once we arrive at DdU and stop the engines, the coolant loop will be heated to keep the engines at 60C. Starting is by compressed air. The air compressors are electrically powered and there is a separate emergency backup compressor in the event that all the electrics fail. Electrical power for the ship comes from three separate 300 kW Caterpillar diesel/alternator sets. Normally only one of these is running, as a typical electrical load is only 100 kW when cruising. However, when the 370 kW bow thrusters are used they need at least one of the others up and running. Fresh water comes from two evaporators. Only one is being used at present, and we are using about 5 cubic metres per day. The l'Astrolabe was built in Scotland in 1986 as an Arctic supply vessel. Two years later she was refitted for her present role. Her bow is 30 mm thick steel plate, while the rest of the hull is 20 mm thick. She can break through ice up to about 60 cm thick. At 85% power we are cruising at 12 knots. That doesn't seem terribly fast and indeed it is not; however we will get there in the end. Tonight we had our last dinner aboard. Tomorrow - Dumont d'Urville!

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The new year begins

Wednesday, 1 January 2003 Today was very relaxing. Hardly anyone turned up for breakfast - including me. By lunch we had a full house again, and the entree was green salad with "pate de foie gras". Our French companions quickly realised that Australians, in general, do not eat this stuff and so an energetic barter trade ensued. Tony came out ahead, although Arnaud (a geology professor from Grenoble) also did rather well. Given that that the UNSW team aren't exactly overtaxed at present, now is perhaps a good time to describe our experiments at Dome C in more detail. Over the past few years we've been able to show that the South Pole is a superb site for astronomy - largely as a result of the extreme cold and dryness, the high altitude, and the stable air. Dome C should be even better - it's about 400 metres higher, is further inland and has a much lower average wind speed. Clearly we need to get some equipment there and measure the site properties as soon as possible. The main obstacle to this is that the new station at Dome C won't be in year-round operation for a few years yet. This is where the AASTINO comes in, providing shelter, heat power and communications for all our instruments. This summer we hope to get the AASTINO built, install all the infrastructure, and leave it running throughout the year after we depart at the end of January. There'll be two instruments in operation for the first year: SUMMIT and the SODAR. The AASTINO is a fibreglass shelter roughly the size of a shipping container. Heat and power are provided by two Stirling engines. A single engine could produce more than enough power, but by having two engines we can provide some redundancy and also complicate our lives enormously. A quick aside on names: For a brief moment a couple of months back it appeared that we might give our two engines friendly names, so we could easily identify them when discussing them over, say, dinner. I was in favour of "Reverend" and "Robert", in recognition of the Reverend Robert Stirling, the Scottish minister who first devised the crafty mechanism in 1816 that would convert heat into mechanical work, thereby reducing the physical labour of his parishioners. Jon, however, preferred "Sid" and Nancy", for reasons completely unrelated to history. The thought of Sid overdosing on jet fuel, switching off Nancy and then choking to death on its own coolant caused us to rule out this option. In the end, however, in a miserably dull victory of pragmatism over romance, the engines have remained simply "0" and "1". Additional power will be provided by two solar panels. These are rated at a nominal 150 watts each, but under Antarctic conditions we should see a total of 400 watts or more. Since it's totally dark from April to August the solar panels will be useful only at the beginning and end of the year. Four large batteries (each 200 Ahr x 6 volts), plus another backup battery for the computer, will hopefully keep things running long enough for us to resolve problems and restart the engines should they fail. Communication with the outside world will be via Iridium. Michael Ashley, back in Sydney, has been working hard to develop a Linux interface for the phone, and has worked miracles to achieve this. Once Dome C closes for the winter (in the first week of February), our little AASTINO will be on its own. We've built as much autonomy and intelligence into the system as we can, but we also need to be able to keep and eye on things from UNSW and take corrective action where possible (and get our data back!) Back on the l'Astrolabe not a lot is happening. This afternoon the seas were as rough as they have been so far, with the boat rolling 20 degrees to each side. In the lounge the chairs were sliding around (regardless of whether anyone was sitting on them or not). All the bar stools are bolted to the floor with turnbuckles, and the TV, video and tables are firmly bolted down. Even so there always seems to be something loose that goes hurtling across the room at an unexpected moment - usually a person. Tony has graduated from his cinematography course and embarked on a photo shoot. The evening closed with a gratuitously violent French movie about wolves, Ninja American Indians and an very unconvincing monster, all set in the French Renaissance. I thought it was woeful, Tony thought it was great, Vanessa hid during the scary bits. Jon made up his own script as he went along because he couldn't understand the dialogue.

Monday, December 30, 2002

New Year's Eve

Tuesday, 31 December 2002 During the night it became considerably rougher. Just after breakfast the captain changed course to put the ship parallel to the swell, in order to reduce the pitching. This allowed one of the crew to install steel covers on the outside of the windows at the corners of the bridge. Although the bridge is some 8 metres or so above the water line, apparently there is some concern about large waves breaking the windows. Jon and I stood in the bridge and watched the waves break across the bow, and tried to get some good photos. However it proved difficult to get a good shot through the window, and so we went out onto the landing beside the bridge. No sooner did we get outside and the ship dived head-first into a 7-sigma wave, dumping a couple on tonnes of sea water over us. Drenched to the skin we hurriedly retreated back inside - much to the amusement of the captain. We headed down into the bowels of the ship, leaving a soggy trail behind us, to see if it has a washing machine and drier (fortunately it does). However, this disaster pales into insignificance compared to Tony's head injury, sustained in the line of duty as apprentice cameraman for "Totally Wild". It appears that Tony head-butted a steel staircase. It's not difficult to do if walking around the ship while it's rolling - especially if you're Tony's height. The ship's doctor has put Tony's head back together with sticky strips and there should not be any lasting effects, although he may have a fashionable scar on his forehead that will become a good conversation-starter at parties. After lunch I went down to the "Carbon Lab", which is a container in the hold of the ship fitted out as a chemical analysis laboratory. It is surprisingly like the AASTINO inside, although it does have the advantage of not being full of fuel tanks and engines. While the ship is travelling along, the Carbon Lab sucks in sea water and fresh air, then analyses both for carbon dioxide and other things. The water is filtered and various little creatures like plankton extracted and counted. My room-mate Andrew and two French PhD students (Emilie and Emmanuelle) are in charge of keeping the whole thing running. They've come down on this voyage, will cruise up and down the coast of Antarctica for two weeks, then go back to Hobart. Not a bad life, really. Life on the ship has settled down to eating meals, wandering around, or sitting in either the bridge or the lounge. In the lounge are a TV and video, plus an extensive collection of video tapes (almost all in French). Those that are in English are the usual unwatchable Hollywood trash. Most folk are also spending a lot of time asleep, partly a side effect of the anti-nausea tablets and patches, and partly because the rolling of the ship is so soporific. It's now New Year's Eve. Naturally a celebration is order, so we started with pre-dinner drinks (mainly fruit punch) and nibbles in the lounge, then proceeded to an impressive dinner of half lobster, magret de canard (duck cooked in goose fat, with an apple and mushroom sauce) and buche de Noel (log cake), washed down with a rather good Ninth Island pinot noir and Janz bubbly. We were even able to negotiate a main course "sans champignons" for Jon. We were already feeling totally contented when we wandered out onto the deck after dinner. The conditions there were quite magical. The wind had disappeared and the sea was completely calm, save for a gentle rolling swell. With the sun dipping low towards the horizon, the sea was bathed in a golden glow. The boat swayed lazily as the undulating sea caught the last rays of the sun. It was as if we were all on a gigantic water bed. The remaining couple of hours to midnight were enjoyed watching "Le Cerveau" ("The Brain"), a sixties French comedy notable for the fact that it's hilarious even if you don't understand a word of it. The captain had invited us all to see the new year in from the bridge, so with a few minutes to go we headed upstairs. The sun had set but was only a few degrees below the horizon, lighting up the sky ahead of the ship in a mystical twilight. The bridge itself was bathed an eerie glow from the instruments and the green radar screen. At exactly midnight (according to the previously mentioned very snazzy GPS), the captain sounded a couple of long blasts on the ship's horn (to hell with the neighbours!) and cracked the champagne. In burst several of the ship's crew wearing tinsel wreaths and wrapped in heets as roman-style togas. Someone put on some disco music. However it was soon realised that no reasonable person actually likes disco music, and so the disco party was rather short-lived. Some Latin music followed, inspiring people to form a crocodile chain that headed out of the bridge, around the forward deck, and back to bridge again, giving the ship's bell a good thumping on the way past. Right on cue, at about 15 minutes into the new year, the sky lit up with a ghostly green aurora extending from almost the zenith to the western horizon. It could not have been better. If New Year's Eve was anything to go by, this will be a great 2003. And a Happy New Year to all our readers!

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Making movies

30 December 2002 We've survived our first night at sea! On the BridgeThis morning we sat on the deck and sent off some more Iridium messages. This time it did not go so smoothly. To begin with, the phone was unable to find any satellites. Perhaps it was too heavily overcast with the wrong kind of cloud. We dug out a larger antenna and this time had more success, but by then Ding-dong and the phone were no longer on speaking terms. Ding-dong crashed several times and then came up with some screenfulls of error messages. Although these were in large white letters on a friendly blue background, they were not particularly helpful - something about an IRQ being greater or less than it should have been. We couldn't read it anyway because by then the sky had cleared and the sun was too bright. Ding-dong then thoughtfully offered to email an error report to Microsoft. At US$1/minute for an Iridium data call it's got to be kidding. Eventually the weather cleared and we got our messages out. We then went onto the bridge to talk to the captain about installing our computer and phone inside. The l'Astrolabe bridge is remarkably spacious, and we were able to find a table at the back to set up Ding-dong, feeding the Iridium antenna cable out through a cable duct to the deck. With any luck our next email contact with the outside world will be from the comfort of the bridge. The Engine RoomUp on the bridge the pace of life is remarkably relaxed. As far as I can tell no-one is actually steering the ship - they simply pointed it south when they left Hobart and now they're just letting it run. The various ship's officers wander around the bridge keeping an eye on things, but I imagine that at this stage there's not a lot that can go wrong. There's a very snappy-looking GPS which claims to know exactly where we are and where we are going. By late afternoon we were at -50 degrees latitude, cruising at 12 knots. There are 12 crew, some of whom we're yet to meet. I guess some of them are on night shift, making sure we don't suddenly sink or get abducted by aliens. This afternoon's main entertainment for the UNSW team was working with Vanessa and Stephanie as extra film crew. Vanessa is making a segment about Stephanie's work for the children's TV show "Totally Wild". Tony was enlisted as camera operator, while Jon held up the piece of paper with the script on it and I filmed the whole thing so I can later produce "The Making of Totally Wild". After a couple of hours of filming we all went back to the lounge to critique Tony's debut efforts as a professional cinematographer. He clearly has a great future, and by the time we get to Dumont d'Urville he will be an expert. Stephanie is measuring the ocean temperature as a function of depth every one or two hours along our route. She does this by firing a temperature sensor out the side of the ship. The sensor is attached to a kilometre or so of very fine wire, which spools out behind the sensor as it drops through the sea. The data comes back up the wire to be logged by a computer. Eventually the wire spools out to the end and breaks - hence the name: XBT, or "eXpendable BathyThermograph". Dinner was a mixed success. Jon has not only learnt how to say "Pas de champignons, s'il vous plait", but also that eating cheese before the main course is a major "faux pas". After dinner we had an energetic discussion about which French film to watch. However we spent so long talking about it that when we arrived at the lounge someone else had already started a video. Now we are all doomed to watch "The Jewel of the Nile" poorly dubbed into French. That's all for today!.

Farewell to Hobart (fwd)

Boarding the AstrolabeWe spent last night in our cabins on board the l'Astrolabe, attempting to grow our sea-legs. The cabins are small but comfortable, with two to six beds per cabin. With only 18 passengers on this voyage, roughly half the beds are unoccupied. Not surprisingly, it's rather stuffy and noisy in the cabins and the windows don't open. We were all out of bed by 6:30 to watch the departure. It was a perfect morning, clear and sunny with wonderful views across the harbour and over the city of Hobart to Mount Wellington. At 7 am exactly the ropes were untied and we set off, making a long U-turn and heading south down the Derwent. Along the way we passed several of the Sydney-Hobart yachts who were just completing their race. It was a perfect beginning for our voyage. After breakfast we set up the Iridium phone and various laptop computers and attempted to make contact with the outside world. We met with modest success, and are slowly learning how to use the technology to best effect. Iridium is a network of 66 Low-Earth-Orbit satellites that allows one to communicate directly with anyone else on the planet, using a hand-held phone only a little larger than the mobile phones of a couple of years ago. Originally there were to be 77 satellites, hence the name - iridium has an atomic number of 77. Somewhere along the line the project got scaled back to 66 satellites but the name stuck. Perhaps "Dysprosium" doesn't have such a nice ring to it. After composing an email message (such as a diary entry), we take the laptop computer and the Iridium phone up onto the deck and point the antenna in a vaguely upwards direction (the phone sits on a nice little tripod to make this convenient). The only challenge then is to read the computer screen in the daylight. Later in the voyage we'll find a way to have the antenna outside (where the satellites are), and us inside (where it's warm and comfortable). For the first time in many years I'm travelling south without my trusty Macintosh Powerbook, "poodle". Instead I'm typing this on a Dell X200 (which I've named "Ding-dong"). Nice computer - shame about the operating system. Ding-dong and the Iridium phone seem to get along reasonably well. By lunch time Tasmania was just disappearing over the horizon. The sea, although remarkably calm, is nevertheless rolling us around quite a bit. There were considerably fewer people at lunch than at breakfast, and fewer again at dinner. As we were out of TV range by then the crew put on a videotape of - SBS television. I think I am going to like this ship. So far the meals have been pretty good; the Russian cook is working hard, and already helping to keep everyone cheerful. There are two tiny dining rooms that are barely adequate for even the small number of people on this voyage. However, according to the captain the dining rooms become a lot less congested as the ship goes further south and the sea becomes rougher. By mid-afternoon it was getting quite cool and starting to rain. Jon is reading Asterix comics to improve his French. Tony and I have been hard at work videotaping everything that moves, and enjoying the creative challenges that poses. In terms of equipment, however, we have been seriously out-gunned by Vanessa, a journalist/scientist from CSIRO media. Vanessa has a very nifty professional DV camera with lots of widgets and a massive tripod that puts ours to shame. She doesn't have an Iridium phone, but. Vanessa is travelling to Dumont d'Urville and back with Stephanie, an French PhD student. Along the way they'll be measuring sea temperature. My cabin-mate, Andrew, is also from CSIRO and is measuring the carbon content of both the air and the sea as we travel along. We'll find out more about what they're doing over the next few days, and decide whether it's interesting or not. If not, we'll throw all three of them overboard. (Sorry - I don't know what made me say that. I think it was the rather violent French video playing on the TV across the room.) We've seen several albatross flying alongside the ship. They are marvellous to watch, covering so much distance for such a tiny expenditure of effort. I wonder if it might be possible to devise an interesting competition for physics and engineering students to make a mechanical albatross that could fly as efficiently as a real one. The sea is getting steadily rougher, and it's cooler outside. However everyone is in great spirits, and we're already starting to feel at home on the little ship.

Friday, December 27, 2002

The adventure begins

Saturday, 28 December, 2002. This is the first of what we hope will be daily messages describing our adventures at Dome C. At least to begin with, the messages which be sent via Iridium satellite phone - more about this amazing technology later. We're currently in Hobart, on the start of our journey South. "We" in this context means Tony Travouillon, French-born UNSW PhD student; Jon Lawrence, UNSW astrophysics postdoc extraordinaire; and John Storey. This is our first trip to Antarctica by ship. In previous years we have flown from Christchurch to McMurdo and on to the South Pole in the US NSF's Hercules transport planes. However, as our goal this time is to construct our new observatory - the AASTINO - at the French/Italian Dome C station, we'll be taking a different route. After six days on the little icebreaker "l'Astrolabe" we'll arrive at the Antartcic coastal station of Dumont d'Urville. From there we'll fly in a Twin Otter to Dome C, with any reasonable luck being reunited there with the 4 tonnes of equipment we dispatched from UNSW at the end of November. That gear will have reached Antarctica on the previous l'Astrolabe voyage, then been dragged across the ice for 11 days as part of an overland tractor-traverse to Dome C. At lunch time yesterday Tony and Jon went to their appointment at the Australian Antarctic Division to receive ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothing. We were met by Don Reid, the man in charge of clothing, and within seconds we all had the familiar 7 pairs of gloves, socks and underwear laid out in front of us. Don has a very scientific way to determine your clothing size. He asks you to stand 10 feet from him and he comes back two minutes later with pants no more than two sizes out. We all left the building with two bags of gear including a "great" bright yellow parkas and a tie that will probably make the penguins more impressed by our presence. l'AstrolabeThe l'Astrolabe arrived in Hobart a day early, on the morning of the 25th. Tony was able to catch up with Eric Aristidi, a fellow astronomer from Nice who was on his way back from a month at Dome C. The University of Nice is also working on some aspects of site testing, and two people of their team have spent the first part of the season launching weather balloons and preparing a tower for their telescopes. Eric gave us a good status report of the station and of the work they have done. Five days through the worst seas in the world still had some effects on his balance. This is commonly called "earth sickness" when your body still tries to compensate for the motion of the boat even though you have been on land for quite some time. Could this be why penguins have such a funny way of walking? The French icebreaker, l'Astrolabe, will be our home for the next six days. Barely 65 metres long and displacing just 1700 tonnes, l'Astrolabe is not what you'd call "big". Frankly, I've seen bigger boats cruising the Hawkesbury - and they had keels. The point about keels is that icebreakers don't have them - otherwise they'd get stuck in the ice. Without a keel the boat has very little roll stability. In addition, at only 65 metres long, l'Astrolabe will soon be pitching up and down enthusiastically in the Southern Ocean swell. We're all rather looking forward to this, albeit with some terror and armed with a formidable array of industrial strength anti-nausea pharmaceuticals. We stayed last night in Hadley's Hotel, the same hotel that Amundsen stayed in on his triumphant return from the South Pole. Hadleys acquired even more fame in 2001, when it bacame the site of UNSW's conference on "Astronomy at Dome C". That meeting is still talked about by astronomers around the world as "one of the best ever". Jon Everett - the fourth member of our team, who will travel to the South Pole in late January - arranged for John to have the "Amundsen Suite". This was an extraordinary luxury to enjoy before the cramped quarters of the l'Astrolabe. Tonight we sleep on the ship. At 5:30 this afternoon the passengers assembled on the helicopter deck at the back of the ship for a safety briefing - first in French and then in English. This was interrupted by the arrival of "Alfa Romeo", taking line honours in the Sydney - Hobart yacht race. From the helicopter deck we had the best seat in the house to watch the arrival, and with the accompanying flotilla of yachts, cruisers and helicopters it was a fabulous sight. Without doubt the highlight of the safety briefing was trying on the "immersion suits". These are like a cross between a skin-diver's wet suit and one of those oversize sumo-wrestler suits that people put at places of entertainment frequented by the less discriminating amongst us. Floating in Antarctic waters one has as life expectancy of only a few minutes unless extremely well insulated. In an emergency we are togather in the lounge, put our suits on and then climb into the enclosed orange life-boats, each of which looks it might have featured in an early James Bond film. Whether the immersion suits are of any practical value remains to be seen. However, if the practice session is anything to go by, we'll all die laughing. After the safety briefing we enjoyed our first meal on the ship, then headed ashore to join in the festivities associated with the yacht race. After a most convivial evening of good company, food and wine we retired to the ship to prepare for a 7 am departure.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

when mates turn in a little, far red spot

18 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse Ok, Michael has been faster them me and so you already know what happened today: we got by sky to the Scott base and to the seals. We both felt like those early explorer, except a few, little details: that instead of 3,000 we run aobut 6 kilometer, we were not pulling a 1,000 lbs sled, was not midwinter, we have not to fell into an unknown crevasse and get out of it, we had hi-tech clothes and gears, and we had eat enough food at lunch to feed the whole Amundsen party for a week, including the dogs (that would have appreciated, let me say...). However, as I said, apart these little details everything was pretty similar. The only thing I have to address in Michael's report is that subtle irony about my sky style. He was probably referring to the fact that when getting down from even the most undetectable slope I was immediately and every time felling down to the ground. Actually, what Michael didn't understand is that I was involved in a peculiar altough pretty refined experimental study of the movement behaviour of the Adelie Penguin. You have to know that those nice, little penguins move in two different way on the ice. The first is just that funny and well known Charlot-like walking that everyone that got Discovery channel at home knows very well as they pass from several years the same documentary about Antarctica at least twice a day. The second is a gentle sliding and swimming down hill on their belly. Yes, I was trying to do the same, except that, for some reasons hard to explain, I was just trying it on my bottom instead of my belly. However, let me enphasize that the behavior of the seal colony when we arrived was remarkably unlikely: they just didn't take care of us. Not a movement, not a sound, neither the minimal fight to get possession of the territory or of an army of female that, as demonstrated by any documentary, happens almost 24 hours a day 7 days a week in any respectable seal colony. And it was, let me just remark, a normal working mid week day. Any seal just kept sleeping, enjoing the sun, like if not Michael and me, two pretty amazing representative of nothing less than the mankind, but just two silent and transparent insects where visiting them. I will not show the picture. They would just show you a black spot on a white canvas and nothing else. Thanks for the collaboration, mates. Except the little puppy (that undisturbed continued to get his milk directly from the factory), not a single individual even opened for a second one of the eyes to watch at my evolution down the little hills. The view of these tired dog-like marine mammals sleeping was at the end even more boring than Michael quickly getting one mile ahead of me while I was continuing my experimental studies on penguin's motion technique, falling at ground in the most unlikely positions, in a fantasmagoria of arms, legs and skis intersecating each other. After 3 hours (3 hours and 40 for me) we were back to Scott Base, with a fashinating amount of data and overexposed pictures. We got back to McMurdo walking on the road. We soon spotted a little truck coming to our direction and asked for a ride to McMurdo. Michael got into the vehicle, while I jumped onto the back of the car. The car run quickly toward McTown, and I really enjoied those minutes watching at one of the view that I really enjoy more, the Ross Ice shelf and the surrounding mountains. On the truck there was an assortment of dirty things like "rough applications 60W bulbs", a power generator, six petrol tank, an empty white bucket and several semi-destroied toolboxes. A pretty strong smell of kerosene and dust was getting back as the car was climbing uphill on the dirty road. I was feeling a bit like in a Steinbeck's story (I don't need very much to let my fantasy run...), sitting down in that greasy truck jumping up and down, but, let's say, I really enjoied that inexplicable sense of unlimited freedom that only the simple things can give you. That's it by now, tomorrow I'm leaving, but I'll be back soon. p.s. Thanks to all the readers that wrote me. I'll promise I'll reply them soon.

Ski McMurdo Sound

The Kiwi Bird is in! The Kiwi Bird is in! The cry rang around McMurdo this afternoon as the NZAP Herc finally staggered in from Christchurch. At least it did for the 60+ grantees and other assorted types who are waiting for it to take them off the continent and homeward before Xmas! So we are now all bag-dragged and ready for a 9am off-deck tomorrow morning. This should be my last posting from Antarctica. Aside from the arrival of the Kiwi Bird, the most notable thing for Paolo and I today was that we went skiing! Paolo, much to my amazement, had never skied before, but this did not deter him into thinking we could undertake a 10 mike trek taking in McMurdo Sound and a prominent local geographical feature, Castle Rock. Actually we never got off McMurdo Sound, but we weren't upset. It was a beautiful day to ski over the sea ice, looking up towards Erebus and Terror on one side and the Royal Society Range on the other. Paolo with the Weddel SealsPaolo developed an unusual skiing style, tramping along like he was wearing oversize hiking books, but it was effective. A graded skiway ran out to Scott Base over the sea ice, the road that connects the ice runway to Williams Field runway. At Scott Base, however, it meets a pressure ridge in the ice, where the sea ice runs into the permanent floating ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. Here the ice is pushed up into great tangled slabs. To our surprise we found another ski path winding its way around the pressure ridge, so we set off to explore. This was spectacular country, and we marvelled at the ice sculptures and ridges. Then we found a small colony of Weddell seals, sunning themselves on the ice. This is high summer for them, and just like you'd find humans dotted around Bondi Beach on a summers afternoon, so the seals were basking in sun of McMurdo Sound. Generally they were motionless, though one rather frisky female pup kept crewing funny faces at us. Another pup was feeding from her mother. Paolo was entranced, and the digital camera was working overtime - he had to keep deleting old pictures from memory to make way for new ones! Quite why they are here right now I don't understand, for there are no breaks in the ice for them to enter the sea. Later in the season, when the ice does break, this is a common place to find seals, but I wasn't expecting it at the moment. All in all we were on the ice for about 3 hours. But it left us exhausted. And we were following tracks. It made us appreciate once more quite how incredible were the feats of the early explorers around here were - dragging sleds across the ice for 10-20 km a day, day after day, with the most basic of equipment. How did they do it?! And that, I hope, is that, for my Antarctic diary this year. The next instalment will come when Paolo returns to South Pole with Jon Everett in the new year, and the big adventure when John Storey, Jon Lawrence and Tony Travouillon, seasick from a few days on the Astrolabe over the Southern Ocean from Hobart, set about the task of erecting the AASTINO and its instrumentation at Dome C. Watch this space.........

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Goodbye South Pole

McMurdo Diary, December 16 (originally posted this day) When leaving Pole it always helps to cross ones fingers. You need to clean your room, pack your bags, leave your "hold" luggage at one of the (outdoor) station baggage collection points, and report for a briefing at 9am. The first flight from McMurdo usually is due to leave about 9:15am, and it is only then that you have any idea whether you are going to get away from Pole that day, or whether the flight has been delayed or cancelled, forcing you to wait out a day, now without half your luggage, or your bed linen. Fortunately for us we had an "off-deck" from McMurdo, which meant our flight would arrive in about 3 hours, and depart less than hour later. So we were go! I took the opportunity to have a last wander around Pole, in particular poking my head into all the astronomical experiments going on in the Dark Sector. I hadn't really done more than a superficial inspection over the past week, so it was now or never! There really is some impressive machinery for astrophysics now. DASI, measuring the cosmic microwave background anisotropy with unprecedented accuracy, was actually churning away, taking data automatically. There was a ladder which could be climbed up to peer into its innards, with a large notice at the top warning one not to go any further if you didn't want to get your head chopped off! The telescope regularly switches position on the sky, and it is as well not to be in its way when it does! VIPER, a second large telescope in the MAPO building, where Paolo is going to be spending the winter, was not in use, so it was possible to look a little more closely into it. There is a plan to change the instrumentation mid-winter, and having seem how difficult the task is even in summer, I don't envy Paolo, and Alan Day one of the other winter over astronomers, who will have this task. Alan actually hails from Narrabri, and is one of the cryogenic experts with the Australia Telescope, but is spending a year at Pole. He is the third Australian to work in the Dark Sector over winter in the past 3 years. Wilfred Walsh, a former UNSW PhD student, worked on the AST/RO sub-mm telescope last year, and Ben Reddall, another Australia Telescope cryogenics expert was here two years ago. The Dark Sector is in fact a rather cosmopolitan place despite its isolation from the rest of the world - 5 nationalities will be represented from the 6 winter-over scientists, with Germany the dominant nation! Antarctica truly is an international place! Another former UNSW face to show up at Pole was Thomas Nikola. He worked in our group about 4 years ago on the MANIAC mid-infrared camera project, but when the money unfortunately ran out on that project he moved to Cornell University in the States, where he is now doing very nicely. Thomas was on a scouting mission to the Pole. The group he's in has a sub-millimetre Fabry-Perot interferometer they'd like to put on the AST/RO telescope, and Thomas's job was to come to Pole and work out what needed to be done to make this possible. The Cornell group plan to be back next year for this rather challenging experiment, which will involve setting up some rather delicate instrumentation outside, with the telescope, rather than inside, where most of the sub-mm instrumentation goes. Some astronomers do like a challenge! The weather was deteoriating for my last day at Pole. The wind had picked up to nearly 15 knots, and a ice-haze/cloud was blanketing the sky. It did finally produce an ice halo though! A beautiful ice-halo circling the Sun. Ice halos are separated from the Sun by ~21 degrees, and we could see a perfect circle - proof indeed that we were nearing the solstice, if proof were ever needed (when the Sun peaks at 23 degrees above the horizon). Before leaving Pole we heard that the off-deck from Christchurch hadn't in fact made it off the ground, which means there is no plane to take us out of here yet. So we've now got our fingers crossed for its off-deck tomorrow, so that we can head out of here on Wednesday. So I've a day to fill in McMurdo tomorrow! Michael

I'm going to sleep

17 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse today began amazingly late respect to the rest of my summer trip to the Pole. My roommate, Andy (I think - never got a good feeling with the English names...) revealed to be one of the most silent person and, altough he had to pass very close to my room to exit, I never awaken up. It was so late that the breakfast was, actually, my lunch. After that I meet again Andrew that given me a lift to the Boomerang base. There I spent a couple of hour in the barn. People was pretty busy with a faulty gyroscope (see picture), but I would been able to climb up to the whole structure up to the upper hook, while other people was working hard instead of taking pictures like me. Silvia was away feeling into a crevasse (she was at the training course), so that I have been entertained again by Paolo and also by Andrea and Armando. Paolo and Andrea are "Fiorentini Doc", that doesn't stand, in this case, for Doctor, but for "Denominazione di Origine Controllata", that sound like "Controlled Area of Origin", that qualification that in Italy only good wines or some kind of particular food get when they are produced in the area where their traditional recipe was born. And I really enjoied to listen to their florence accent, for that deep irony that express. The day went away quicly and I got back soon to do some more remaining duties.A night at the coffee concluded it. Yes, I know, this diary entry doesn't work, is neither funny or interesting. But I have to confess that I am bloody tired tonight and with not very much wishes to continue to think about it. I hope you understand. My apologies. Good night.... zzzzzzzzzzz

Grounded in McMurdo

McMurdo Diary, Tuesday Dec 17th The South Pole Diaries have a tendency to turn into something of a travelogue once the expeditioner reaches McMurdo. This is because the job is done and all you are doing is waiting around for the plane to take you out of here, and have to fill you time looking for things you are allowed to do. There is plenty of spectacular scenery around - the Royal Society Range is quite a sight across frozen McMurdo Sound from the windows of the Crary Lab (the science lab where all the beakers pass the time doing e-mail). But you aren't actually allowed to do much in McMurdo aside from stay on base. They don't want anyone falling in crevasses! You can head to Scott Base without getting permission though, the Kiwi station 4 km away, and the other side of Observation Hill (and a stiff climb to get to on the dirt road, though a good run). At Scott Base is the TAE Hut (Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut), erected by Edmund Hillary (yes, the same Hillary who climbed Everest) in 1957 as part of the first expedition to cross the continent. This was the feat Shackleton tried and failed in 1914-1916, and was finally achieved by Fuchs from the UK in the IGY - Hillary's job was to lay supply depots all the way to Pole, using farm tractors! His expedition became the third to reach Pole overland, and Fuchs' the fourth, coming in from the Weddell Sea. Here they both met the Americans who had flown in, but stayed on the build the first Pole Station. The Hut is now a museum at Scott Base, left with artefacts from the original expedition, and dominated by a painting of the Southern Alps of NZ, and two pictures of a very much younger Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip! There is also a visitor book, place there soon after the hut was opened as a museum in 94. I happened to visit in Feb that year, on my way back from my first trip to Pole, and signed my name on its second page. Nine years later the visitors book is nearly full, and so I will be among the last to sign it too! My first signing is still there, but someone obviously dropped the book in water in the first few years, so the ink has run from all the early signatories! Looking at the pattern of signatories is interesting too; usually every 4 or 5 days someone signs, generally from somewhere in the US or NZ. But then there are days with 3 or 4 pages filled, and names from all over the world - a tourist ship has visited. Then normal life prevails until the next year and the next visit. Not too many tourists get to the Ross Sea, being more inaccessible than the Weddell Sea below South America, but they do come. And the shops at McMurdo and Scott Base do a roaring trade in souvenirs when they do! Today was a glorious day at McMurdo, scattered cloud, 12 below and a stiffish breeze. The forecast was good too. So we were all rather disappointed in the Kiwis when we heard the flight south from Christchurch was cancelled - due to bad weather! It means another day in McMurdo, and a growing crowd of people waiting to get off the continent before Xmas. We're now up to 60 on my flight - so its going to be a cosy affair when we finally do fly! Michael

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Meeting your past

16 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse I ended my summer at South Pole jumping onboard of the usual LC-130 after greeting some people that will probably be back home before the first week of January, when I will get back to South Pole to start my winterover. By them, Eyal, a very funny scientist that for some reasons I unfortunately met in Christchurch and that was sharing the room in front of me in the Hypertat. As a scientist, altough sometime hard to believe, looks very skilled. His sub-mm TREND camera for the AST/RO seems working and will get for sure great data this winter. As a person is such a funny guy that he will never pass unnoticed. First because if you haven't noticed him he will soon get to you and ask why. Anyway, bye bye Eyal, and get in touch! The flight has been wonderful. I couldn't sleep, also if I was very tired. There are plenty of studies about moving from low to high altitude, but nothing about the trip back, altough I feel always pretty nervous and I get an headache after half a day any time I got back to low altitude. Can any doctor advice me about that? Anyway, I spent most of the time watching by the window while we passed several astonishing features of Antarctica. The aircraft was almost empty and was possible to walk, sit or read whatever you like. The flight reaches the Ross Ice Shelf after flying over the "Flatlandia" of the Antarctic Plateau. After that, you can watch the outlet of some huge glacier, each larger than the length of most of the Italian Alps' glaciers. The Bearmore, the Nimrods, and than the Byrd Glaciers. On each side of them there were dry valleys, where there has been no snowing since almost a million years, pretty dark mountains, frightening crevasses, several Nunataks, black spot that are the remaining of old vulcanic cones. All the landscape submitted to a stress from the moving ice that was possible to feel in some way. The Bearmore, in particular, was the path Scott and his party accessed the Plateau on 1911, and from which they got back toward their death 18 miles or so from the One Ton Depot. And I couldn't do anything else, while embedded in the comfortable altough rough body of the Hercules, than search for the littlest sign of human life down there. And was surprising me in some way that such a search, successfull in any other place of the Earth, was so surprisingly hopeless here. Not a plant, not a spot of green, not a road or sign of life, altough ancient and abandoned. I still find hard to trust it when flying over the Plateau. Not even a sign to remember the fours died somewhere just under our aircraft. Right, who could even read it? Well, once arrived, I got back from the ice-strip to McMurdo, that is shorter respect to the Willy Field road, and more interesting as you arrive to the Station through the "beach", so that you can get a better view of the station on the way up. After moving my "orange bags" to the same room I used on the way South, in building 203A, for what it matters, I met Andrew just while I was knowing from the flight manifest that our flight to Christchurch, NZ, has been postponed to Wednesday. Andrew is one of the PI of the Boomerang, an amazing experiment that attracted a lot of interest in the last few years, collecting spectacular data about the so-called cosmic microwave background anisotropy. At 6:30pm there was a shuttle going up to the Long Duration Balloon Facilities, and in particular the "Pig Barn", where the Boomerang is being assembled and prepared for the incoming second flight. Someone organized a sort of "open day", and I was very happy to go and visit those people, and not only for the science. There I would meet some old friends of mine, including some collegues I shared several years in the deparment of Physics of the University of Rome, like Armando, called "Armadino" for his -as you can guess - gigantic size, or Andrea, specializing in "making balls rotating", as he used, to control the attitude of the gondola attached to the balloon, a series of balls attached to arms rotating at high speed. But I was very excited, in particular, at the idea to meet Paolo & Silvia, because they have had, for several reasons, an important role in my past and subsequent choices. I met them pretty regularly in the past years, but never in the condition to chat a little bit "in santa pace", in holy peace, how we say that to mean not in a hurry. But Antarctica is peculiar also for this. Just on the travel to the LDBF Phil, another Boomerang's guy and a nice and smart fellow I met on the way South, said this is the place where you will meet your past. And that's true also for the Boomerang, that is just designed to get a picture of the newborn Universe (or maybe when it was a toddler?). From the barely scientific point of view, the visit has been amazing. The Boomerang got an incredible success - the first release of its data conquered the headline on several different countries, including Australia - but it not the typical "product" you could expect to find in the typical science-related movie. Without knowing who was behind him, I could tell you it... In Italy and in most of the country of the world, people just ask to pay less taxes. But when you pay less taxes something will fly away, and, among the firsts, money for scientific research, that doesn't come first in the "primary needs list" of the taxpayer. I don't want to tell you if this is good or bad, altough you know what I think. But this will mean in turn, anyway, that, plenty of good projects will not be funded, or that their results will be cut down, or that the risk of a failure will increase. In the case of the Boomerang, it looks apparently as a pretty quick&dirty job. But it works great! And it works just because of the commitment by the all people after it, that I know very well. And as Paolo, that is the other PI of the experiment, said me today "as there is no funding for competitive researches in Italy, we can compete only with good ideas". Good lesson, Paolo, nd my best wishes for your incoming flight!

Decadence and computer

15 Dec 02 - by Paolo G. Calisse This morning I awaken very early, as usually since I'm here. The surprise, getting out of the Hypertat, was that tracks, tractors, cranes, vans, crawlers where all switched off as it was Sunday. The station was totally quiet, except for the little vibration generated by the power generator, well insulated by the hi-tech underground building. There was absolutely nobody around. The galley was almost empty, except a group of astronomer getting back right then - was 6 o'clock - from the SPRESO field, 5 kilometer away from the Station. There was also Paolo Rapex, another very nice Italian working at South Pole. It could be unlikely, but in the station there are 3 Italians, and two of them are Paolos. The third is a girl, Elisa, working with Amanda, the neutrino detector. And at McMurdo there is another Paolo, the much more famous Paolo De Bernardis, looking after the launch of his balloon-borne telescope, Boomerang, so that someone here is starting to think that you have to be named Paolo if you are Italian and want to make some astronomy in Antarctica. Me and Paolo chatted a little about the political and economical crisis in Italy. We were worried exactly like any Italnce the beginning of the WWII (or by the foundation of Rome, 753 b.c. Well, ok, a little more at now. After some time I walk to the AASTO. Since yesterday I like it a little more and so I spent all day there preparing our talk and listening music through the speaker of the laptop. The talk was expected to start at 8pm. I arrived at 7:30 back in the station, half an hour in advance respect to the beginning of the presentation, but to move my 57 MB of my talk to Michael computer resulted more tricky than expected. Michael and me were sharing an hour of talk, he was expected to talk about the AASTO program, and me about Concordia station. (Dome C) Time was passing quickly between the typical series of reset, tiring shutdowns, crashes, all those stupid questions the software ask us 100 times a day that are now a not negligible component of our life. Each action looks like a minute only, but actually, minute after minunte, our half an hour became a frightening 10 minutes. The hard disk drive of both our computers where chewing and chewing data with no apparent results. Sometime I wonder if in the Reinassance they did some good job just because they don't have to spend time resetting computer, uploading new version of the software or finding the way to write in vertical bold yellow in an excel worksheet, etc... Ok, ok, I know: and they were not expected to write stupid antarctic diaries entries every night. Anyway, the 30 mins left before the beginning of the talk started to pass faster and faster. At 7:55 Michael got to the Galley, where they were expecting us for the presentation, and inserted the VGA connector coming from the video projector on the back of his Apple. Nothing happened. The signal is expected to get from the computer to the projector through a cable. So easy! The mirror remained blue, giving the usual mess of "friendly messages": "video OFF", "Signal ON", "searching for this and that" or something like these. You could also spot time to time a couple of mysterious Windows-like folders, while the projector was completely unaware of his new relation with Michael's Apple. Nobody taken care of the two useless folders, named something like prksglasgf.fpd and JJJ. We got increasingly nervous. It happens always. Typical talk situation: you have hundred people watching you while you are trying to keep calm and working hard to fix a problem. Time was passing. At 8:15 we were close to a crisis of nerves and moving up and down trying to concentrate and thinking how to disappear and reappear 1000 Km away. The Apple refuses to send his signal to the projector. The Compaq doesn't just seem to bother to it. I got my laptop, actually the laptop I borrowed from the station, and tried to figure out a way to transfer both our presentations back to my computer, as it was been written in some disk somewhere on the local network. We got quickly in that typical situation that anyone involved in computer knows, in which any possible solution got inexplicately to a stop for a different reason when you (believe that) are very close to find the solution. People was starting to complain, and we look more and more miserable. I'm sure anyone was sure to have the solution in his mind and thinking why we were so stupid not just thinking to it. I was looking through the maze of setting of my Windows XP, an operating system exactly equal to Windows 3.1 but by far smart in the choice of colours and sounds. Michael was fiddling with the Apple OS. No way. Nothing was working. We tried for a while with another computer, but I got in some other problems, some driver not available, I don't really cared. Suddenly, Tony Stark suggested to switch the computer off and on. I know that someone saved a Saturn V in this way after it was hit by a light. I tried, with about 100 eye starling to me in a deep silent. Meanwhile my computer, for reasons I don't know, was trying time by time to get to standby mode, like if an IT Tze-Tze fly picked it. After another couple of minutes I succeded to switch it off and on (an operation that up to the '70 was requiring a millisecond on any electrical device), and, surprise! it was working now. Now we had to transfer Michael's presentation to my computer, and another time it was like things just collaborated to make it difficult. When I was transferring, half an hour earlier, my powerpoint presentation to his computer, I knew that something was going to be wrong, and in fact, at a simple test, I found all the * I used to compare C-130 to and overland traverse (don't worry, they are not dangerous) transformed in "i'". But this was just a message from the company "You see? I told you that the [other] operating system is just not working!". But now things got smootly, and a minute later Michael was talking at the speed of light to compress the 30 slides he prepared in 15. Actaully he was using another presentation, because the real one was "not recognized by the software registry". Another mysterious thing. Also, me tried to compress my presentation. And infact my 30 minutes got compressed to 35. This is what happen when your English is not so good. Now, I think that to talk bad about Microsoft is like to "shot to the Red Cross". Actually I don't know if you say something like that in English, but it is what we say in Italian when someone accuse someonelse of something else, and this someone else is really easy to be accused... ok, it's not so clear, but I'm tired and can't find any better. The problem is that this just doesn't work. Are COMPUTER, Apple, MS, Unix, doesn't really matter, by themself that are designed to destroy our life, sucking all our resources and transforming it in a crazy race to update the update, and fix the fix. At the end people, I think, enjoied our talks. But I know I'll spend the night thinking about this thing that in the Renaissance they did such a great job without having even a 0.5 rollelball pen available. paolo

From AASTO to Dome C

South Pole Diary 15/12/02 Sunday is the day the Pole takes off, and the silence was deafening! Hardly anyone stirs before lunchtime, no planes arrive, no bulldozers are tearing back and forth across the ice - and you realise that Antarctica can be very, very quiet! So quiet it almost wants to shout at you. Paolo and I were up in the morning, though really we didn't have to, for we had nothing to do - aside the insidious e-mail. We spent the time reading, taking "hero-shots" with the camera, talking to people and generally relaxing. I went for a "run" yesterday, up and down the skiway. Running is a rather different experience here. The first question is what do you wear? The big red jacket we take everywhere is ditched for the McMurdo wind jacket, but its still a question of how many layers underneath? Bunny boots are changed for running shoes and a couple of pairs of thick socks, gloves for mittens, and you're off. The hard surface of the skiway at least means you aren't sinking into the soft crust, but it still is hard work. On my way "up" the runway I was overheating, starting to sweat profusely. But when I reached the end and turned around I realised there was a light breeze, and this became very apparent as my chest started to freeze over. After an hour I'd gone about 8km, only just over half the distance I'd probably run in that time in Sydney. And when I finished my undergarments were dripping inside. That's fine when there's a warm building not far away, but you really wouldn't want to get into this situation if you were out on your own, as the sweat would start to freeze at some point. That wouldn't be fun! I also went for a ski this afternoon. Pole now has a well-equipped ski barn, and you simply sign out what you need and away you go. I went for a tour of "Summer Camp", up and down a few snow hills that have been pushed up by the bulldozers. One hill in particular is reasonably high, and a grand view of the station is to be had. The view of the cargo berms was quite amazing - I knew they were large, but quite how large isn't apparent until one can look down from above. There was one big event for us today though, the Sunday Night Science Lecture, for which Paolo and I were playing the starring role. "From AASTO to Dome C" we had boldly decided to pontificate about, but half an hour into the lecture, when we still hadn't started and were into our third laptop PC, struggling to make the data projector listen to it, it looked like we weren't going to get out of the galley (where the lectures are held)! Fortunately we pulled something up, I managed to cut my talk in half, and we only finished 15 min over time in the end, after Paolo had mesmerised the audience about the wonders of Dome C. It is actually little appreciated at Pole what is happening at Dome C - that there is another major scientific facility under construction at the same time the new Pole Station is being built. I think a few more people know about it after tonight! And that may be it, at least as far as my South Pole diaries go for this year! Both Paolo and I are due to depart tomorrow for McMurdo, so all being well that's where you'll next hear from me. Paolo is due back in Jan, to begin his winterover, but that's it for me and this summer campaign. Michael

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Test Blog

This is a test. OK, I'm not in Antarctica, I'm in Sydney. It's 35 C in the shade. However I am using my laptop, via Bluetooth to the mobile phone, thence Optus GPRS to UNSW, across to the Blogger site, then back to UNSW, and finally with any luck onto the South Pole Diary Page. I hope it's going to be this easy via Iridium. John

like in a boat

14 Dec 02 - Paolo G. Calisse The working day began with a huge forklift coming to get the SUMMIT and moving it to the Cargo. The transport was so slow - the distance between the AASTO and Cargo is about a chilometer - that I arrived much earlier than the crawler. I filled some papers with all the details of the transport. You have to declare if your equipment is FNG, KUR or maybe also DNF. In the case of the SUMMIT, I preferred OTF. Yes, the SUMMIT is Ok To Freeze, and it must be Kept Up Right, and it's also Fragile. People at cargo was kind and helpfull as usual and in five minute I got the SUMMIT ready to leave. After that I gently got back to the AASTO. Fortunately I spot the shadow (?) van. The van is a car with a driver waiting for anyone going anywhere. It is a sort of bus with oversized wheels, the kind of thing you see only in some funny programs on sunday afternoon. Inside is warm and there is a CD reader playing music. You just ask if it is available and get the ride. Usually you see it at the opposite side of the station, but this last few days I'be been lucky and got it several time. After that, I spent the day adjusting the talk for tomorrow. I will share with Michael a talk about the future project of our group, in particular at Dome C, the French/Italian station where I went last year and two years ago. After that we spent the Sunday in some little and smooth activities: fixing the time of the webcams Michael, packing some little things me. After lunch I got back to the AASTO, to work again on the talk and on some paper I have urgently to submit otherwise I'll be banned from any Australian University, and enjoy the solitude of the place. Looking toward on site, I noticed that on one of the 4 bulk beds there was only my parka, a monitor, a keyboard and a computer. I removed the monitor and the keyboard and put them on the other bed, and after having adjusted the parka as a pillow, I spent all the afternoon horizontally, working at the presentation, reading and replying e-mail, sleeping, thinking, with the laptop gently on my legs. Everything was perfect. From the little window of the AASTO was getting inside a warm sunlight. Time by time I was looking out at the station brighten by the sun, with several cimnery smoking silently. I feel like the cold and the wind were kind to leave me stay there. The window slightly dirty given me the impression to stay in a little boat floating on a milk river. You know those strange moment in which everything is going fine. I was even not urging to go to the toilet. I put the lapton borrowed by the station help-desk (thank again guys!) on my legs and continued working at the gentle noise of the G-MOUNT hard disk drive close to break-down, with the Beatles, or Bob Marley as a soundtrack. I decided that tonight, I mean, this winter, I'll try to spend some time sleeping on the AASTO. It's warm, quiet, cosy and comfortable. Actually, during the winter maybe it is all those things except the first one...

Town Meeting

South Pole Diary, Saturday 14/12/02 The big happening on station today was the Town Meeting. This is an occasion where all inhabitants ("all-hands" as we're termed) gather together to exchange notices and news. I was curious as to what this would entail, and who exactly would crawl out of the woodwork. Since many people on station work shifts you never get to see many folk at Pole. The event must certainly be one of the most unusual town gatherings in the world, given the rather unusual backgrounds of polies. The gathering was in the new garage, a huge, enclosed warm space which must just about be big enough to hold a Herc - and the first thing to be completed in the new station. The big news was to hear about the progress on the new station. In a few weeks time we'll be moving to the new galley (except its not called that anymore - there is now some politically correct word for galley that no-one can quite remember!). When this happens all power to the galley will be turned off, and it will be allowed to freeze! So the final few days of the galley are upon us. When Jon Everett arrives in January he may be eating in an entirely new space-age setting, and the old galley but a fond, distant memory. Indeed, enough of the new station is expected to be open by winter that many of the winter crew can move into it! We had reports on how much power we're using (too much - turn those lights off!) and a league table of water use per dorm building - designed to shame us into using less water! We learnt about the holiday timetable for the Xmas season (News Years Day will be celebrated on December 29th - and no-one seemed perturbed - and I wasn't brave enough to put my hand up and ask why!). We learnt about the Round the World Race, which will take place on Xmas Day. We were given the rules regarding use of vehicles (it appears that anything goes). However the official winner has to run round the world on foot. And for the efforts they win a free trip to McMurdo - to compete in the Scott's Hut race late in Jan. It seems that there are not too many polies who actually want to win a trip to McMurdo! On a more serious note we got to hear that the new station (or the SPSM - South Pole Station Modernisation) is being regarded by NSF and their funding masters as akin to the development of the International Space Station. So we all felt privileged to be a part of it as it starts to become a reality. This program started 4 years ago (when I was last at Pole), and is not due for completion until 2007. A huge new structure has arisen in those past 4 years from the snow outside of the Dome, and eventually will replace it, and, hopefully easy the overcrowding problem we have. The current station was designed for about 40 people, and at the peak of summer there are around 230 people here, so it can get a little crowded around town at times! As far as our work goes, Paolo and I basically finished it, and so spent most of the day looking around, writing letters etc. In the morning the fork-lift driver came out to gently ease the SUMMIT off the route of the AASTO, and by lunchtime it was on its way to McMurdo. We expect it to be at Dome C by Wednesday! We had three other boxes to send, all going to different addresses, so there were a few forms to fill in with Cargo to sort it all out, but basically that's it - we're ready to go, after our science talk tomorrow night! Michael

Friday, December 13, 2002

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

South Pole Report, Friday December 13th, 2002 The clouds have gone, and we're back to brilliant sunny days once more at the Pole. The wind dropped to under 5 knots, and at -32C it actually felt quite warm outside. People were discarding their coats as they went about their duties, and could be seen strolling across the station in jeans. Not for very long, mind you - its OK to walk around the Dome in street clothing, because in 30 sec you wont freeze, but it is a 10 min walk across to the Dark Sector, and you don't want to chance it too much! The perfect weather has left me with one disappointment so far - I've seen very little in the way of ice halos. The most spectacular halos can be seen with the right types of icy clouds, but we've been free of cirrus, and consequently simply had beautiful blue skies. The only real ice-effect I've seen was a smattering of "diamond dust" in the aircraft-induced fog of a few days ago - fine crystals of ice reflecting sunlight as they drift through the air. I've had three meetings today! One of the reasons many people come to the Pole is to escape the dictums of modern life, including that of incessant meetings. But I've had three to go to today - almost like being back at Uni! However being Pole we cut the protocols, ran two of them back to back, and the third lasted only 20 mins. So not too draining on us. The first meeting was to discuss the future of the AASTO, in particular whether it might have to be moved next year. Snow build-up in the Dark Sector is becoming significant as the various buildings there disrupt the airflow in ways that weren't originally anticipated. The AASTO may be the smallest building there, but it still affects the airflow, and perhaps more importantly, can impede the snow ploughs that are used to move snow around and level surfaces. So there is to be a thorough investigation into whether the AASTO should be moved next season, and if so where. Our meeting started looking at the various options. The second meeting was our "outbrief" - reporting to station personnel on our time here, and whether we'd achieved our objectives. Since we've only been here a short time, there wasn't really too much to say. But it did give Paolo the opportunity to ask whether it was really necessary to bulldoze snow at 4am outside his Jamesway. We discovered that this is in fact the biggest single grip at Pole! The third meeting was the weekly CARA meeting. CARA, as an entity, doesn't actually exist anymore, but all the astronomers still remember it fondly, and we do all have to work together, even if we are no longer under the same umbrella organisation. But in fact, aside from Paolo and I, everyone else around at the moment is involved with the AST/RO sub-mm telescope - and so spend most of everyday under each other's feet. So there wasn't too much to talk about, and we could all clear out and start doing our nightly e-mail! The main practical achievement of the day was the crating up of the Whispergen and the Summit. Here Paolo's practical carpentry skills came to the fore as we had to find ways of both fitting everything in to the boxes, and making sure they were secure. There was some delicate handling of some heavy equipment on the roof of the AASTO, trying not to drop it, or fall off, whilst trying to gently place it inside its container. Originally our plan had been to simply pass it down off the roof using a few beefy blokes to help it on its way. However we quickly realised that this would likely result in those same beefy blokes falling off the roof - hence the need to package the instrument up on top of the building. A forklift is going to come along at 7:30am tomorrow morning to gently prize it off the roof. Paolo spent the evening then organising express mail to Dome C, so we in fact now expect to have Summit at Dome C by the 18th - probably before we have got off the continent ourselves! And better than Australia Post! Michael

Thursday, December 12, 2002

13. Life in a lift

13 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse This year I have been accomodated in that quite corner of the station called Hypertat, about 300 m away from the dome, that is the core of the station. The Hypertats are accomodations built in metal, same shape of a tunnel tent, but larger. There is a door on each edge (see picture). As you have closed the door behind you, you find yourself in an almost complete darkness. Another door avoid the cold outdoor air get into the dormitory. After the second door you find a long corridor, a loud noise of fans and heating devices blowing huges quantity of hot air in front of you. May looks as a paradox that you will be condamned to suffer the hot in the coldest places of the world, but it's exactly what I experienced here like in midwinter in Finnland. At each side of the central corridor, you see sliding doors, that give you access to the smallest cubicle a person can imagine. Each cubicle contains a bed and a wardrobe. but the room is so tiny that it's impossible to open the wardrobe's door and at same time stay on the side of the bed. So, someone removed the doors of my wardrobe, smart move. The remaining space is used by an old chair and by the usual mess that is part of the life of any people living here. A mix of socks, glasses, Extreme Cold Weather cloths, books, papers, cable, equipment, pens, pencils, instruments, computer pieces and bits all round. The room is so tiny that to go to bed you have to play a game like the one with 15 tiles to be ordered: you move in turn each thing up to the moment you are horizontal in the bed. At that time all the rest of the things in the above list have reached the status of complete mess. The total surface of the room is, at last, the same like an industrial lift. The Hypertat is pretty similar to the Jamesway (the more common accomodation of the station described in other entries of the diaries, last year) but you have a window as a plus and the structure is in metal, not in two layers of canvas and wood that, at least, looks more bright and clean. Now, there is a problem. You have to drink a lot here because the air is dry and you risk severe diseases if you don't drink enough. But, as everyone knows, to drink more means more frequent trips to the toilet, and this can be a problem when you are in a bed 100 m away from the nearest toilet (for example in the Jamesway) while others, like the more lucky ones sleeping in the Hypertat, are connected to the toilet by a 30 m long not heated corridor, with ice everywhere and snow on each side of the path (see picture). I identified it as "the Corridor of Terror". Last but not least, don't forget the well known assumption that as much cold is as much urgent is to reach the toilet in time. All the above arguments linked together, transform that relaxing trip to the toilet in a painfull experience. If you sleep in the Jamesway, you wake up with the well known urgent need. You have to dress all your clothes, walk 100 m in the snow, get undressed again, and do... whatever is needed. All the operation needs about 10 minutes and you have very careful in planning things in advance. For this reason, any skilled Antarctican get an empty can supplied by the kitchen in his room, and empty it at morning in the toilet. If you are lucky, and sleep in the Hypertat, you don't need to dress, neither to keep the can in your room if you don't like the idea (like me). Anyway, you have still to cross the 30 m long "Corridor of Terror", while your cooling down brain sent you more and more urgent signals that "the end" is close if you don't find a urinatory in matter of seconds. So, after several summer spent in this Station I can write a list of best and worst for almost any available accomodation in the station. Consider the following as something like a "Let's go South Pole": accomodations. Dome dormitories - best close to the galley (you can get to eat in jeans) and to the main services historical fashion (this is the first sleeping place for the winterover and the station intellighentia) you feel part of the real brain of the station privacy - a separate room each person worst close to the galley historical fashion (worn, dirty) Jamesway -best farer from the airport privacy - worst fare from the airport... but not enough dark (no window) tiny accomodation first toilet at about 100 meter noisy Hypertat - best window view on the airport flat terrain all round "modern" connected to the toilets - worst anoisy incredible tiny view on the airport (see last entry) flat terrain all round (flattened at 4:30 am every night) connected to the toilet by "The Corridor of Terror" Eldorm (VIP or blue building) - best clean silent facilities available large room for you (if you are a real VIP...) - worst no privacy if you are not a real VIP as you have to share the room with 2 other people. New station still under construction, but looks gorgeous on the project... To tell the truth I don't complain very much about this rough accomodation. What I really enjoy of Antarctica is that you discover you can live and be - by far more - happy renouncing to an outstanding number of things in your life. When there are no more endless message to "buy!", "own!" or "drive!" around you, you discover you don't need very m. You can forget, in turn, the television, the mobile phone, the cars, the sense of property, the food (part of), your home, the traffic, the town, the "unknown" people, the News, the commercial, the clothes. At least in my case. You *can't* forget your partner, your son, the "green" and... your coffee machine. But this is another story. Anyway, almost I forgot: what have we done today? Well, we have packed all our instrumentation (see picture) and had a meeting about the future of the AASTO, one debrifieng, and one weekly meeting about CARA, but Michael will tell you more about that. The packing has been pretty easy and at 7pm everything was ready to leave. The summit should go asap to Dome C. At evening, when the comms room was not so busy with the arrival of the LC-130 I called Terra Nova Bay, the Italian Station on the coast via radio, but the quality of the communications was so poor that at the end I called by Iridium phone. I spoken with the Head of the Station, Giuseppe de Rossi, a good old friend I work with when I was involved in the Airborne Polar Experiment, in Italy. Giuseppe gently agreed to bring the instrument to Dome C, but told me that there was a flight leaving on Sunday from McMurdo to Terra Nova Bay, the Italian Station on the coast, and than to Dome C a few days later. This flight will be the last before Christmas. So, I immidiately asked to Cameron at Comms to check for the possibility to put the summit on one of tomorrow flights going to McMurdo. A short number of calls and in (really!) five minutes Cameron and Paddy at Cargo organized the shipping: the Summit will be got to Cargo at 7:30 am with a forklift (it is still on the roof of the AASTO) and forwarded to McMurdo at 12:30. In 3 days it should reach Dome C, where it will spend the next 2 winter. At last, I have been able to organize the shipping of a box through 3 stations and 3 flights in a matter of half an hour. Let me say that only in Antarctica you could do that! Bye bye Summit! Have a nice trip. I'll miss you here. I hope you will find Concordia equally exciting! Please don't forget to write your data to me every day. I hope you will not fill the solitude. At Dome C you would not to chat with the Pharlap, but you will have some other instrument like the sodar, that is a pretty nice instrument, also if a bit noisy, let me say.....

Thursday is Clean-up day!

South Pole Diary, 12/12/02 The weather changed today! After endless clear sunny days some thin, low cloud came in. The weather warmed up to -30, but the wind picked up too. A thin haze covers the sky. Not enough to bother the aircraft, and so the steady procession of arrivals and departures to McMurdo continued. We're now in clean-up mode. Paolo and Michael Ashley did the last tests they wanted with SUMMIT, so its time to pack the instrument away, and clean up the mess we've go the AASTO in. The carpenter came out to check Paolo's precise drawings for the boxes, but he needn't have made the journey - the plans were perfect! Paolo went off to do e-mail, and I had the fun job of cleaning up the AASTO. With ripping out the Whispergen, installing blueboard walls, and the general mess left from a winter of use, the AASTO really was looking the worse for wear. I borrowed a deluxe vacuum cleaner from the MAPO building (where most of the astronomers hang out) and got to work. Screws, cable bits, dust - they all were sucked up! The bigger bits went in the bin, and hence to re-cycling (you have to choose from a dozen boxes, ranging from paper, to plastic, to various types of metal, to the catch-all of construction debris - always a good one to choose when you cant work out which box to use!). Desk and coat space re-appeared, and all looked tidy and ordered once more. Paolo was amazed when he later looked in! We've signed up to give the Sunday Science talk, a weekly exposition at Pole given by various scientists here about why they are here and what they are doing. We've boldly chosen the title "From AASTO to Dome C", and by this afternoon started thinking that maybe we should start preparing for it. So Paolo started downloading some of his past mega-talks over the internet, while I, more fortunately, had my laptop with some of my past offerings already on it. And we set about preparing our talks in the usual cut, paste, delete, cut and paste manner of organised and well-prepared scientists! Pole is equipped with its own data projector, so it will be a full multi-media show on Sunday night. Then this evening, not having anything much to do, Paolo and I discussed science! Paolo has been preparing a couple of papers on the SUMMIT, describing the results from the first measurements at Dome C and how they compared to Pole. He also discovered a fundamental error in the past analysis methods used for the type of data ('skydips') we obtain, which was worthy of a paper in its own right. Of course, the referee didn't necessarily think so! So we had some healthy argument while I tried to persuade Paolo that perhaps there were some points that the ref made which might need consideration, and Paolo defended his work. All in the spirit of true science! Michael

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

12. In the Kingdom of Silence

12 Dec 02 - Paolo G. Calisse I'm used to say that the organization and the efficiency of the South Pole station is really amazing, but this could turn in a problem when you are going to sleep here and discover that the station runs on a 24 hour pace. "Antarctica: the kingdom of silent". If you think so you are deaf or never got to Antarctica. An Antarctic Station is quite and silent like Piazza Venezia in Rome at noon on a runny day in November during a strike of the public transport. My "cubicle", 2.2 by 1.8 m large, lies just in front of the "South Pole Intl. Airport". It is really nice the first time you understand those wondeful C-130 lands just 100 m away and you can enjoy the view of their permanently rotating 4 propellers for all the time of their stay. It's a bit less funny when you discover that this huge and heavy aircraft can land also at late night 100 m away from the place you are supposed to sleep, stay for more than an hour to refuel, unload cargo and allow the pilots and flight engeneer to get in turn to the memorial Pole to take a nice picture to show to their girlfriend. But there is more and more. Once the wonderful aircraft has gone to pollute the air somewhere else, what a better time to flatten the snow in front at your window than 4:30 am? I would like to convince you it's really an amazing experience to wake up in the middle of the night at the loudly, sad rithm of a tractor singing "The Never Lubricated Crawler Blues" just in front of your window. Imagine an oversized truck, 10,000 cm3 or so engine, pulling ahead a tool large 10m that flatten any sastrugy and reduce the ground to a huge, white - and useless - pool table. It takes usually some minutes to realize that the outstanding mechanical properties of compressed snow are able to transfer an impressively broadband spectrum of frequencies for kilometers without loosing one decibel one in the path. This remember me an old story. I shared for about a month an home, in Newark, Delaware, with a nice group of students at the local University. I remember that the home was a complete, hopeless mess, and when I asked "how have you organized the cleaning up?" they look me with an astonished expression like if I told it not in - however poor - English, but in Serbo-Croatian or Swaili. But on Sunday, those lazy guys, spending most of their time watching basket at the TV till 1am, unable to start a washing machine before the last pair of socks were standing up by themselves and enjoied a free run through the home, in an attach of restless action, where really proud to switch on their 400 cc muffler-free grass cutter at about 6:30 in the morning, and went up and down under my window to cut the grass in the backyard, including any type of wild flower that hopelessy tried to colonize the place. An activity that would come after looking at a collection stamp or washing my cars in my Sunday morning's wishes list. Probably the hyperactivity of this station in flattening snow, originates in this ancestral wish recorded forever in the cromosome of the Americans since the first Pilgrims. 11th Commandement: cut the grass on the backyard of your home as early as you can on Sunday morning. Anyway, I'll tell you what: if you look for some quiet place, DON'T COME TO ANTARCTICA. I spent several summers in Antarctic stations, and I still remember that in the Italian Station of Terra Nova was always the same: a restless buildup of buildings, stores, tanks, twentyfour hours a day, seven days a week; flattening roads, digging out caves, moving large quantities of whatever is possible to find from a corner to the other of the station just to move them back the day after, move the huger cranes up and down hills with the most unlikely media, like those kids with their pedal cars, almost in a urge to demonstrate that if you are there there is some reason. Anyway, at the end I found myself tired at 4:55 in front of an hopeless cup of tea in the station's galley. The rest of that long day went ahead with the ordinary series of little things to do. Michael "enjoyed" to clean up the AASTO (a possible reply to the puzzling question: where has the missing entropy of the Universe gone?) - or at least doing it with an high level of commitment, and me organizing the removal of stuff, writing email, and preparing the presentation of Dome C for Sunday.

11. A day on the roof

11 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse For the first time since I'm here I have been able to wake up at a pretty normal time: 6am. The day has passed looking after various duties, but it has been mainly dedicated to the maintenance of the SUMMIT, the submillimeter tipper, one of the set of instrument we are using to measure the quality of the site for some astrophysical observation. The instrument has spent 2 winters on the roof of the AASTO, waking up at regular interval, and sending to my mailbox his data. An automated software procedure was processing data to compute the opacity of the sky at a wavelenght of 350 um, that maybe is not so important for you but it is for me as it is my PhD thesys. Anyway, Michael and me today opened the SUMMIT, that is protected by a cover in alloy with a window in Zotefoam, a strange plastic material, and found inside some ice. Fortunately, this thick layer of ice had not condensed on the window, that would make the instrument immediately "blind". It condensed only on the alloy around the window. This can be explained pretty easily. It is like the fog condensing on the "internal" side of a... window in winter. Imagine to be a molecule of water vapout. You are wandering up and down, left and right on the air of your room, without anything special to do, and meeting and hurting a lot of things like you. Time by time you touch the wall and bounce back. But suddenly you touch the glass of a window. Now, the window is cold, and so the water molecule will think: "Hey, the glass is colder than me." Now, warm object, if put in contact with cold one, will give them part of their energy, becaming colder, and so our generous molecule does. It gives part of its energy to the window so that its temperature get lower. But the temperature now can be so lower that the molecule becames a liquid, and so our poor molecule of vapour, become a molecule of water, or even ice if the temperature of the "glass" is lower than 0 degree. By bye enjoying flying! you are now condamned to stay on the glass. This is what happened to the vapour contained in the lab, for example, that was trapped in the instrument when we closed it an year ago into the warm lab, after some maintanance operation. We moved the instrument outside in the cold of Antartica, and, as the air was much lower, the metal started immediately to cool down, and each molecule of our breath touching it immediately got trapped and changed its status to ice. That's why. Fortunately, the window of the instrument is made of a material much less thermally conductive than alluminum (a strange exanded foam called Zotefoam), and so all the vapour condensed on the metal and was already ice when also the window cooled down. Anyway, the instrument looks in pretty healty conditions. The electronics is working fine, the software has been updated directly from Sydney, the 2 motors inside it rotate smoothly, and so, after about 2 hour of tests and checks, we have closed the instrument again. Tomorrow we will dismount It from the roof of the AASTO, and will put it in a box built for it at the Station for immediate shipping. Destination: Dome C, Antarctica, 1,600 km away, where 3 collegues of the UNSW will install it on the roof of a similar module, the AASTINO, or little AASTO. After one year we hope to know how much the observing conditions at Dome C are better than at South Pole. Because any antarctic astronomer knows that Dome C is better than South Pole to observe the sky in the so called submillimeter wavelength region, but the problem is how much it is better.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

SUMMIT, to the max

South Pole Diary, Wednesday Decmber 11 Paolo and I actually spent some time debating whether today was Tuesday or Wednesday, coming to the wrong answer several times. Such is life when the sun simply goes round in circles. Midnight is "north" and midday is "south" and generally one is very confused! The weather - need you ask - no, just see the previous few days entries. The wind was a bit up today, though, upto around 10 knots. Enough to eliminate airplane-fog, which was good for the South Pole International Airport was a busy place today. At least 6 Herc flights came and went, and the Twin Otter went off on 3 separate trips to meteorite fields, dropping meteorite hunters and their equipment off at nearby blue-ice fields. The morning was eventful for Michael Ashley solving the pharlap-IP problem minutes before the satellite was about to disappear. So this fascinating tale came to an end, with Michael and I exchanging a virtual conversation on the keyboard of the "supervisor" computer, using the well know "wall" command (type wall before everything you want to say, and the response is echoed to everyone else logged on, in this case between the South Pole and Siding Spring Observatory). The afternoon was Paolo's adventure with SUMMIT, which he will tell you about in far more lyrical a way than me. SUMMIT is Paolo's thesis, and he knows every quirk and trick this sub-mm sky monitor possesses. My main task was to take a few "hero-shots" of Paolo with SUMMIT standing on the AASTO roof for use in his PhD thesis! My main practical contribution to the day, aside from "walling" with Michael Ashley, was to find a large piece of blue-board (insulating foam) from the cargo berms, and cut it to size to fill all the holes in the wall of the AASTO where we used to have pipes protruding from the power generator. The floor of the AASTO is now covered in blue-board bits because no-one wants to saw outside, and a good vacuum of the floor is urgently in order! I also went shopping (Wed is late night shopping at the Pole with the store open from 6-9pm), did my washing and had my weekly shower! I also finally got round to commenting on one of my grad students final part to her thesis (sorry Jill!) - a project which has actually built from the SPIREX infrared telescope we operated at the Pole in 98/99. Michael

10. Madness

10 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse To get admitted to the tiny club of people wintering in Antarctica is a frightening adventure. Getting out of a crevasse? Fighting with killer seals? Tiring walks in the gale? No, nothing like that. After a long series of medical exams, including removal of most of your poor wisdom teeth, you have to pass the most frightening test. The so-called "Psycho". Some people included me have been submitted to the exam today, directly here at South Pole. At 7:30 we have been asked yesterday to meet in the upper galley, inside the dome. There were 6 other person with me. The test consists in the endless Minnesota test (567 questions), continue with another test called M2 or something like that (185 questions) and finish with the interview with the "psycho", that is my favourite because at last you have found someone happy to know also the most boring details of your life and for free. The Minnesota test, in one of its multiple forms, consists of exactly 567 true/false questions. The declared aim of the test is to check if you lie, but I guess that it works just in this way: if you suddenly stand up, redden and start to scream the 10th time you have to reply to the question "Sometime I feel my head tender (true/false)", in one of his various form or to declare that "I would prefer to be a sport journalist than play wrestling or baseball (ture/false)" you are out of the game. In my case this tireness test was even more boring because I couldn't get 1 by 10 times what the hell the question was meaning. As most of my most reader will know by now, I am not exactly the kind of person skilled for other languages. But let me explain using a simple example what's happened. For example: question 65 asked to say if it's true or false that "Most of the time I feel blue". I taken my time to try to imagine a person that actually feels blue. I watched to the skin of my arm and tried to see it turning from beige to cyan and than blue. It didn't work. I never feel blue. But I couldn't really imagine such a person, wishing to spend a winter in Antarctica and contemporarely feeling blue. Why should someone feel blue? Why not green or black, for example? For politically correctness? I continued for a good 2 hours to reply to questions like that. I have been asked if "Almost ever I feel a lump in my throat". If someone will send me an e-mail at this address telling me what the hell is a lump I'll be very glad. I checked false, and continue ahead. Anyway at question 566, just one before the end, something happenede. I found the following question: "When I am sad or blue, it is my work that suffer". Uh...oh! I got the feeling that I had just misunderstood the word in another 13 or 14 statements. But the worst was that only close to the end of this endless series of questions I realized that "hardly ever" dosn't mean "almost ALWAYS" as I was guessing, but almost NEVER. This means that the portrait will come out of my test will probably be the one of a person that would like to kill his father each Christmas while getting upset for almost every reason, and, even worst, the kind of person that if Penelope Cruz would access his "cubicle" at midnight, would just starts chatting with her about submillimeter site testing. This doesn't mean that I will not be envolved in the winter at South Pole. First, as my boss said one time, you have to be completely crazy to wish to do that, second, if you could see the kind of people populating the station you could "hardly" believe that the psychologist has still not killed himself. Anyway, in this way I spent 3 hours of my poor time here addressing stupid or inchoerent questions. The second test included other 185 questions. After that I got to the interview with the psyco, that last a good half an hour longer than the other people because, you know, it is particularly nice to find someone interested in accurate description of any detail of your life. And for free! I enjoyed that poor guy with a discussion about arguments starting from the problem of emigration from South Italy after the WWII (the guy's father was coming from a tiny center in Calabria), to the production of amatorial movie with brodcast quality cameras, to the route taken from Skua when emigrating from the Pole, etc. After that I got my launch and get back to the AASTO, where I'm used to work. We had a long list of things-to-do. They span from maintance to the experiment, preparing crates, cleaning up, dismounting assorted stuff, replying to the mail, send diaries, to change the IP address of obsolete computers, find the allan key 7/64 (this could take several hours) in the tool box, depressurise stirling hanging from 28 to 4 bars using a pushbike tyre gauge, shoveling the snow, put a thermometer large like a tower-clock in a stick on the snow, convince a webcam to wear sunglasses, etc. Let me say that it's true that doing this kind of things in this place I never get blue. Right? Note: all the examples and information in this diary are completely true.

Monday, December 09, 2002

A cosy life in the Eldorm

South Pole Report Tuesday December 10 Another perfect day at the Pole. 35 below, clear skies, minimal wind - you must be getting bored of my weather reports by now! So perfect is the weather that we are suffering badly from airplane-fog. 6 more flights today (at least - I lost count) - they all got in. And as every flight took off the exhaust around the contrail rapidly expanded to fill the sky. For 5 mins after a take-off the Pole would be enshrouded in a low-level fog, almost blocking out the Dome from the AASTO. Obviously the particulates in the exhaust from each plane were just right to seed cloud formation! With the minimal wind we're having at Pole right now (must be close to Dome C conditions!) this is all there is to disturb the air. Clearly we must ban all planes from Dome C or we'll disrupt the observing - so John, Jon and Tony get prepared to jump on the tractor once you disembark at Dumont Durville! The major events today involved Paolo, but I wouldn't want to spoil his thunder by talking about the psych test he had to endure... The pharlap-IP saga continued, and I know you are waiting on baited breath to hear the outcome. Well, with all international link-ups made, the great switch-back to the old IP address occurred. Michael Ashley, from Siding Spring, then immediately went to work to update all the software, and, well it mostly worked. However there was a glitch. But we were too tired to sort it out - Michael having driven all day from Sydney to SSO, and myself, monitoring it from the comfort of the Eldorm not wanting to trek back out across the ice. So we've gone to bed, and await Paolo's arising in the morn to reset a switch, and the final part of the great IP-saga will be completed. The Eldorm, what's that I hear you say? That's the luxury accommodation I've been blessed to receive this year. Whether its because I've got a special "V" event number, I'm not sure, but it's quite a step up from the Jamesway and Hypertat I've had on past trips. A real building, with rooms, a kitchen, 3 bathrooms (no more running across the ice in the "night"), and, wait for it, internet connections to every bedroom! So while Michael Ashley has been pounding the keyboards getting the software right, I've been simply monitoring him from the comfort of my own room. So comfy indeed, that it would have taken a real emergency to get me to trek across the ice to the AASTO, which I can see quite clearly through the window 1 km away! There is one downside to the Eldorm - its so nice, that they put three of you to a room - but even that's better than the best you'll get at McMurdo! Other than that, not too busy a day. We spruced at the webcams a bit, and I spent an inordinate time digging a hole to put the thermometer in. Paolo produced a masterful design for wooden boxes to send our equipment back in, and as an aside got some vital calibration data with the SUMMIT sub-mm instrument before we pack it off to Dome C. Signing off. Michael

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Pharlap, the mystery South Pole computer

It's Monday and the South Pole springs back to life after the weekend. 6 LC130's were scheduled from McMurdo (in the end 4 made it), and a Twin Otter called in from the Beardmore Glacier camp. The strange effect of aircraft-induced cloud was quite evident mid-day. It was another perfect Pole day - 35 below, no cloud and minimal wind. But after the take-off of several LC130's, marked by their clear con-trail as they bank around to head back to Christchurch, clouds started forming around the con-trail and spreading out over the sky. It even got quite hazy at ice-level for a time, before everything cleared up and we got back to clear weather again. There is a moral to this tail, though, and that is dont fly aircraft when you want to observe - they're not good for the sky! Paolo and I got down to the serious business of calling on people for the help we need. Another lead for the location of the SUMMIT and Whispergen boxes sent Paolo scuttling back to a new part of the the cargo berms, but to no avail, aside from a few more old AASTO packing crates. So we're going to have to get the carpenter to knock together a couple more boxes for us, and Paolo has been busy with the tape measure. Much of the day was spent over the all-consuming issue of IP numbers for computers. This are those strange looking numbers like which are all important for getting computers around the globe to talk to one another, but can be rather baffling for the unititiated. We simply had to get a laptop 1m away from the SUMMIT computer talking to it, but for various devious reasons have to go through the historic computer pharlap, secreted in an unknown location at the Pole. Pharlap is not only a horse, but the name of one of the original Pole computers, brought in in the early 90's to run the SPIREX telescope. Now it is an historic artefact, but used in a mysterious way to allow us to run the AASTO instrumentation from Sydney (or indeed anywhere in the world Michael Ashley might happen to be). It's IP number was mysteriously changed a month ago, cutting off all access for us. Now you might think it a simple matter for us to change the number back, but no, its far more complicated than this, and involves bringing together an international team to effect it, and would not be possible without the iridium satellite phone network to help us. So, Paolo and I are lining up this team of experts, and hopefully tomorrow the switch will occur, and everything will be happy again in IP-land. Watch this space for further installments in this fascinating story...... However we did in the end manage to connect to SUMMIT from John Storey's antique computer Poodle (another epic story in itself, but I'll spare you the details....), and Paolo was very happy to be able to put SUMMIT through its paces, and verify it is still working and ready to be packed off the Dome C. So, all in all a good day at the Pole, and we're on track for getting our tasks completed in the next few days. Michael

Saturday, December 07, 2002

From Eclipse to Pole

Paolo has been regaling you of his adventures getting down here, and now it is my turn to share the experiences. I've been here a little over a day now, and am recovering from the initial attack of altitude sickness I always get, and feeling cheery enough to talk again! My Polar venture started in an unusual way, experiencing a total eclipse of the Sun in the middle of the South Australian desert. While I have talked often about eclipses in my undergraduate classes, I've never actually experience the sensation of seeing one. I had planned on going to the Hawaiian eclipse in 1991 (fortuitously having an observing run on Mauna Kea just beforehand!) but fell ill and couldn't go. So I didn't want to miss this one, the first in Australia for 26 years, even if it was only going to last 30s. 6 hours drive out from Adelaide, camped out by a railway halt on the Alice Springs railway, in the desolation nearby to Woomera, the eclipse came right on schedule. It is indeed one of those experiences that can only be seen, not described. The approaching shadow of the Moon, clearly visible rushing towards you. The intense blackness of the Moon, right where the Sun should be. The eerie light - not dark, but not light either. Mercury visible above the Sun. The solar corona visible, seen for the very first time. The diamond ring, lasting longer than I expected, at the last moment of eclipse. Then the receding Moon's shadow heading off in the opposite direction. Finally the Sun setting an hour latter while still eclipsed, the bight taken out by the Moon clearly visible (and now quite safe to watch). An amazing experience, even if the next 3 days were all travel! For then it was drive through the night to Adelaide, catch the first flight out in the morning, spend 9 hours in Sydney airport because my flight was cancelled due to engine problem (we actually got up to take off speed on the runway before a ping was heard, the aircraft quickly came to a halt, turning off the runway just in time to allow the next aircraft to land!). Arrive in Christchurch at 1am, to have to leave for the Antarctic Centre at 5am. Get myself kitted out and straight to briefing and on the flight. A tedious 7 hour flight, but no boomerangs, just the crush of 50+ people in the tiny looking Kiwi-bird. The Kiwi's fly the Christchurch - McMurdo route in December, landing with a wheeled Hercules on the sea-ice outside the station. I'd never been down to Antarctica this "early" in the season before, and it was nice not to have to make the long trek back to the station that the later-summer airfield has (after the sea-ice has melted!). A few hours in McMurdo, enough to check out Scott's Hut and not to see any penguins (again), for it was bag drag at 7am next morning for an 8:30am flight. I ended up at Pole 34 hours after landing at Christchurch - is this a record? Paolo, having started a week before me had only arrived a few hours before! Still, it was enough time for him to get acclimatised, check the AASTO was still there, and get down to the business of dismantling the Whispergen - as his diary entry has described. Today being Sunday its a rest day at the Pole, and though we were working, it wasn't at great pace. For one thing there is no-one around to call upon for help - so we've made a list of questions with which to pester people tomorrow about. Not being able to find the boxes for the Whispergen on the cargo berms it seems we'll have to persuade one of the carpenters to make one up for us. Clambering around the cargo berms is almost like taking a trip back in Antarctic history - well Antarctic astronomy history. There are packing cases and frames for every telescope that's been down here. I even found a large box labelled AASTO which had a few poles and what must have been the original roof port covers in it. But no Whispergen boxes, alas. Tonight finished with the weekly science talk - by Tony Stark of AST/RO fame. He was talking about the "next big thing" which will hit Pole (after the present construction is finished) - the South Pole Telescope - an 8m mm-wave telescope to answer all the questions you ever wanted to know about the SZ-effect, clusters of galaxies, dark energy and its equation of state (i.e. how "negative" a pressure is it?). All this can be done by mapping the distributions of galaxy clusters in the sky due to the up-scattering of the cosmic background radiation by their halos containing 30 million degree X-ray emitting gas! Only question left to asked being, might it be done better at Dome C?! We may know after the end of this season, but you will have to follow the diary entries of those to follow me to hear how the adventure of getting Summit to Dome C and up and running goes...... Michael PS The weather report, almost forgot! Beautiful clear skies, 35 below, and a light breeze. Perfect South Pole summer day, and quite a contrast to those bush fires all around Sydney I suspect!

8. A great place

8 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse Today Michael and me went to search for some boxes - one painted in orange - used last summer to bring here one instrument and the sterling engine (see previous entries). We will need them to forward the two items respectively to Dome C, another Station on the Plateau, and back to the factory for maintanance. There are two class of things down here: "do not freeze" and "ok to freeze". All the ones of the second type are aligned in row about 100 meters long lying about half a Kilomoeter away from the station, exposed year round to the harsh weather. We got there, as suggested us from Cargo, to look for our boxes, that was expected to stay at "Berm A", as indicated in a wonderful spreadsheet they printed for me. We walked for about an hour, checking all the things lying, in good order, in the snow. It was like to run in minutes all the history of Astronomy in Antarctica, or maybe what lies behind it. There were boxes of any size and shape, material became obsolete or just faulty, part resulted just not apt to the situation, including a large platform that maybe host some of the first telescopes installed here, and metal structures of very unlikely shape. Any object was identified by a label in the typical "cold" shipping style. Under the name of the Station, various triumphant claims like "Property Of The US Government" there were pretty often the name of the PI (Principal Investigator, the boss, the leader, the God of the instrument) of the project as the final address at South Pole. We found the boxes of the SPIREX, a former infrared telescop ran by UNSW in collaboration with CARA, of the AST/RO, a 1.7 meter submillimeter telescope, of DASI, SPRESO, all acronyms that do not represent very much for a reader far from here, but that are a little or big milestone in the history of the science and in particular of astronomy. After completing examining Berm A, Michael and me started walking in different directions, giving a glance to the other rows of material, spares, boxes, equipment. And it was always an amazing experience. We could find found everything, wooden buildings with ugly shapes semi-disassembled, a russian biplane seriously damaged by the wind last summer, huge amount of insulating panel and constructions material of any size, kilometers of pipes, armies of obsolete skidoos, snowcat, tents, flags, spare parts, dismounted and just waiting for removal. You could see in those objects both tragedies, happines, fighting, of people working under that and deciding, after, maybe bitter discussions, their disposal. There was really anything. Except our two, little boxes, of course.

Friday, December 06, 2002

7. An old friend

7 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse Today, my first day at the pole, I awaken up a bit late, with a strong pain to the neck and an headache. All let suppose that I should cope with the pain all day, typical effect of altitude sickness, but fortunately, after getting out of "Fred" (see previous diary entry), the pain disappeared and since than I felt very well all day. For some reasons I usually do not experience very much altitude sickness. This is not to tell you "how strong/healthy/heroic I am". Altitude sickness does not depend from your fitness, it's like the probability to be hit by a meteorite on the way home, so far as I understand. Maybe even Arnold Schwarzenegger could feel it, who knows. However, this morning I started to work. After a light breakfast, I went to the AASTO (the old friend in the title), the Automated Astrophysics Site Testing Observatory, to have a look and start with my duties. The AASTO is a sort of shipping container in fiberglass, pretty close to all the astrophysics here in South Pole, that is the AST/RO (the submillimter telescope) and the MAPO building, where most of the main telescope are located. It is about 1 miles away from the station, and the walk is very relaxing. For some reasons I remembered it much smaller. I was surprised to see that actually the room inside is not so sparing in space. I started working on the Whispergen. The Whispergen is a Stirling engine producing enough power to run all the instrument and have something in advance, about 750 W. The Stirling engine works continuously heating a little quantity of a gas, in this case, N2, and cooling it (you always need 2 different temperature to have some work done, remember!), and using the consequent expansion of the gas to move a piston almost like in a standard engine, than transforming the movement in electricity or work. As the heating is continuous, there are no abrupt explosions or vibrations, like in a car engine, and everything go ahead pretty smoothly, allowing to run the instrumetnation, for all the winter, with just one - well, or two - engine. If you consider that in an year there are about 9000 hours, and that a car engine spent a rough 2-3000 hours switched on to run 100,000 km (with so many "visit" to the mechanic shop, you know), you can easily understand why reliability is so important when you have to run "continuously" some instrumentation for an year in a place where a visit from your mechanic shop could be even more expensive than at your door... Anyway. We have used this engine as a workbench to see which kind of problems we could get after an year of continuous operation, and the engine is just going back to the factory for a revision. Anyway, apart some little problem, we have to say that the system performed very well. Meanwhile, two similar engines have been customized at UNSW, and are now on a French boat, the Astrolabe, heading to Dome C to run the real, automated, remotely controlled system. In fact, Dome C is still a summer only station, and there is no personnell, like at South Pole, to have even a look to the instrumentation, and "hit any key" in case something goes wrong with the software. We'll see what happen, stay tuned. John Storey, Tony Travouillon, and Jon Lawrence will inform you from Dome C, where they are going to install the final system, the AASTInO. The other relevant thing is that today, at 11 am, Michael Burton has arrived. Michael has been one of the person that started the site testing program at UNSW, but actually he was missing from South Pole since a lot of time. He is a "true" astronomer, even if not involved very much in the laboratory, but in observation, data analysis and theory, but I guess he was missing this place, and will enjoy again the cold.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

6. At South Pole

6 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse The LC-130 took off at 8:30 from Willy Field, the airport on the pack near McMurdo Station, and landed at the South Pole skyway about 3 hours later. There is nothing particularly peculiar about the flight, this time. I spent all the time sleeping or reading a book on the flat top of a pallet, in the narrow space between the the box and the ceiling of the aircraft, covered by a spaghetti-like mess of hoses, wires, and assorted things. The crew was very nice. As soon as I stand up after take off the loadmaster read in my mind and told me it was ok if I climb up to the cargo and relax. So I did. The pilot turned a little bit when we were flying over some remarkable features of the Transantarctic Mountain, just to let us enjoy the view from the window. At the arrival, after some greetings, Alex Brown, the "Station Support Supervisor", introduce the station with a nice tape on safety etc., a new movie I've never been up to now, after arrival in the station. After a little launch in the galley, I went to sleep again in my room. This time it is the "Fred" hypertat, a sort of metallic tent close to the summer camp. I don't know if this will be my nest for the next 11 months, but in this case, it's ok... The doctor at McMurdo given us some diamox, a drug against the altitude sickness disease, but I don't like drugs and in previous experiences I found the best approach is to drink lots of water and sleep as much as possible for the first few days. As a consequence, tonight I'm still able to write this with not too many mistakes more than my average English... (I mean, I hope so). After dinner I've been introduced to all the people involved in CARA (Center for Astrophysics Researches in Antarctica) and so I met the people I will share my next winter with. Too tired to continue...

5. McMurdo

5 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, McMurdo, Antarctica McMurdo is a sort of "mining city" on the coast of Antarctica. Watching to Antarctica on a map, it looks like a cake, with a long peninsula and two "missing bites". One of them, the Ross Sea, lies just in front of New Zealand. Most of it is covered by a permanent thick layer of ice, the Ross Ice Shelf, or "The Barrier", as it was called in the past. This large sheet of ice ends abruptly. Right on the end of the shelf, at about 74 S latitude, there is a vulcanic island, Ross Island (I bet you guessed the name...), that for his position, it is one of the place most south reachable by boat, and for its accessibility, covered a leading role in both antarctic exploration and these days logistic support. Historically speaking, it has been the preferred site for most of the expedition lead by Scott and Shakleton on the way to the South Pole, and is at present the site of McMurdo Station, the largest station on the continent - accomodating more than 1000 people in summer and hundreds in winter - and Scott Base, about 3 miles away, the nice, green, New Zealand permanent station. The station is the main gateway for the activities of the US Antarctic Project in the continent and the largest settlement in the continent. If you want to get to South Pole, you have to get here. It looks as a set of building of different sites, construction materials and styles, arranged on a kind of black beach. Could you add trees and grass, it would be just a pretty ugly industrial area, with large materials depots spread out everywhere, plenty of trucks and strange movable things, and really bad tanks of gasoline in the background. But it is on the ice, and at the end also this place looks as fashionable. You arrive on a sort of airport installed on the pack, about 10 miles from the station, that has the strange characteristic to be moved from one position to another depending on the season and, in turn, on the tickness of the ice pack. All around, the branch of "sea" (actually only ice is visible in December) is surrounded by a wonderful arch of mountains on the Antarctic coast, assuming a blue colour depending on their distance, as only the oxygen seems to reduce the visibility in Antarctica, and not the dust as at other latitudes. The flight has been described several time in former diary entries, and I will not talk anymore about it today, except to say that I will never be something routinary for me. And after the aircraft switchs of its 4 huge propellers, you gain the hatch with all your hand baggages, some orange, worn but resistant bags supplied to anyone in Christchurch by the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), the only permitted on the aircraft, excess baggage apart. So, you get out of the aircraft, right on the ice, receiving a sort of smash on your face by the cold, dry and clean air of the Antarctica, that is an experience I always wait with anxiety. That's the way the continent introduces himself. And then, a short ride on the pack on board of the Terrabus, a strange tall bus with tyres unusually large and big, that looks a remnants of one of those cheap scifi movies made in the fifthies. Once in McMurdo, at the Chalet, where people is drop off on arrival to follow the introductory meeting, I find Jeff Peterson, a scientist involved in the field of antarctic astronomy and site testing, waiting for me. It's really a pleasure to see him, and we chat a little about the present status of the VIPER telescope, that I'm going to look after at the Pole. Than, a little briefing with some key persons of the stations. The organization of the station is almost spectacular. Any details of your stay, any single request, is addressed asap, without any problem and a smile. As always, each of us receive a key, a card to access the Crary lab (a science building) and your bags are moved directly to destination from the airport. It's up to the visitor just to find out the galley building on the map supplied, the building where you will spend the night, and to enjoy the incredible view available from any spot.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

4. Still here 4 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, Christchurch, NZ Yes, still in Christchurch, NZ, waiting for the flight to McMurdo. This is the 4th delay in a row. Weather conditions are still bad in McMurdo, Antarctica, the station on the Ross Sea from which we will fly to South Pole, ma not so bad as in the past days. Today 15 lucky pax (passengers, as they are called by airlines) left to McMurdo by an LC-130. The LC-130 is a sky-equipped version of the C-130, the so-called Hercules, a large four propeller aircraft used everywhere as a cargo. This make it possible to land on blue ice, not only on the pack, making it possible to land almost everywhere on the Antarctic Plateau, even on unprepared runways. The LC took off, unlike my aircraft, a standard C-130 on wheels. I got another boring day to work and relax in the comfort of the hotel. Also the Italians, on board of the Safair C-130, left to Terra Nova Bay, the Italian station of the coast of the Ross Sea, about 4 deg south of McMurdo. The conditions were not so bad down there. I can follow in real time the position of each of those aircraft in the USAP (United States Antarctic Program) intranet web page, unfortunatly not accessible from outside. They are close to reach the respective landing place. I cross the fingers for tomorrow.

Monday, December 02, 2002

3. Coincidences 3 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, Christchurch, NZ today they called me at 5:15am to tell that the flight to the ice was cancelled. Anyway, it looks like tonight at 7pm there is a chance to fly down for 15 people, and I'm on the list. I usually apply the most conservative approach: I trust on it only when the crew ask us to get back to our seats as we are preparing for landing. Anyway, I can't complain very much. This morning, at about 5:20am, I was already sleeping and dreaming penguins and so on. other times I wandered for hours at the Antarctic Terminal (a large room where people wait to board on the flight) for hours, dressed in the Extreme Weather Gears in the sun of a New Zealand summer, before to be told that "the flight is cancelled till tomorrow". Other time, we got half a way to Antarctica, and than, suddenly, we experience a change in the aircraft attitude, the sun light circle formed by the image of the window in front of you start to run on the body of the aircraft, and you understand that something went wrong, and you are trapped in a so-called "boomerang flight", that means there is no clearance for landing and you have to get back to Christchurch. This is the worst situation, because just after a few hours, you have to board again, because, maybe, there is another flight ready. You are tired, a bit upset, and the accomodation in the aircraft is not first class like. However, we will have some time to sleep a little bit more, to wonder in time, and spend some time arranging the ideas and studying documentation. By the way, I recall I still have to justify the title of this diary entry. Well, yesterday, I went with the group of astrophysicists waiting for deployment to a pub in town. I noticed a young couple with a 2-3 years old daugher, with the air of people travelling. As I miss a lot my son, I like people travelling, and I like... chatting, I approached the little nice kid and started to chat, to discover his father, a dutch, was a crew member on the boat that brought me to Antarctica in 1991. I couldn't recognize him, and probably meet him once or two times, as he was the chef-assistance on the boat, and travelling in the screaming sixties doesn't make you very motivated to enjoy the food. Anyway, it looks really increadible to find out you are sitting down a meter apart from someone you shared 20 days of navigation, 12 years before, in the Antarctic sea, on board of a Dutch boat hired by the Italian Antarctic Program, don't you think? Paolo

Sunday, December 01, 2002

2. It's just a joke 2 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, Christchurch, NZ 5:30 am : the alarm sounds 5:35 am : a collegue phone me and tell me the flight has been delaied till 9:10 am 9:30 am : the flight is definitively delaied to tomorrow. Adverse weather conditions delaied the flight, and I can now relax for a while. I read email, browse the internet, make phone calls and study documentations. I understand that a flight is scheduled for tomorrow to Terra Nova Bay by the Italian Antarctic Program. So, I meet everywhere my former country fellows in town and close to the Antarctic Center. The Italians get to Terra Nova Bay by a C-130 - the same 4-propeller military aircraft used by most of the Antarctic Program worldwide, to move people and large cargo down there. Unlike our own, managed by the NZ aviation, the aircraft is hired by the private South African company SAFAIR. Consequently, unlike the Kiwi one it is not painted by the usual "milirary gray", but, in the upper side, in clear white. It is everywhere a nice chat. I have to explain what I'm going to do at South Pole, why I'm no more involved with the Italian Antarctic Program, describe my latest 3 years in Australia, but I also listen to interesting stories about various researches ran in Antarctica by various researchers. One of the best aspects of the Antarctic travels is the possibility to meet a variety of researchers involved in the most different activities. Yesterday I got my dinner with a physicist from Boulder Colorado, Eyan, involved in the development of a new interesting camera for the AST/RO telescope. In McMurdo, if I will have enough time, I'll meet my former collegue Paolo De Bernardis and his group, involved in the second launch of the BOOMERAnG telescope, that gained the first page of the daily news worlwide in 2000, when data from the first launch were released. In some sense it is like to be able to get directly into the page of an issue of Scientific American, and look to researches or field you will never get in contact in your normal life. Everyone is a friend, or at least a collegue interested in chatting about his work, and all the barriers that usually avoid to ask to an unknown person plenty of questions about him and his job evaporated like snow in the sun. well, this is probably not the best analogy I could pick up... Evaporation doesn't look very efficient in the Antarctic sun! Paolo

Saturday, November 30, 2002

1. A little Italian heading South... 1 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, Christchurch, NZ This summer will be a real milestone in the involvment in Antarctica of the Astrophysics Department of UNSW, if not the most important campaign since the beginning of our activity down there. As in the last two years, we will be active in two different stations: South Pole, the big, old station at 90 degree of Latitude South , and Dome C, the Italian/French (French/Italian for Tony and a few others...) station under construction on one of the top of the icecap. Don't you know about Dome C? Please go to and click on "Dome Concordia" on the right. On the 25th of November about 4 tons of material, namely the AASTINO (Automated Astrophysical Site Testing INfrared Observatory), left UNSW after a couple of years of preparation, heading to Hobart to be loaded on board of the French Icebreaker Astrolabe going in a matter of days to Dumont D'Urville, the French Station lying on the sector of the Antarctic Coast in front of Tasmania. After arrival, they will be tranferred to Dome C, 1200 Km away, on board of the French traverse in about 10 days. John Storey, Jon Lawrence and Tony Travouillon will then get to Concordia Station to assemble all the systems in about a month. Two stirling engines will produce enough power and heat to run the system, automatically, for all the winter (the station is still operated only in summer). An Iridium phone will allow us to connect to check the status of the various subsystem and receive data almost in real time. The SUMMIT, an instrument devoted to the measurement of sky opacity and stability at a 350 microns wavelength, and the SODAR, an acoustic radar measuring the turbulence of the atmosphere in the boundary layer, are expected to acquire data thorugh all the year. If the system will work, this will be a tremendous achievement as it will supply an important input to people interested in developing infrared and submillimeter astronomy at Dome C, expected to be one of the best, if not the best, site of the world for this kind of astronomy. And... what about me? Actually, until 2 months ago I was expected to go to Dome C, as I did in the last two years., to work around the AASTO. Meanwhile Giles Novak, from Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, was looking for a winterover to look after the VIPER telescope at South Pole. I applied and after some time I received the news that I got the position. So, unless the psychologist will not find me enough crazy to do it in the next few weeks, I should spend the next 330 days in Antarctica, with the important exception of the Christmas holyday, when I will get back to Sydney to see my partner and my son Leonardo. So, now I'm in Christchurch, waiting for tomorrow flight to McMurdo, and collecting my EWG (Extreme Weather Gears), ready to go. It is my deadly project to bother you enough, in the next months, with my considerations about wintering over at South Pole. I'm very curious to see which is the itinerary that my mind will follow during this period. This is my eighth travel to Antarctica, but I've never been down there for the winter. There will be my best day, my worst day, a lot of status of minds that I can't actually foresee, and I look with a lot of curiosity to the day when I will watch the last flight taking off from the Station. Actually, in 1999 I experienced already that event, except that I was one of the persons getting *in* the aircraft, and not one of the group left down. But I remember that, when I asked to the people if they were happy or sad at the perspective, just in front of the aircraft, one of them smiled to me and said that they were just waiting the moment the aircraft was leaving to open some bottle of Champagne. There has been lots of people wintering over, lots of people performing by far more achieving activities (like remaining at home and look at the winterover's sons...). And when I read what was the polar exploration only 100 years ago, I wonder if I can still look at it as to something really achieving. But I have a partner and a 7 years old kid left home, and while I do not pretend you to look at this like as an extraordinary thing, for me it will be a *very* extraordinary event. For a little person born from a sunny country, to spend 6 month of his life in the darkness, surrounded only by the ice it will be as a strange, irripetible event. I look to your feedback as well to keep me happy!

Saturday, November 23, 2002

The 2002/03 Antarctic Astronomy campaign is about to begin! This year the Antarctic astronomy program of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) will be operating at two Antarctic plateau sites, the South Pole and Dome C. We are continuing our program to quantify the suitability of the Antarctic plateau for a wide range of astronomical observations, and developing the appropriate harsh-environoment technologies needed to do so. The big news this Austral summer is that a new portable laboratory is being taken to Antarctica, the AASTINO (the baby AASTO). This will be taken to Dome C, by ship (the Astrolabe from Hobart to Dumont Durville) and then overland traverse to Dome C. The AASTINO will provide the first major winter-over experimental capability at Dome C, through the development of a new power system to run the laboratory and associated experiments. Just getting the AASTINO to Dome C will be a big task, but we also plan to assemble it on site, and then connect up several instruments and begin the task of quantifying the conditions at this site. The key experiment is the SODAR, a sonic radar, which will allow us to measure the micro-turbulence in the atmospheric boundary layer, the key quantity which affects the astronomical seeing. We believe the boundary layer will be exceedinly narrow at Dome C, but no-one has ever managed to measure this in winter for a high plateau site. Tony Travouillon is working on this for his PhD. John Storey, Tony Travouillon and Jon Lawrence are all heading to Dome C, courtesey of the French and Italian Antarctic programs. We are working closely with these countries in order to assess the astronomical potential (literally!) of this new site. These three will spend most of January at Dome C. We are also continuing our work at the South Pole with the USA, refurbishing and maintaining instrumentation. Paolo Calisse will actually winter over at Pole, working for the VIPER project, but also keeping a close eye on the AASTO. He will be joined in December by myself (Michael Burton) and in January by Jon Everett. Right now its all hands on deck in Sydney packing the AASTINO away ready for transportation to Hobart on Monday! So endeth the first posting! Michael Burton

Thursday, October 31, 2002

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