Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04


13 November 2003
14 November 2003
15 November 2003
16 November 2003
17 November 2003
18 November 2003
19 November 2003
20 November 2003
21 November 2003
22 November 2003
23 November 2003
24 November 2003
25 November 2003
26 November 2003
27 November 2003
28 November 2003
29 November 2003
30 November 2003
01 December 2003
02 December 2003
03 December 2003
04 December 2003

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Get back

By the time I was out of bed this morning, a Twin Otter was already on its way from the coast, and the South African Hercules C130 was lifting off from Christchurch airport in preparation for meeting us in Terra Nova Bay. Breakfast was quiet and a little sad, as five of us got ready to leave, and people started to say their goodbyes.

The morning was, however, brightened by the appearance of Geanpiero in his custom-modified overalls. But before I can tell this story I must first sketch out some of the background...

One or the more bizarre things that Anna brought with her were a pair of bright yellow slippers, each adorned with a huge, fluffy pink and yellow flower. Younger readers would immediately identify them as something from Austin Powers; more mature readers would immediately identify them as belonging to a level of flower-power kitsch to which the Sixties never actually descended, but probably should have. Anna's feet became, of course, the most readily recognisable on the Station, and it was naturally only a matter of time before some fiend committed the dastardly act of...hiding them.

Without slippers, and in this cold weather, corns become a serious risk. This nameless fiend, whom we shall call Geanpiero in the interests both of brevity and accuracy, should have remembered his Shakespeare: "Hell hath no fury like a woman corned..."

Retribution was swift and dramatic, which brings us to this morning. Hanging in their usual place in the storage room were Geanpiero's Extreme Cold Weather work overalls, but sewn to the front were the two 15 cm diameter flowers that had until recently been a major feature of a well-known pair of slippers. I will leave it to the reader to imagine how they were placed, but suffice it to say they would have been adequate to maintain the complete decency of even the most buxom night-club dancer.

Geanpiero took it very well. Whatever else he knows about astronomy, he's also learned: never mess with an instrument scientist.

The other bit of excitement this morning was that I received an email just after breakfast from Michael A. to the effect that the web camera was misaligned and basically just pointing at a bunch of shadows. This was fortunately a very easy thing to fix, but nevertheless important to do if we are to maintain the interest and loyalty of our many web camera devotees around the world. After all, you can look at shadows anywhere. With the Twin Otter just landing, I had about half an hour to fix it.

Of course, what should have been a five minute job turned into a major production. First, there was no snowmobile available, so I had to walk out to the AASTINO. Second, when I got there and plugged Ding-dong into the AASTINO Ethernet, Microsoft's Internet Explorer refused to launch properly. (Why do computers hate me so much? I think I asked this question earlier, but have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.) Anyway, I eventually got the web browser to run, looked at an image and, of course, the camera was perfectly aligned. I even put my hand in front of the lens and took another picture, just to be sure. Maybe it was just one of Michael's little jokes - I guess I've played enough tricks on him over the years that he owes me one.

Half running, half walking back to the Station, I was whisked aboard the Twin Otter and off we went. Unfortunately I did not have time to say goodbye to most of the Dome C villagers, though a few of the village elders came out to the plane to see us off.

As we accelerated down the ski-way, Anna found herself wiping tears away from her cheeks. If you have ever been to Antarctica you will understand why.

Just 13 hours later we were in Christchurch. The five-hour Twin Otter flight to the coast seemed to just disappear, punctuated only by the refuelling stop at Mid-Point Charlie that gave us a chance to stretch our legs, have a cappuccino and wander around the souvenir shops (actually, we were only able to do one of those three activities). We would spend less than an hour at Terra Nova Bay, making a very quick visit to the main station and accreting 41 Italians to our little party of five before returning to the ice run-way to board the Hercules for Christchurch.

Halfway to New Zealand, the sun set. We probably could have predicted that (being astronomers and all), but it still came as a surprise. It was the first darkness we'd seen in three weeks, the first stars, the first night-time. There's so much we normally take for granted.

This brings to an end my Antarctic diaries for the 2003 - 4 Summer season. The further adventures of the University of NSW team can be followed on:


Wednesday, December 03, 2003

You won't see me

At least, not for a while. I guess I didn't really expect to wake up to the sound of a pair of Pratt and Whitney turboprops, and I was not to be disappointed. However, apparently the weather on the coast is improving, and the plan is for us to fly to Terra Nova Bay tomorrow, then step straight onto a Hercules and off to Christchurch.

Anna didn't appear this morning until about 10 am, which had me worried that she may have gone into hibernation. (In fact, she'd been working late last night looking at engine log files.) We've only borrowed Anna from the Anglo Australian Observatory for three weeks, and we're supposed to give her back soon.

I spent most of the morning writing a report for the Dome C Steering Committee, the French and Italian folks by whose good graces we are currently here. We then spent a good bit more time going through engine log files, each time getting a better and better understanding of what actually happened on July 1, but not yet being able to decide if Nancy stopped and the batteries immediately froze, or if the batteries froze and then Nancy immediately stopped.

The highlight of the afternoon was the arrival of the tractor-train traverse from Dumont d'Urville (curiously called the "raid" by both the French and Italians; apparently this has none of the connotations of sacking and pillaging it does in English). This is the first of three traverses that will arrive this summer, and has taken just over 12 days of travelling to get here from the coast.

Each traverse brings in around 150 tonnes of equipment and supplies, only a very small fraction of which is "escargot". A Kaessboehrer bulldozer travels ahead of the group, creating a smooth path for the others to follow. The others are big Caterpillar "Challenger" bulldozers, pulling huge sleds piled high with containers, cranes, fuel, and other supplies. There is essentially no limit to the size and weight of things that can be brought in on the traverse, which is yet another reason why Dome C is potentially such an attractive site for the construction of major astronomical facilities. One could easily picture an 8-metre diameter telescope mirror sitting on one of those sleds.

The arrival of the traverse was exactly like one would expect when the circus comes to town in a small village. Most of the station turned out to greet the new arrivals, and there was much cheering and hugging and kissing. Then followed lots of photographs, like Japanese tourists at the Opera House, after which the assorted vehicles of the traverse organised a sort of a trailer park for themselves. They'll stay here just a couple of days, then head back to Dumont d'Urville.

The sky remains lightly overcast, with the sun occasionally breaking through with its cheery warmth. While these conditions may not seem conducive to the best astronomy, it's a good bet that at sub-millimetre wavelengths (in between infrared and microwave wavelengths) the sky is actually extremely transparent. A quick look at last week's data from our sub-millimetre instrument, Summit, confirms that even now in summer we are experiencing better conditions than any other site averages on their best 25% of days.

Just before dinner I took a last snowmobile ride out to the AASTINO to check that everything is still OK. Indeed it is; the computer and Summit are working beautifully and, even with the sky overcast and the sun behind the solar panels, the sun is happily powering all our equipment and still managing to (just) charge the battery at 0.2 amps.

The evening concluded with a beautiful display of sun dogs (parhelia), as the clouds start to disappear and the sun sinks lower towards the horizon. Anna got some excellent photos of this very beautiful phenomenon.

Best of all, the Jet-A1 worked like a treat at getting the contact adhesive off my gloves. To be fair, they now stink to high heaven of jet fuel, but I will leave them overnight close to the heater (taking due account of the flash point of jet fuel) and with luck the smell will wear off.

And, with luck, the next diary entry will be sent to you from Terra Nova Bay, or even Christchurch.


Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Don't let me down

This morning dawned warm and sunny but with a noticeable absence of Twin Otters in the air. Further investigation revealed that today's flight has been cancelled, and even the possibility of a flight tomorrow is looking rather shaky. Apparently the ski-way at Terra Nova Bay now has a metre of snow on it, and it's unclear how long it will take to clear.

With mid-summer approaching, every passing day means that the ice shelf at Terra Nova Bay is getting smaller. This is good news for ships and for various forms of wildlife, but is bad news for the Hercules because the ski-way is simply an area of ice shelf that has been cleared of snow. Around about now is when there is no longer enough sea-ice left at Terra Nova Bay to safely land a Hercules C130.

This does not, however, mean that we're stuck here for the rest of the year. Instead, we might fly to the US coastal station of McMurdo, which is a few hundred kilometres further south than Terra Nova Bay. McMurdo is, however, completely closed at the moment as well.

The Twin Otters can of course take off and land on any piece of ice or snow larger than a pocket handkerchief, so getting to Terra Nova Bay or McMurdo is not the problem. It's just that there's no point going there if we can't continue on to Christchurch. The other night I was talking to Jim, one of the Twin Otter pilots, and he was proudly telling me that, amongst the many admirable characteristics of the Twin Otter, it is one of fastest planes around in terms of acceleration from 0 to 60 knots. This helps enormously when you need to take off within a very short distance. (What he failed to mention, however, is that, as the Twin Otter accelerates further, the fact that it has the aerodynamics of a house brick works increasingly to its disadvantage and it takes the rest of week to gain the next 60 knots.)

We spent a good part of the morning in the AASTINO doing those "odds and ends" jobs we hadn't quite got around to previously. Anna sorted our capacitors out and put them in neatly labelled boxes, along with the diodes and other beaut little things we actually remembered to bring down this year. She also labelled our box of 6,100 resistors with a big sign that says "resistors". Personally I think this is a mistake because now the space aliens will know exactly where to find them again.

While Anna was doing this, and also downloading some more data from our remaining science instrument, Summit, I brought in our industrial strength vacuum cleaner and vacuumed the floor ready for the AASTINO's next occupants. The AASTINO is now firmly back in contention for a "Good Housekeeping" award.

The other job this morning was to glue back the rubber door seal which came off when we hacked our way into the AASTINO with a steak knife two weeks ago. This turned out to be a challenging job, involving contact adhesive and a simulated paint brush made from a screwdriver with some paper towel cable-tied to it. (I guess we never thought to bring paint brushes down with us.) The instructions on the contact adhesive tin implore the user not to attempt to apply it below +10 C, but I assume they only say these things to keep their lawyers happy and, at -28 C today, it's as warm as it's going to get anyway so it's now or never.

The seal actually went back on quite nicely, but unfortunately I got contact adhesive all over the fingers of my nice black gloves. Contact adhesive is completely irremovable, at least with the solvents we have available here. Worse still, everyone else thinks it is snot, with the result that I am now condemned to be a social outcast for the rest of this expedition. (Actually, come to think of it, Jet-A1 might take it off. I'll give that a go tomorrow.)

After lunch we kind of veged out and watched most of the "Lord of the Rings", which I hadn't seen before and which, like the escargots, I have no particular wish to revisit. (I suspect this comment will immediately lose me half my diary readership.) In fact the only really good bit was where one of the less heavily made-up actors lopped off the head of a more heavily made-up actor with a sword. It was a forceful visual reminder of what will happen if Tony goes into the AASTINO in a couple of weeks time and forgets to turn the big ceiling fan off.

The next task was to try and rearrange our commercial flight bookings, as it's clear we're not going to be back in Christchurch by Wednesday. We trust that Qantas will be understanding. While this is now my tenth trip to Antarctica, and I've heard horror stories of people being stranded by storms for a week or more, I've never yet had to wait more than a couple of days for flights. I hope that neither the weather nor Qantas will let me down this time.

By late afternoon it had completely clouded over again, and the wind had picked up to the extent that it was quite unpleasant again outside. The afternoon was basically a write-off, although Anna is continuing to work away at the engine log-files and is making some very interesting discoveries. There's now more and more evidence accumulating for the "frozen batteries" theory. Tomorrow we might do something crazy like start an engine and then suddenly disconnect a battery (which is effectively what happens when it freezes) and see if the engine freaks out as expected. That's if we're still here, of course.


Monday, December 01, 2003

Things we said today

This morning we were expecting a Twin Otter to arrive and whisk us off to Terra Nova Bay; this, however, did not happen. It appears that the storm that is creating the overcast and windy weather here has shut down both McMurdo and Terra Nova Bay, so we're stuck here for the foreseeable future.

This was a bit of an anticlimax, as we're all packed up ready to go. We therefore spent most of the morning writing up notes for the next AASTINO team, and burning CDs of our photos to share with people around the Station. There's still some useful things that we could be doing out at the AASTINO, and I promised myself I'd give it a quick run-over with the vacuum cleaner so it would be spick and span for the next team, but it's hard to work up the energy. The weather here is also not conducive to outside work - still miserably windy (though not particularly cold, being around -32 C).

Taking advantage of our extended stay, the Station Leader, Luigi, asked if we could give an evening talk about astronomy in Antarctica. This was a perfectly reasonable suggestion to which I readily agreed, having 100 Megabytes or so of PowerPoint presentations and slides already spinning merrily around on Ding-dong's hard disk. Even Luigi's idea that, if I gave him some of the slide titles in advance, he would have then translated into Italian, sounded eminently sensible.

Things then took a radical turn from the straight and narrow when I decided to give half the talk in French, and suggested to Anna, who is trying to learn Italian, that perhaps she could read the Italian notes at appropriate intervals. What followed was an afternoon of major hilarity, with Chiara preparing notes for Anna, and me attempting to retrieve my school-boy French from the catacombs of my mind. We received enthusiastic and willing advice from passing Francophones and Italian speakers, all of it well meaning but, I suspect, not all of it entirely accurate.

As the appointed time drew near I found myself surprisingly nervous. Typically I give a dozen or more public lectures a year, so I'm usually perfectly relaxed about it, but this one had me almost as stressed out as when I gave a talk a few years back to the Astronomical Society of Australia scientific verse.

After dinner, Anna and I were so engaged in rehearsing our performance that we failed to notice the time, and arrived in the Free Time Tent to find most of the Station already gathered in eager anticipation. Unfortunately the computer projector decided, perhaps wisely, to dissociate itself from the proceedings and failed to switch on. There was a delay while a 17-inch monitor was borrowed from someone's computer and placed on a chair on a table, and we got underway with the audience tightly clustered around the display.

It all went reasonably well, in that not a single beer can was thrown and the French reacted very calmly to what was possibly the worst massacring of their language since Bill Wyman sang "Je suis un rock star". Anna received many compliments on her Italian accent, and I was pleased to be able to join in some discussions after the talk in French.

To be fair, speaking on a scientific topic in French is easier than it might be, as so many of the words are the same as or very similar to their English counterparts. "Instrument", "precipitation", "astronomie" sound like perfect French if you just say them in a funny voice. The hardest challenge are words like "construirer" (to construct) which, for anyone unable to pronounce the European "r", are a complete nightmare. Jean Louis sat in the front row and prompted me on words I got stuck on, which was very kind of him.

Emerging from the tent after the talk at around 10:30 pm (it was broad daylight of course; the sun does not set here at this time of year) it was a joy to see blue sky and bright sunshine. The weather now is perfectly OK for the Twin Otters to land and take off - the only question is when the storm on the coast will ease enough to allow us to land at McMurdo or Terra Nova Bay. It appears we may be here for some time.


Sunday, November 30, 2003

Do you want to know a secret?

Today is most likely our last full day here, so we tried to tie up loose ends and finish at least what we perceived to be the most important of the remaining tasks. One such task was to pack up the electronics box of the Sodar, ready to ship back to the manufacturer for refurbishment. This means that the "AASTINO bird" is no longer singing, and an unaccustomed silence has descended upon the Station.

When we came to pack the electronics box up, we discovered that all of the little bolts that hold the cover in place have gone missing, along with many of the bolts that hold its internal organs in place. I didn't feel I could ship it all the way to France (even in the protective envelope of DOG the suitcase) in such a dismal condition, and of course we had no suitable spare bolts in the AASTINO.

I therefore went to the mechanical workshop, where they were in the process of repairing a bulldozer the size of a small house, and asked if I could have a handful of 3 mm bolts. This request was treated with a palms-in the-air gesture of "we only do real bolts here", and I was shown a box containing some bolts as big as baseball bats. I felt as if I'd just walked into a rough outback pub and asked for a lemon squash, and made a hasty exit.

As it turned out, I was able to attach the cover, and the innards, using cable ties. (I wonder what we ever did before cable ties were invented?) We then wedged the solar electronics into the suitcase, closed it up tight, and it's now ready to go.

Lunch was the usual relaxing Sunday feast, a highlight of which was "escargots". I had never tried them before, and have no wish to again. We were issued with special snail-eating tools, consisting of a pair of snail-shaped forceps with which to hold the shell, and a narrow fork for extracting what some people consider to be the edible part of the creature. To be honest it didn't taste that bad, but on the other hand neither would anything else that was drenched in Jean Louis' garlic and parsley sauce.

By mid-morning the wind was blowing strongly from the direction of Terra Nova Bay, and the sky was completely cloudy. This is the first day of really bad weather we've had. It's not actually very cold, but the wind and the overcast sky makes it very difficult to work outside. We're glad we moved the flags yesterday! At 17 knots (about 35 km/hr) the wind is about as strong as it ever gets here.

Meanwhile, we've succeeded in installing the big ceiling-sweep fan in the AASTINO. It works beautifully, but at full speed it rivals the blast from a Twin Otter propeller. We've therefore set it on low, and left it so it can be switched on and off remotely from UNSW. We've also cordoned off the area immediately around the fan, in the hope that Tony won't lose too many teeth before he figures out how to switch it off.

The AASTINO is now once again on its own, awaiting the arrival of Tony around mid December.

So, do you want to know why the AASTINO stopped? To let you in on a secret - so do we. There's still a few uncertainties, but we think the sequence of events was the following:

1. On 28 June, the Dallas bus stopped working. The Dallas bus, you'll recall, is the attractively coloured green cable that runs around the AASTINO, talking to little boxes along the way that measure things and switch things on and off. It probably stopped working because of a "memory leak" in the Supervisor computer, which I am lead to believe is something that computers get from time to time but is relatively easy to fix. Now, the Dallas bus had crashed a few times before, without any bad consequences, and we weren't too worried about it.

2. However one of the things the Dallas bus does is to turn the fans on that keep the batteries warm. The day before the Dallas bus crashed, the batteries had cooled close to -40C, even with the fans on.

3. Without fans, the batteries probably froze within 48 hours.

4. On June 30, the Stirling engine (Nancy), which until then had been merrily charging the batteries for the past six months, probably freaked out when it suddenly found that 120 kg of batteries instantly disappeared. I certainly would under those circumstances. Nancy stopped running.

5. It's not inconceivable that Nancy produced a voltage surge at this point which blew up the Iridium phone power supply. Certainly the Iridium was non-functional from this moment on.

6. With frozen batteries and both engines stopped (Nancy was probably still perfectly functional, but could not be restarted on account of the batteries being frozen), the AASTINO basically ground to a halt until sunrise, which was in late August.

7. Once the sun was up for a few hours per day, the batteries thawed. >From that point on, the AASTINO was up and running again. However, we had no communication with it because the Iridium phone had blown up, the web cam was not taking pictures because if its own disagreement with its power supply, and the Sodar was not taking data because we'd programmed it not too. Had the Iridium been working we could have corrected most, if not all, of these problems. Fortunately, the sub-millimetre instrument Summit woke up as intended and, unbeknownst to us, set about acquiring useful data.

While we can support most of the above story with facts (which I shan't bore you with), there are elements of pure speculation in there. For example, it's possible the engine stopped first, and then the battery froze. However, if Nancy did stop, she did so in a way that none of the engines has ever done before, and there seems no particular reason why she should have stopped at that time.

And, being Sunday, it's time for another photo essay:

Luigi. This is a rear view (I think) of the Station Leader, Luigi.

Crane. If you need a "bigger hammer" at Dome C, there's always one
The Twin Otter is the standard means of getting around the Antarctic plateau.
Roughly 1200 litres of Jet-A1 is needed to get back to Terra Nova Bay.
Master chef extraordinaire, in front of Concordia.
With flags, precipitation monitor, and tent.
The "ground crew" await the arrival of the Twin Otter.
"Urggghhh!!!...not bad." was the verdict.
The solar eclipse (somewhat saturated) over Concordia.
The number two chef demonstrates correct snail etiquette.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

It won't be long

This morning we made a serious effort to prioritise our remaining tasks, and then to set about crossing them off one by one. This is just as well, because we were informed later in the day that we would be leaving a day early, on Monday, which adds a sense of urgency to our tasks. (We'd been planning on Monday or Tuesday, but there's no flight on Tuesday.)

We've decide to leave Icecam, the instrument responsible for last week's adventures in the crypt, to run for another year here. However rather than returning it to the crypt, we will set it up in the AASTINO which is a much more pleasant environment to work in. I therefore spent much of the morning preparing the battery bank and writing lurid cautionary tales for the benefit of the next team in, who will do the actual installation.

I confess that the lithium thionyl chloride batteries that power Icecam terrify me a little. Each of the "D" size cells contains enough electrical energy to run a suburban train for a week (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little here), and an assembly of 24 of them lends new meaning to the phrase "shock and awe".

I also reconditioned COBBER, the little infrared instrument that hangs off Icecam and makes an independent measure of cloud cover by noticing when clouds get in the way of the much colder galactic radiation.

For the past few days there's been a Twin Otter here doing a radar survey of the sub-ice terrain. By choosing the right wavelength (looks like about 3 metres, judging by the antennas hanging below the wings) the radar can penetrate the ice and map out what the ground would look like if there were no ice on it. One of the neat things about this is that you can discover subterranean lakes, some of which still contain liquid water. Why this is so remains a mystery (to me, at least).

Recently arriving Twin Otters have brought us an amazing variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, including apricots, bananas, kiwi fruit, pears and, my personal favourite, radishes. Even after two weeks of Jean Louis' exquisite French cuisine, there's nothing quite like a fresh radish.

This morning we saw some serious clouds for the first time in our two week visit here. Mind you, about half of them were created by the Twin Otter flying around, but there were some genuine natural ones too.

By lunch they were gone, and once again a crystal clear blue sky vaulted over Dome C. In fact, it was such a nice afternoon (mid minus-thirties), with almost zero wind, that we decided to move our flags and arrange them attractively across the field of view of the web camera. Last year we left the web camera running with the only the Australian flag in view. This year I think we'd like to project a more international image, with the French, Italian and US flags also flying to recognise the collaborators in the various aspects of the AASTINO project.

Moving the flags turned out to be surprisingly difficult, both physically and politically. Politically, we'd like all the flags at the same height, and equally prominent. However, the only ground that is in view of the web camera and which does not obscure the view of Concordia station has quite a slope on it. Not only that, but all the flagpoles are different lengths - which is hardly surprising given that they are just random lumps of wood. The physical problem arises because the snow around the AASTINO is rock hard (partly as a result of some of our guests preferring to roll up in bulldozers). In the end we got the flags more or less in a straight, horizontal line, with the Australian flag only slightly more prominent than the others. We will leave it to the many web cam devotees around the world to pass judgement on our efforts.

Amongst our final tasks is to install a dirty great fan in the AASTINO. One of the remarkable things we found this year is that the temperature within the AASTINO tends to stratify to an alarming extent. It can be +15 C at the ceiling, and -30 C on the floor. Unfortunately our really big 200 amp-hour storage batteries are on the floor (even we drew the line at putting them on the fuel tanks) and when they get too cold they stop working (basically because the electrolyte freezes). So, last year we created an ingenious series of tubes and fans configured to suck hot air from the ceiling and blow it out at floor level. But, as oft happens to best-laid plans, we found the fans were so noisy they prevented our acoustic radar from taking meaningful data. So, we had to turn them off most of the time.

A possible new solution, which we want to trial this summer, is to install a large (1.2 metre diameter) ceiling sweep fan. This will shift a whale of a lot of air, and hopefully do it quietly.

Unfortunately the ceiling of the AASTINO was not designed with such a fan in mind, and so the blades will be whirring around at more or less neck height - hence our reluctance to install it until we were just about to leave. We will leave a note on the door to remind the next AASTINO team, possibly phrased along the lines of: "Remove head or switch off fan before entering - your call".)

While most of what happens at Dome C is immensely sensible, I couldn't help noticing today that when the bulldozers go backwards they make a silly beeping sound. Since the driver has essentially the same visibility no matter what direction the machine is heading, I assume that someone must have done some tests and discovered that bulldozers make more of a mess of you when they run over you backwards than when they simply pummel you into the ground in a forwards direction. I find this hard to believe, given what happened to my snowmobile track.

With only one day to go we are painfully aware that we have not yet provided an intellectually satisfying theory as to why everything fell over in a heap on July 1. Trust me - we're working on it (especially Anna). Anna has procured some large sheets of cardboard, and is drawing up time-lines and graphs and diagrams and arrows. Tomorrow we will try a new approach, putting on different coloured de Bono hats, acting out some street theatre and maybe even looking at the log files some more. We're determined to get to the bottom of this.


Friday, November 28, 2003

Hold me tight

We spent yet another morning writing and answering emails, and working out a general plan of attack for our remaining few days here. Today is also the day that our colleagues at UNSW are sending off the boxes that will go by icebreaker and then overland traverse to Dome C, arriving here in early January. Anything else will at least have to fly by Twin Otter from Dumont d'Urville to get here. This is therefore our last chance to think of dangerous things (that can't go by air), heavy things (that could in principle go by air but would make us very unpopular), and unimportant things (that we couldn't quite justify bringing here by air, but are happy to sneak in on the traverse). Into this last category fall a selection of videos and DVDs of Australian films (such as Mad Max) that Tony has selected to try and raise the general cultural tone of the Station.

More than one person had commented on the "Tales from the crypt" photos we sent. In particular, some have unkindly noted that the five layers of clothing I was wearing fail to show off my natural Bruce Lee like physique to best effect. Tony wrote to say that Michael Jordan was demanding I give his parka back. I cannot remember now if it is manners or clothes that maketh the man, but I probably should concentrate now on the manners and admit that sartorial elegance is not my forte. (I did, for a while, feel that, with the dark glasses and dressed in the long parka, I bore an uncanny resemblance to Keanu Reaves in "The Matrix". However at this altitude it's possible to convince yourself of almost anything.)

During lunch a Twin Otter taxied up and parked outside the restaurant, and I was surprised to find it a perfectly reasonable thing to happen. In normal suburban life one gets used to the sound of a car pulling up outside, which normally presages a visit from friends, door-to-door salesmen or the Federal Police. Here, the arrival of visitors is heralded by the sound of two Pratt and Whitney gas turbines driving their propellers into reverse pitch just outside the window.

Email continues to be rather erratic. We suspect some emails never get through; on other occasions we get multiple copies of the same message. This morning I received nine copies of the same email!

After lunch I started up Nancy, and was dismayed to see another belch of bubbles in the coolant - this almost certainly indicates a slow internal leak of the nitrogen working fluid. It is going to be a difficult decision to choose which of the two engines to send back for reconditioning at the end of summer, and which to leave to run for another winter alongside the new engine. Yesterday Sid put on a stellar performance, and has put himself firmly back into contention as the engine to stay.

Nancy, however, was clearly determined to show that she was fighting fit, and today her power output ramped up to a record 930 watts. This is not bad for an engine that is only rated at 800 watts at sea level. More alarming, though, was that the exhaust temperature also ramped up, to just over 500 C. I've never seen one of our engines get this hot before, and frantically searched through the software settings to find out at which point the engine would either melt or, preferably, some sort of alarm would go off. It turns out that there is indeed an alarm, and it's set by the manufacturer (who, one assumes, has carefully taken into account the melting point of all the various engine bits) at 545 C. With this piece of information to hand I was able to relax and watch as Nancy settled back into a less frenetic "float charging" mode.

One way we could solve the dilemma of which engine to ship back to New Zealand would be invite diary readers to phone in, as in the Big Brother TV show, and vote to send Sid or Nancy out of the AASTINO. However at $6/minute for the satellite phone, I suspect we wouldn't get many takers.

The title of today's diary is a plea to both Sid and Nancy to hold on tight to their nitrogen. One way or another we need to have at least one of them leak-tight by February.

Around mid-afternoon Geanpiero arrived at the AASTINO to tell us our radio wasn't working, which indeed it wasn't because the battery was flat. The only weird thing is that he arrived in a bulldozer. He may have been thinking that, because of the many visitors we get at the AASTINO, parking might be a bit of a problem and, as everyone knows, the only way to be really of sure of a parking space anywhere is to turn up in a bulldozer. As it turned out there was plenty of room and he didn't even have to nudge our snowmobile out of the way.

Unfortunately he completely ruined the snowmobile track back to the main station and, just as I've almost perfected my Scandinavian flick into the entrance to that tricky cresting right-hander I've been working on, I find there's now a set of furrows in the snow a foot deep that complete ruin any kind of smooth exit.

Geanpiero was also able to tell us that the mechanical workshop had made a nice little bracket for our fan. I'd given them the sketch this morning - they asked if it was urgent and when I said no, they said it would be ready in a couple of hours. That's service!

Anna solved the problem with the Axis web camera, which surprised us mid year by refusing to take pictures every 12 hours, and deciding only to take pictures when it felt like it. The problem arose because, in its enthusiasm to get on with taking pictures (which is what web cameras really like to do), it was drawing a monumental gulp of current from the power supply each time it was switched on. Unfortunately the power supply was less than pleased with this, and after a brief and, I assume, highly acrimonious discussion between the two, arrived at a compromise whereby the power supply delivered just enough current to set fire to the resistors in series with the web camera, but not enough to allow the web camera to actually get on with its job.

We've temporarily wired the web camera up to Station power so, if it really gets carried away with excitement at the prospect of being able to take yet another picture, it can call upon the full resources of a 150 kW diesel generator to supply it with electrical power.

To conclude the day Jean Louis put on his star dessert, Ille Flottante (Oeufs a la neige). Neither the Italian nor the French translate into anything you'd immediately deem edible, but this is indeed one of his best and was treated accordingly by the assembled throng (i.e., I don't think there'll be much left for breakfast tomorrow).


Thursday, November 27, 2003

It's getting better all the time

Not a bad day all round: we made progress on lots of fronts. The day actually started rather badly, however, when we arrived at the AASTINO and found we had forgotten to bring the list of magic incantations we need to get the computer to talk to us. So, rather than confront the multiple persona of Bill, Henry and Alice throwing their usual two-year-old tantrums, we did non-computer things instead.

I did the job I had been dreading: disassembling Sid's exhaust system to see if was blocked with crud, leading to poor airflow and his current dismal performance. As it turned out the job was not as bad as I had feared (a lot of life is like that) and apart from getting fibreglass everywhere, cutting myself on the aluminium tape, twisting my back trying to reach behind the engines and getting a sticky, irremovable and no doubt carcinogenic black goo all over my hands, I had quite a good time.

Best of all, Sid's exhaust was as clean as a whistle, and the amount of crud that had accumulated over winter in our specially designed crud trap was negligible.

Anna did a big tidy-up of the AASTINO, fixed the Ikea drawers that had fallen apart and screwed back the cable rack that had come unglued. She even found a place to put the big orange tool rack I brought down last year because I knew it would be terribly useful, but which defied rational placement and so spent last year outside in the snow. Anna's solution was ingenious but involved first sawing a block of wood in half. This required me to reveal our formidable stash of power tools - "Omigawd" were, I think, her exact words. I'm not sure why we brought so much mechanised overkill with us last year, but we're certainly well set up now to do considerable damage to anything that needs modifying.

Anna selected a power jigsaw with teeth like a piranha and made short work of the piece of wood. Using any of the power tools requires turning off the heaters, because we're limited to 15 Amps from the Station. (It's actually quite interesting to be forced to confront how you use electrical power. It's something we all take for granted at home. You plug in a power saw - even one of the size of the ones in the AASTINO, and just assume that someone, somewhere, is cranking up their power station just a little bit more to answer your needs. But I digress.)

Anna also labelled everything with our nifty little labeller, though this posed more of a challenge than might be expected. How do you describe the contents of a drawer which, in truth, consist of "those things that just happen to fit nicely in this drawer"?

After lunch I did more engine things (I'm in engine mode now), while Anna pulled the webcam apart and fixed the intermittent power supply problem we've been having, soldered a new connector onto it, and set it going for a another series of tests.

Later in the day we set up a pole some 40 metres from the AASTINO, carefully placed where we can see it through a small telescope we've bolted to one of the fuel tanks. The purpose of this may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, but it's so we can measure the vibration of the fuel tank when the engines are running. This is important because out new instrument, MASS, will ultimately be bolted to the same fuel tank (although MASS will look at stars rather than poles).

The pleasant outcome of this experiment is that the tank vibrates not a jot, and indeed moves very little even when you engage it in a friendly punch-up. (It is, let's face it, a big tank. Probably 300 kg empty, then gaining another tonne of Jet-A1, it is well endowed with what used to be called "inertia" before the term was appropriated by the Public Service.)

Perhaps of more concern is that the French flag we erected outside the AASTINO a few days ago is in direct line of sight of our carefully calibrated pole. Today is unusually windy, and the flag was a pest, so I've temporarily wrapped it around the flagpole. I hope this doesn't upset our hosts - if we find a guillotine being erected beside the AASTINO tomorrow I'll know I've committed a diplomatic faux pas.

Attentive readers will have noticed that we've gone rather quiet on the subject of why the AASTINO stopped last July. Well, we're thinking... We'll let you know when we have a plausible answer.


Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I am the walrus

At least, I looked like a walrus after emerging from the crypt this morning, with frozen beard and hair and icicles hanging off my face. In the crypt is (or at least was) Icecam, an experiment that runs completely independently of the AASTINO, and which also acquires data for yet another instrument, COBBER.

Icecam looks at the sky and takes a photo every couple of hours throughout the year, thereby telling us if it's cloudy or not. The camera itself is on the roof of a small shed, while the batteries and electronics are buried in a crypt some 7 metres below the ice. We do this because ice is an excellent insulator, with the result that anything more than a few metres below the surface stays at a constant temperature all year - in this case about -50C. (If we left things on the surface they would cool in mid-winter to below -80 C, at which temperature all batteries - and most other things - stop working completely.) At -50 C, a big pack of lithium batteries can keep our instrument running happily all year; even the instrument itself doesn't mind being this cold. Icecam records all the data on a Flash Disk, but sends us a summary of what's happening via the Argos satellite network.

Unfortunately, working in the crypt is not for the faint-hearted. You descend down a gloomy shaft below the surface via a long, vertical aluminium ladder for 7 metres, then enter a shipping container whose roof is sagging under the weight of the snow above it. It is bitterly cold (-50C, as always at this depth), dimly lit and extremely cramped. In the container to either side, and taking up almost all the available space, are huge tanks of glycol which were intended to provide a thermal buffer. At one stage it was hoped the crypt could be heated by wind power to a respectable temperature, then people remembered there's almost no wind at Dome C.

On top of the glycol tanks on one side is a bench, which is mostly covered in old batteries. The other side is filled to the ceiling with shelves, which also carry an interesting assortment of old batteries. This leaves a "corridor" about half a metre wide down which you can walk, stepping over the Caterpillar bulldozer batteries that obstruct the route and which are, more often than not, leaking acid across the floor. Frankenstein would have rejected this place outright as far too intimidating to use as a lab.

At the far end of the container, half hidden by another Caterpillar bulldozer battery, there is Icecam! We brought down a computer monitor to see what Icecam was thinking (which turned out to be not very much). Of course all the cables were frozen absolutely rigid - Anna took a photo of one of our mains leads standing vertically like an Indian rope trick. Connecting things up was a major trial. The final obstacles to rapid progress are that you can't see what you're doing because the air is filled with clouds of fog from your breath, and as soon as you remove your gloves to do anything, your fingers drop off.

Preparing to enter the crypt involves first donning as many clothes as you can find, then alerting the Radio Room to contact you every 30 minutes to check the whole thing hasn't caved in or a battery fallen on your head, then taking with you every tool you could possibly need because you certainly don't want to go back for anything. We first checked Icecam to see what it was doing, then ripped everything out as quickly as we could before either the walkie-talkie batteries or ourselves froze solid. Anna also took some amazing photos which will appear in due course in the next photo essay.

I've worked in the crypt in previous years, but only late in the season when it's been heated up to a respectable temperature like -30 C. Today the thermometer on the wall read -50 C and, believe me, it felt like it.

Lunch would have been good even if it had been baked beans, but much more was promised when I saw Jean Louis carrying two of the largest lobsters I have ever seen into the kitchen. Sure enough, lunch was one of Jean Louis' best: the combination of a prawn and lobster pilaf with a quail and grape main dish is not one I would attempted to create myself, but it was of course a veritable masterpiece.

It is worth noting in passing that at this altitude water boils at around 88 C. The fact that the chef can create anything vaguely edible is remarkable; that his cuisine is as haute as Dome C itself speaks volumes for his skills.

Yesterday the Station Manager noticed me battling through the French copy of the Metro newspaper that is received here each day electronically, and asked if here was an Australian newspaper I'd like to read. I suggested the Sydney Morning Herald and, sure enough, there was a copy of the electronic version on the table this morning. It would have been better if the lead article had not been a damning but distressingly accurate critique of Australia's current foreign policy, but nevertheless it was a treat to read English for a change.

I actually started this morning with a nice hot shower, which I do from time to time when I think I'm starting to smell too bad. Unlike South Pole, which has a strict limit of two 2-minute showers per week, Dome C places no restrictions on showers. I guess Italians aren't very big on rules anyway. It's only the knowledge in the back of my mind that it takes an awful lot of energy to melt snow (333 kJ/kg, from memory) that prevents me spending a good part of each day there.

The only problem with the shower is that it is in a different building to my comb. By the time I cross to the second building my still damp hair has frozen stiff. It is surprisingly difficult to comb frozen hair.

Today's final formal task was to photograph Anna posing with the penguin. There is a snow penguin, about 50 cm high, that someone built outside the Radio Room last summer. I have a photo of Rita, the then radio operator, pretending to pat it. Now I have a matching photo of Anna doing the same, and I will use this pair of photos in talks I give to astronomers about Dome C. Why, you ask? Because I don't believe there is anywhere else in the world where the wind is so low, and the snow fall so light, that a 50 cm snow penguin would still be even remotely recognisable one year on.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the chocolate, Amaretto and pistachio desert that concluded dinner. I am typing this diary quickly tonight so I can go to bed early, and hence get up early tomorrow, when there still should be some left over for breakfast.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003

A day in the life

Today was a more normal day: email, breakfast, email, work, lunch, email, work, dinner, email, bed.

Soon after breakfast the Twin Otter arrived, which was a good excuse to wander around taking lots of photos. Gerhard left on the plane an hour or so later, leaving us with his precipitation monitor and computer happily collecting data in the AASTINO, and his Fortran script happily analysing our Summit data.

Anna once again took on the Supervisor computer, while I did engines and got ready to quickly unplug the computer if it looked like it might be getting the upper hand.

Sid the Stirling engine is starting easily and running well, except for not producing much power. Unfortunately this defeats the main purpose of being a Stirling engine, which is to power our instruments. I replaced the evaporator (the bit that turns the Jet-A1 kerosene into a gas, so it burns with a nice hot flame) and the oxygen sensor (which sits in the exhaust pipe and tells the fuel pump how much fuel to supply in order to keep the air/fuel ratio exactly right) but neither had much effect.

Nancy, on the other hand, is producing an abundant amount of power and appears to be unstoppable. She has now accumulated almost twice the run-time of Sid, who dropped out earlier in the year with a burnt-out glow plug.

A third Stirling engine will soon be on its way, via Hobart, the little icebreaker l'Astrolabe to the French coastal station of Dumont d'Urville, and an 11-day traverse across the plateau to Dome C. Suggestions for names so far include Johnny (as in Johnny Rotten, although he hasn't yet killed himself or anyone else) and Kurt (I assume as in Kurt Cobain, although I'm not sure he was degenerate enough to qualify). Either Sid or Nancy will then be shipped out for refurbishment, depending on which is underperforming most badly at the time.

I'm starting to worry about whether we'll be able to put together an engine from the remaining parts that will work reliably for another 12 months without maintenance. We want to start the winter with two good engines, the new one plus either Sid or Nancy.

Lunch was a German-style sauerkraut, potatoes and sausage. It was exceptionally yummy and a great pity that Gerhard - the only German on the Station - missed it by just a couple of hours.

Straight after lunch a cry went out for people to rush to the new Concordia Station to pose for photographs. This sounded a whole lot better than wrestling with engines and software, so we piled onto a snowmobile and headed out. One might have assumed that this was some kind of official construction progress photograph, but no, this was the birthday of the wife of one of Italian guys, so he needed a photo of a banner with her name on it hanging from the new station, and lots of people celebrating, so he could send a happy birthday email to her back in Italy. Needless to say it was a lot of fun, totally shambolic, and the world record for the number of people riding on a single snowmobile plus sled was comprehensively smashed.

We then returned to our work in the AASTINO. I decided to tackle the Dallas bus, which is one of the cleverest parts of what is a very clever AASTINO (if we may be permitted). The Dallas bus is a single, rather attractive green cable that runs around the AASTINO. Along its length are situated "Dallas devices" which are little electronic circuits that can measure things, turn things on and off, and generally be useful. Each Dallas device has a unique digital code (rather like a micro-chipped poodle), so all the computer has to do is call out the code, followed by the instruction, and the Dallas device does the rest. The beauty of this is that we can have just the single green cable previous previously alluded to, rather than festooning the AASTINO with a rat's nest of separate wires.

Unfortunately my excursion into the Supervisor software that controls the Dallases was less than satisfying. It turns out the computer has multiple personalities, which as far as I can see are called Root, Aastino, and 5255. Let's think of them as Bill, Henry and Alice. When you want something done, you have to ask the right person (even though it's really just one person). It reminds me of asking a young child, say Bill, to tidy his room, and he replies "I'm not Bill, I'm Henry today", and so you ask Henry to tidy his room and he says, "No, that's not fair, it's Alice's room" and you end up having to lock the little brat in the toilet to prevent yourself from knocking his block off.

Two hours of this and I was ready to not only lock the Supervisor computer in the toilet but to flush it down the bowl as well. Fortunately, Anna is made of sterner stuff and by the end of the day had the computer pretty well beaten into submission.


Monday, November 24, 2003

Happiness is a warm gun.

...well, a warm Stirling engine, anyway. Just before lunch we re-charged Nancy with 24 atmospheres of nitrogen (unfortunately there seems to have been a slow leak overnight) and set the automatic start routine in motion. On the first attempt the flame lit almost immediately (so running out of fuel hadn't been the problem earlier this year!); on the second attempt the burner ramped up as it should, but the mixture was not quite optimum and the flame went out again; and on the third attempt she whirred into life and was soon producing over 800 watts of electrical power. There didn't seem much point in hanging around after that so we switched the engine off and went to lunch. The only worry was that Nancy did a rather inelegant belch as the coolant first started to circulate, which could indicate an internal nitrogen leak.

After lunch we charged the second Stirling engine, Sid, with nitrogen. This time, the engine leapt into life on the first attempt. However the power output was much less - just 330 watts, and over the next half hour proceeded to drop to alarmingly low levels. I've put a new evaporator in Sid. With any luck this will fix the problem; tomorrow we'll know.

Nevertheless, having both Stirling engines up and running is a major triumph. There's still a concern about whether they are holding pressure properly, but apart from that it seems like they might both be as good as new. Not only that, we also inadvertently tested the room temperature control system, which works by blowing warm air out of the AASTINO. Because the AASTINO is, in principle, completely sealed, this forces cold air to be sucked in. I had set the Eurotherm temperature controller to +30C to ensure it didn't spontaneously switch on. However, with Nancy going full tilt the room soon hit that temperature, with the result that the two exhaust fans suddenly leapt into life. This would not have been so bad except that I had earlier put plastic bags over them to help keep the room warm. The sudden, ear-shattering noise of two 6-inch fans trying to swallow a couple of plastic bags was quite extraordinary. My immediate thought was that a Twin Otter was coming through the side of the AASTINO, and it took me a second or two to recover enough composure to dive for the "off" switch.

The day had actually begun distressingly early, as the solar eclipse started at 6:30 am and we wanted to be ready in the AASTINO to film it. Being astronomers, we were able to predict the timing of the eclipse to the nearest second - simply by looking it up on the web. Unfortunately the days are long since gone when the astronomers could convince the emperor that the sun was being swallowed by a gigantic dragon, and that only payment of handsome royalties (to the astronomers of course) would persuade the dragon to regurgitate the sun and bring daylight back to the earth. If I had thought I could get away with it I would have demanded that, in return for us agreeing to bring sunshine back to Dome C, Jean Louis should be immediately seconded to the UNSW Antarctic Group.

The eclipse was quite spectacular, with about 90% of the sun covered by the moon. We photographed the eclipse itself, photographed other people photographing it, and just stopped short of photographing people photographing people. (We probably would have gone that extra step had it not been for the fact that it had been -51C overnight, and was not greatly warmer at 6 am.)

We then sent the images back to UNSW where they are by now hopefully adorning our web page. It turns out that Antarctica was the only part of the globe to get a decent view of this eclipse, so we were really rather lucky to be here.

Meanwhile Anna has been locked in mortal combat all day with the Supervisor computer, and appears to be coming out on top. She's very close to explaining why Summit - one of our main science instruments - spent inordinate amounts of time during the year twiddling its thumbs when it should have been taking data for us.

After lunch Gerhard shifted our tent back about 2 metres to allow cleaner airflow around his precipitation monitor. This is important because he wants to measure the natural snow fall, not the snow fall that is induced by wind-blown turbulence. He then declared that he was bored (his instrument was working just fine and there was nothing more really to be done), and offered to help out with the AASTINO. We suggested he might like to write a script to analyse the Summit data, and he went off and spent several hours writing an amazing script for us that does a prefect job of telling us just exactly what the instrument is up to, and has been doing in the past. He even claimed to enjoy it.

What a guy!

Beatles scholars may feel I could have done considerably better with the title. However it was such a great song, one that was rendered particularly poignant when, shortly being shot dead in New York, John Lennon explained that (amongst whatever other interpretations might be placed on the lyrics) the song was intended to ridicule US hand-gun laws.

I briefly considered the Rolling Stones' "Start me up" as an appropriate summary of the day's events vis-à-vis Stirling engines. However that song has forever been destroyed by Microsoft, who reputedly paid over a million dollars to use half of it in the launch of Windows 95. This in itself would not have been so bad had Microsoft had the decency to use the whole song in the advertisement, as it includes the particularly appropriate line: " make a grown man cry."


Sunday, November 23, 2003

Slow down

Today, being Sunday, got off to an exceptionally slow start and proceeded to wind down from there.

After what seemed like an extraordinarily long time doing emails, I wandered out to the AASTINO and pottered around while Gerhard finished installing his precipitation monitor. While we were there an Italian film crew arrived and proceeded to shoot everything they could from every conceivable angle. We hastily added the French, Italian and US flags to the existing Australian one, in order to create a more international feel to our little observatory.

The question of why the AASTINO shut down continues to deepen, and now has all the elements of a good murder mystery. We have physical evidence of the crime, in the form of the non-working Iridium power supply, the 24 cm of fuel in the tanks, and the glycol sprayed around the walls. We have the witnesses, in the form of the various computer log files, and it is clear that not all of them are telling the truth. We know, for example, that the sun did not rise on midwinter's day - yet one of our data files is trying to claim otherwise. (Michael A. says that part of the software is known to suffer from a "memory leak", which sounds like the kind of thing I suffer from all the time but which apparently is pretty bad where computers are concerned.) Anna continues to interrogate the various unreliable witnesses, while I play the role of Inspector Rex and sniff around for more clues.

Today was the first proper restaurant-style Sunday lunch for the season, with smoked salmon, grenouilles, magre de canard and carrot cake. Among our table companions was Aldo, who helps out in the hospital and performs many other useful tasks. Aldo has the enviable distinction of having the largest collection of fruit stickers in Italy, some 10,000 different ones from all around the world. He has promised to send me a photo of himself in front of his collection, which is listed in the official fruit sticker collector's page on the web. Anna tried to explain to him how the English phrase "nut case" can be used in these situations, but she didn't get through to him and I fear he is going to take up also collecting the boxes that nuts come in when he gets back to Italy.

Recovering from lunch basically took up Sunday afternoon but, after working 14-hour days for the past ten days, we both need a break.

Being Sunday afternoon, it seems appropriate to finish today's diary with a photo essay:

AASTINO. Our little laboratory, sitting on top of Robert Hill. The solar panels are to the right; the Australian flag (also used as a wind speed indicator) is to the left.

Burglar. The day after we arrive, Anna takes photos through the window of the AASTINO while we try to figure out how to break in.

Snowmobile. Possibly the most dangerous form of land transport ever invented.

Dome_C. The Free-time Tent is in the foreground; the big round white things are not part of a mosque but are in fact Inmarsat antennas.

Hospital. The ambulance is parked out the front, while on the right is the oxygen tent where people go when the altitude gets to them. The steam is rising from the diesel generator that powers the whole Station.

Water. This is how water is provided for the Station - by dumping snow into a big melting pot.

Concordia. The new Concordia Station, currently under construction, taken from the AASTINO. The current station is in the distance to the right of picture.

Otter. The arrival of a Twin Otter is always a significant event. Someone has borrowed the ambulance to help with unloading.

Bus. The commuter bus between the Station and the Astrophysics Area.

Frogs_legs. Anna tries frogs legs for the first time and finds them "not bad".


Saturday, November 22, 2003

...but everyone knew her as Nancy

This morning started with the installation of the computer for Gerhard's precipitation monitor in the AASTINO. Unfortunately he wasn't able to quite finish the commissioning, as he is spending every afternoon slowly lowering a probe metre by metre into the EPICA bore hole and measuring the temperature every ten minutes. This sounds exceedingly tedious - I have decided I don't want to study ice-cores after all.

The sodar is continuing to ring out across the Station. Everyone is more or less used to it by now, although a couple of people have asked me if it's possible to change the tune. Surprisingly, no-one yet has asked if they can download the notes into their mobile phone to use as a ring tone. It would certainly set you apart from the crowd, and make a nice change from "The Pink Panther" and other favourites.

Our solar panels continue to shine (actually, they do the exact opposite) and are keeping the AASTINO powered up with an absolute minimum of fuss and bother. Part of the secret of having a happy relationship with a solar panel is to have a piece of electronics called a Maximum Power Point Tracker. This device matches the output of the panel to whatever the load happens to be, thereby ensuring that the panel operates at maximum efficiency all the time. Our MPPT is an outstanding example of the breed, Australian made of course, and has done an excellent job all year. Its only failing so far is that some of the segments on the numerical display have died, so you can't tell a "1" from a "7" or a "4" from a "9". However, as long as it knows what it's doing I'm happy to ignore the numbers and simply leave the decisions to it.

Anna is continuing to extract more and more information from our various computers, but with each step we seem to get no closer to understanding why everything stopped on July 1. One or more of the computers is clearly telling fibs - probably as a result of its real-time clock stopping in the cold and it getting confused about what the date is.

Lunch was lamb chops, which Jean Louis proudly assured me were Australian.

Today I started to work on the engines, in the hope that we might be able to get them started again - or at least diagnose whatever faults brought them to a premature halt earlier this year. While we can keep running on Station power all summer, by the end of January we need to have both engines up and running in order to keep the AASTINO powered after the Station closes in early February. (The solar panels will also contribute, of course, but they cease to be terribly useful once the sun sets in April.)

The problem with Sid, the first of our Stirling engines to stop working, was easy to discover. It turned out to be a burnt-out glow plug, correctly diagnosed by Sid's own engine management computer and very obvious to both multimeter and eye once the glow plug was removed. However, Sid's control panel continues to glower with the words "Locked out". While I have no idea what this means (and neither, it appears, does the manufacturer), it is obviously meant to be unfriendly and indeed Sid remains sullenly unresponsive.

Prior to attempting to start the other engine, Nancy, I checked the pressure of the nitrogen which the Stirling engine uses as its working fluid. Unfortunately the pressure was almost zero - clearly the engines do not appreciate being frozen and I can't say I blame them. I lugged our spare nitrogen cylinder in from the cold and allowed it to thaw out before bolting on a regulator. Needless to say, our spare cylinder was also completely empty. Antarctica is like that. However, we've been doing this Antarctic stuff for a few years now, and so it was just a matter of digging out the spare spare nitrogen cylinder, which upon thawing was found to contain 15 megapascals - this sounds like a lot and believe me, it is.

After recharging Nancy to the recommended 24 Bar (i.e., 24 times atmospheric pressure), I started the glycol coolant pump and looked for tell-tale bubbles in the coolant that would indicate a serious internal leak or, worse still, a cracked block. To be honest there were a few bubbles to begin with, but they quickly disappeared.

One of the really big chances we took this year was to allow the engines to freeze without first draining the coolant. Everyone knows that water expands on freezing (a strange, anomalous property of water; were it not the case life probably could not have evolved on earth) and when it does so it bursts pipes, engines or whatever else it is contained in.

However ethylene glycol, like almost every other substance, shrinks on cooling. Ergo, the right mixture of glycol and water neither shrinks nor expands. Even better, it forms a strange kind of slush like ice-cream, which can benevolently deform to whatever new shape its container wishes to adopt.

Armed with this information, and a test sample of glycol/water that we put in our freezer at UNSW and then poked with a screwdriver just to be sure, we abandoned our elaborate plans for automatic coolant draining mechanisms, and left Sid and Nancy to fend for themselves. Now we'll find out if this was a chance worth taking. I'll leave Nancy overnight to allow the O-rings to settle in under pressure before attempting a start tomorrow.

Speaking of starts, the Station mechanics now have the snowmobiles beautifully tuned, with the result that they not only start every time but are also rather fast. As the track between that AASTINO and the Station is becoming more established and firm, it's possible to explore the handling limitations of the snowmobiles which, frankly, are severe. They have so much back-off oversteer that the main rule for staying upright is never, ever, attempt to slow down. There's a tricky cresting right-hander just as you've straightened up from Robert Hill (the hill that the AASTINO is on) which I still haven't quite got right, but hope to by the end of next week.

I have decide to donate my suitcase, DOG, to the cause of science and will pack the sodar electronics in it for shipping back to France. DOG is an extremely expensive top-brand suitcase that I thought would be the answer to all my jet-setting needs, but which has turned out to such a disaster that it is now used only for shipping stuff back and forth to Antarctica. Its deficiencies are manifest: although it has wheels, they are so small and close together that it instantly falls over when towed on any surface rougher than plate glass; it is absurdly heavy, and has handles positioned with no thought whatsoever for the layout of a standard human body; the catch mechanism is a mechanical nightmare that appears deliberately designed to first trap and then shred expensive pieces of clothing; and it has a combination lock which sounds like a good idea because you can never lose the key, except that I can never remember the secret number. (Actually it's 609. If I write it down here then next time I forget it I can look it up on the South Pole Diaries web page.)

The only good thing about DOG the suitcase is that it is so hopeless, and such a chunderous colour, that no-one else on the planet bought anything remotely like it and it is therefore instantly recognisable on baggage collection conveyor belts.

At 5pm local time the Rugby Grand Final started. Anna couldn't resist using the Iridium phone at half-time, then full-time, then extra time, in order to find out the score. It's just as well the Poms won or she would have been really depressed as well as broke (Iridium phone calls cost a fortune). I tried to look depressed at Australia's loss, as this is apparently what was expected of me, but in reality I can't quite connect with the game. Anna tried to explain the rules but I got lost after the bit where a pawn can only go forward two metres unless tackled by a bishop in which case the rook is allowed to attempt a conversion...

The evening finished with an excellent talk by Eric Fossat from the University of Nice on the life-cycle of stars like the sun, together with a description of the upcoming solar eclipse. The talk was entirely in French, but with plenty of slides plus Eric's animated delivery it was relatively easy to follow.


Friday, November 21, 2003

Here comes the sun

Today the weather was absolutely stunning, reaching up to almost -30 C at lunchtime. However, the wonderful thing was the complete lack of wind. In these conditions, with the sun beating down, it actually feels quite warm. It's possible to walk around outside without any head covering or gloves, just wearing a skivvy and jeans - at least for a few minutes - and to do simple tasks. However it's still best not to touch any metal surfaces with bare hands!

Arriving at the AASTINO mid-morning I found the temperature inside to be a rather uncomfortable +25C, and had to open the doors to let it cool down. It is amazing what a difference the wind makes. Dome C is remarkable in that, despite being the highest point for 1,000 km or so, it often has absolutely no wind. This of course is one of the things that makes it such a fabulous site for astronomy.

With the camping tent now standing proudly beside the AASTINO it was possible to bring across from my sleeping tent the suitcases that had caused such consternation at Qantas check-in last week, and to unpack the various goodies contained therein.

One such item was a "head magnifier", which I had bought at Jaycar Electronics just before leaving Sydney. Although the name implies that it might be something that gives you a swelled head, it is in fact a pair of magnifying spectacles that one can wear and thereby compensate for the ravages of time and dissipated living on one's eyesight. It's super for electronics work - a small connector is magnified to something the size of an office block, with the result that even I can see what I'm doing wrong.

In the morning Gerhard arrived accompanied by the Kaesbohrer bulldozer, a large sled and the various components of his precipitation monitor. He and two of the Station crew spent an hour or so setting up a level base for it, roughly 5 metres from the AASTINO.

Wiring up the precipitation monitor offered a great opportunity to bring out some of the weapons of MASS destruction that we have in the AASTINO. If George Bush knew about the angle grinders, percussion drills and high power machine tools we have here there'd be a cruise missile through the side of the AASTINO before you could say "Donald Rumsfeld". (It's just as well these email diary entries go out via Inmarsat, which of course the CIA never monitors. It is pure coincidence that Pine Gap is at the same longitude as the Inmarsat we are using. Really.)

(To our non-technical readers: I should apologise for the appalling pun in the previous paragraph. The MASS (multi-aperture scintillation sensor) is one of the instruments we'll be installing in January.)

On this case occasion I used a large hole-saw to rip into the AASTINO, and now Gerhard's instrument is fully wired up to our power system. He will use his own data acquisition system through the summer and when Jon, Tony and Colin arrive in January they will swap his instrument over to our Supervisor computer.

The real work today was done by Anna who, using some scripts supplied by Michael A., has been decoding the logfiles that tell us about the final hours of the AASTINO when it shut down in July. There are a lot of data to sift through, but it is already clear that a very complicated series of events unfolded. However, what precipitated the failure is still a mystery. We are finding that in the space of just 24 hours almost all of our systems failed, one by one. It is too much of a coincidence to imagine that these things all happened independently, yet it is hard so piece together a plausible causal chain. By the end of tomorrow, World Cup Rugby permitting, we should have some really good theories.

Today I was rostered to do the washing up, which is something we all take turns in here. Washing up after 35 people have made the most of Jean-Louis' five-course meals may not sound an attractive prospect, but in fact it is quite fun. Mainly you get to use the industrial strength dishwasher, and play with the high quality commercial cooking implements that are the envy of every amateur chef on the Station - myself included.

I forgot to mention that yesterday the Doctor and the Station Manager suddenly arrived announced at the AASTINO on a snowmobile. My immediate thought was that I had not sufficiently faked my answers on the psychological test we did a few days ago, and that I was about to be escorted to the crypt until an Twin Otter could take me to where I posed no further threat to the Station. However, it turned out they just wanted to take some photos of us, for publication in an article in a Rome magazine.

The camping tent is proving to very useful and, despite being completely unheated, is remarkably warm. By late afternoon today the temperature inside was +2 C. It is simply amazing how effective a basic, uninsulated camping tent is in this rarefied atmosphere, heated only by the one kilowatt per square meter that the sun provides. (Come to think of it, that's nearly 20 kW, so I suppose it's not surprising it gets quite cosy!)


Thursday, November 20, 2003

The tent

Today was over-shadowed by the sad news I received last night that one of my close relatives has fallen gravely ill. It's not that I could do anything about it anyway, but being isolated in Antarctica somehow makes one feel even more helpless. I hope my readers will forgive me if the next few diaries lack the usual levity. Yesterday's entry was written after I received the news, and on re-reading it I detect a note of bitterness that was perhaps unfairly directed at the manufacturer of our Iridium phone.

Partly as a result, today we had a rather slow day. We spent a lot of time reading emails, as messages are finally starting to get through from UNSW.

Today's weather is still extremely cold, but the wind has dropped considerably. Cue the tent. The tent is needed over summer to store things we need in the AASTINO but not right now. It will heat to perhaps -10 C in the sunshine, which doesn't sound very warm but which in fact will be a perfectly usable workspace.

The tent is already a legend within the UNSW Antarctic Group, as it took over three hours to put it up last summer. It's your basic camping tent with a sleeping area and a living area, and long flexible poles that hoop over the top and hold the whole thing upright. The instructions make it sound really simple, but then so does the Redhat Linux manual.

The first problem is that the elastic things that keep the folding rods properly together get frozen and stop being elastic, so the rods go everywhere like a chain of paperclips and stay that way. This can be overcome by assembling the poles inside the warm AASTINO and then rushing outside with them - a task rendered only slightly impossible by the fact that the poles are considerably longer than the AASTINO.

The second problem is that as soon as the tent starts to look like a tent it starts heading off across the plateau no matter how low the wind speed. (I'm not sure why it's necessary to assemble the tent before bolting it down, but that's what the instructions say. Failure to read the instructions properly last summer cost us dearly, so we're taking them very seriously this time.)

Finally the little pin things won't go into the end of the little rod-end things because the latter are all full of ice, largely as a result of the fact that you've been chasing the semi-assembled tent up and down across the snow for the past 30 minutes.

Anyway, we finally did get the tent assembled, and now it stands as a very useful and much admired structure alongside the AASTINO.

The sodar is continuing to chirp away merrily. Lying in my bed at night I can hear it quite clearly - it's reassuring to hear it working away collecting data that might someday make us all famous while I nod off to sleep.

We've decided to send the sodar electronics back to France to get it fixed properly and re-calibrated. It's going to be tough to get this done quickly enough for us to re-install it before the end of summer, and will require a pretty smooth air-freight operation.

After lunch I sought out the logistics manager and asked if I could borrow a set of weighing scales so that we could work out the best way ship the sodar electronics back to France. Unfortunately my French is pretty hopeless and my Italian non-existent so, despite lots of hand waving I remained unsure that he understood what I needed. So, although he enthusiastically agreed to find what was needed and bring it out to the AASTINO for us, I wasn't convinced that "it" might not turn out to be a statue of the Virgin Mary or a tin of jellied eels. Fortunately we met up later in the day in the workshop, and I was able to better describe what was needed. We ended up raiding the EPICA machine shop and coming away with the perfect instrument.

The sodar is now weighed, along with at least two putative shipping crates, and we leave it to the folks back at UNSW to decide what to do next.

At dinnertime Jean Louis brought the entire Station to a complete halt with his millefoglie, an exquisite pastry and vanilla desert. Normally dainty eaters were seen taking third helpings, while less restrained folk were practically having to be carried from the dining room on stretchers.

After dinner we did our usual email thing, and burned all of the year's data from the AASTINO onto a CD. This gives us a back-up in case we accidentally trash the Supervisor computer which, if I end up doing anything with it, is almost inevitable. In this context it is worth noting that my beloved Ding-dong crashed twice during the simple operation of burning the CD. Have I mentioned recently how much computers in general dislike me, and Windows in particular?


Wednesday, November 19, 2003


After breakfast this morning it was still only -44 C. To make matters worse, there is an unusually strong wind blowing for Dome C, around 8 metres/sec (30 km/hr). This equates to a "wind chill" factor of -74 C. Wind chill factors aren't actually terribly meaningful; but suffice to say today is a day when you'd die very quickly if you went outside without wearing every piece of clothing you could find. Pity really - I was hoping we'd be able to put our tent up today.

Worse still, we weren't able to find a snowmobile and so had to walk the kilometre or so to the AASTINO. (Actually, that wasn't so bad, it was walking back that was really tough.) After lunch we again walked out, but by the end of the day couldn't face another slog through the icy wind and flagged down a passing bus - actually a traverse vehicle on caterpillar tracks that was returning to the Station with the University of Nice folk.

I took apart the cigarette lighter adaptor that was meant to, but in the end didn't, power our Iridium phone last winter. I hope I can fix it before we leave, as it provides a convenient way for us to "power cycle" the phone. Exploring someone else's electronics design is often fun, but in this case the manufacturer had carefully ground the part numbers off every major component to prevent anyone from understanding the circuit. I can't say I was impressed. The phone manufacturer should be required to include a note to prospective purchasers: "Two dollars of the purchase price of this phone was spent having some moron grind the part numbers off the integrated circuits."

(Note to the phone manufacturer: Come on guys, who do you think you're kidding? There's only a handful of switching power supply controller chips that come in a 14-pin DIL package. Hard though it may be for you believe, we have no intention of reverse engineering your power supply and starting up a rival manufacturing plant in Antarctica. Save yourselves the trouble, will you. Frankly, it would be better if your engineers devoted their time to making a power supply that can hang together for more than few months, rather than thinking up ways of stopping me from fixing their mistakes.)

Apart from that, it was a good day. We got the sodar running again, this time putting some fuses in the power supply to help discourage it from self-immolation.

Anna found out all kinds of fascinating things about why our instrument didn't collect as much data as they should have, we ran up a staggering Iridium phone bill trying to get some information from UNSW we need (the email system here being a bit of a disaster), I spent half an hour talking to Richard Macey from the Sydney Morning Herald via Inmarsat about the upcoming eclipse (his phone bill, not mine), and we finished the day pretty exhausted.


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

And your bird can sing...

We started the day with a tour of Gerhard's precipitation monitor, which measures the amount of snow falling by shining a light beam through the air and looking at how much of the light is scattered. It's a very nicely made instrument from the Vaisala company in Finland. It has a second monitor that simply looks at how much snow falls on a flat surface a few cm square, the surface being heated to ensure the snow steadily sublimes. The flat surface is surrounded by sharp spikes to prevent birds from sitting on it, which presumably could lead to some pretty bizarre results - especially if they were emus.

If we can find a way to connect Gerhard's experiment to the AASTINO, he will be able to take data all winter long instead of just during the summer time when the station is open. This could finally resolve some interesting questions that still puzzle climate modellers: for example does the wintertime snow on the Antarctic plateau come in one or two big storms, or does it just fall lightly most of the time?

On the way back we dropped in at the EPICA ice-core drilling tent. The Dome C ice-core is an extraordinary undertaking, drilled straight down for 3,200 metres. Last year I greatly enjoyed talking to the various scientists about the amazing things you can learn from ice cores. The Dome C ice core preserves a record of the earth's climate, and much more, going back over the past 800,000 years or so. Today, the person who does the actual drilling, Laurent, was able to explain to us the technology that makes it all happen. The drill is really a brilliant piece of engineering, lowered the 3,200 metres at 1.5 metres/second and then manoeuvred with millimetre precision as it does the actually drilling. The drill shaft is filled with kerosene to prevent it collapsing in on itself, so the drill itself has to operate under enormous hydrostatic pressure.

Gerhard was also able to explain the work he does looking at crystal structure of the cores. Apparently when the earth's climate is colder, the ice forms smaller crystals than when it is warm. The reason for this is rather neat - when the earth is colder it is also drier, and hence dustier, and the tiny particles of dust in the air pin the crystal boundaries and prevent the crystals from growing larger. If I wasn't an astronomer I think I'd like to drill ice cores.

Just before lunch we switched on the sodar (acoustic radar) and were amazed to find that it worked perfectly. It even produced sensible-looking results, which is a good start for any instrument. The sodar works by sending out very loud pulses of sound, then listening for the incredibly faint echoes that come back from the turbulence in the air. In this way it can measure where the turbulence is located and how strong it is. If it is very close to the ground, then that is very good for astronomy because its effects can then be easily corrected for.

The sodar emits a series of musical notes that could be heard all over the Station. It's not an unpleasant noise, being rather reminiscent of a bird singing - hence the title of today's diary, borrowed from a Beatles song.

Our second science instrument, Summit, measures the transparency of the atmosphere at sub-millimetre wavelengths. At most locations on earth, water vapour in the earth's atmosphere renders the sky totally opaque to these waves. This is a shame, as they carry a lot of useful information about how the universe began, how galaxies formed, and other things that would make our lives more satisfying if only we knew the answer to them. The incredible dryness of the Antarctic atmosphere makes it the best place on earth for sub-millimetre astronomy; Summit will tell us just how good Dome C really is.

Summit gave some good results earlier this year, but has recently begun behaving rather strangely. In fact, we couldn't get any sense out of it at all this morning. This was sufficiently frustrating to inspire us to ring Jon L. back at UNSW on the Iridium phone. Jon was able to sort out a lot of our problems instantly, and we soon had Summit working like a champ. Unfortunately, Anna has discovered that there appears to have been some kind of a relationship breakdown between Summit and the Supervisor computer - something we will try to resolve tomorrow. Anna has also started exploring the log files that tell us everything the Supervisor did since we closed the door to the AASTINO last February, and is piecing together a plausible picture of what happened.

The email link to the outside world from Dome C continues to be rather tenuous, with the result that we don't yet have answers to many of the questions we've been firing back to the team at UNSW. To make matters worse, the School of Physics computer at UNSW collapsed in a big heap today, so we weren't even able to make contact via Iridium. If things don't improve tomorrow my next diary entry will continue the Beatles theme by being titled "No reply".

We're currently running everything in the AASTINO (except for the fan heaters) from the two solar panels. They're providing more than enough power to keep the batteries fully charged. Solar panels are just superb in Antarctica, and work even better here than they do in temperate climates. First, the solar cells are considerably more efficient when they are really cold. Second, there is a lot of reflection off the snow, so the panels receive a lot more light. Third, we're very high here and the atmosphere is extraordinarily clear, which of course lets even more sunlight through. With the sun in front of the panels we are getting nearly 400 watts (not bad for two 150 watt panels); even with the sun behind the panels we get around 75 watts!

Today I finally got rid of the cracked batteries and all the lead-contaminated paper towel. Yesterday I'd given everything that the battery acid had spilled on a good wash with Virgin Kiwi brand mineral water, which just happened to be on hand. I wrapped everything up in plastic bags, threw it onto the back of a snowmobile and carted it back to the Station. Disposing of the lead made me feel a lot better about working in the AASTINO - lead is right up there with cigarette smoke as a dangerous environmental pollutant.

Around about mid afternoon, Gerhard dropped in to talk about interfacing issues and software and power considerations for his precipitation monitor. We were immersed in conversation when I first smelled, then saw, smoke rising from the sodar. Smoke is not generally considered a good sign where electronic things are concerned, and is considered an even worse sign when those electronics are sitting on top of a fuel tank. (We sit a lot of things on the fuel tanks because there's not much space in the AASTINO that isn't fuel tanks. We do, however, try to choose things that are not known for spontaneously bursting into flames.)

Dashing across the room I unplugged the sodar, which stopped singing in mid-chirp like a bird that had just fallen out of its tree. It turned out that the smoke was coming from the sodar power supply that had been hastily assembled in January when the original sodar power supply blew up (see 2002 - 3 diaries). We're not having a lot of luck here. Amazingly, it was not an electronic component that had blown, but the circuit board itself had decided to burn. I've never seen this before...

Gerhard was very understanding but, as he left, I could see he was calculating just how far away he could place his precious instrument from the AASTINO and still be electrically connected to it.

We had our final group of visitors to the AASTINO in the late afternoon, when three of the Station crew turned up to check things out. Fortunately most of the smoke had dissipated by then. I gave them a good tour and Anna took a photo of Chiara, the most photogenic of the trio, with the web camera. The AASTINO is becoming a major tourist attraction at Dome C, and I expect that the Lonely Planet will soon have an appropriate entry for it.

Jean-Louis is now up to speed and is wowing everyone with his cooking. The sight of Jean Louis emerging from the kitchen, proudly bearing a tray of his latest creation and beaming with anticipation of the pleasure of his diners, is enough to stir even the most finicky appetite.


Monday, November 17, 2003

Forensic science

Today we got heaps done. Armed with some extremely helpful emails from the gang back at UNSW (and Michael A. who's in Boston right now), we launched a major assault on the Supervisor computer and started to extract some of its hidden secrets. We used Ding-dong, my Dell laptop computer, to make a direct connection to the Supervisor, and from there download all the relevant files. Anna has the remarkable ability to make computers do what she wants without having to threaten them with physical violence - I've watched her closely but I still have no idea how she does it.

We were also able to set up the Iridium phone so that the AASTINO can communicate directly with UNSW again. This is a big step forward because it allows remote monitoring and control over all the experiments.

Anna at Dome C. Image taken by the webcamWe got the web-camera going (actually I think it was working all along), and tested the wakey-wakey board that switches the Supervisor computer off and restarts it again if it steps out of line. So far, we're not finding much that's not in perfect working order.

Surprisingly, there is a good 240 mm of fuel in the tanks, which is plenty for the engines to have kept running. We'd thought there was a lot less when we first put a dipstick into the still cold tanks on Friday. However, on that occasion the dipstick hit what must have been frozen fuel at the bottom of the tank, leading to a false impression.

So, the story is starting to look like this. On July 1 the cigarette-lighter adaptor that powers the Iridium phone (OK, OK, it seemed like a good idea at the time...) ceased to function. Unable to contact UNSW (or anyone else, for the matter), the AASTINO went into autonomous mode and just kept on running by itself. Some time later, and we've yet to find out when, Nancy (the one still functioning Stirling engine) stopped, for reasons yet to be determined but probably not because of a shortage of fuel. A outside air temperature of -80C may have been a contributing factor. By now it was pitch dark 24 hours a day and so the solar panels weren't much use to anyone, but there were still 200 amp-hours of fully-charged batteries left, minus whatever was used by the Supervisor computer in trying to restart Nancy. The Supervisor would finally have given up on Nancy, and set about saving power by turning off everything it didn't need.

It seems that it then kept running until August 19, when it finally came to a halt. It should have restarted once the sun had risen again (ironically, that would have been around mid-August), but for some reason it didn't. So, when we arrived last week, the batteries were fully charged, everything was powered up, but nothing was actually taking data. We don't yet know why - maybe it was all just too cold. The next few days should reveal all.

Early in the morning the AASTINO received its second visitor for the season, Gerhard Krinner of the University Joseph Fourier in Grenoble. Gerhard is setting up an experiment to measure snow precipitation using some rather clever optical methods. He was very interested in the AASTINO as it offers a possible way for him to run his experiment through the winter. We just have to figure out how to wire him up in the next two weeks.

In today's very cold temperatures the snowmobiles are right at the limit of what they can cope with. The old black ones seem to manage best, although the one we had before lunch had a dodgy centrifugal clutch. When I tried to return to the station I found the clutch was permanently engaged and the only way to start it was to run alongside it and leap on when it fired, rather like a cowboy catching a horse in a B-grade Western.

Last summer a US team of atmospheric physicists led by Von Walden arrived with a yellow snowmobile that is very handsome but somewhat under-powered. The station mechanics immediately dismissed it as a toy, a snowmobile for "bambino". Von promptly christened it "Bambino", and the name has stuck. Unfortunately Bambino does not have a block heater, which means that when it is parked outside it cannot be plugged into station power and kept warm. It also has only one cylinder (the others have two), which roughly halves the probability of it starting on any given occasion. The station crew are working on modifications to it that I am sure will surprise and delight Von when he arrives later his month.

During lunch the station doctor button-holed us and asked if we'd mind filling out a psychological test. At first we thought he was joking - the chances of finding anyone in Antarctica who is completely sane are pretty remote. However, it turned out he was asking everyone to do the test as part of some study he was doing. I've actually never done a psych test before so it was rather fun. The first part asked the same question in 100 different ways; the second part wanted to know if I felt happy/sad/scared/confident/hopeless etc and the answer to most of it was yes, while the third part concentrated rather unnecessarily on some of my personal bodily functions. I guess if the Twin Otter arrives tomorrow with a load of straight-jackets we'll know we all failed.

The answer to "scared", by the way, has to be yes (well, a little, anyway). Fear is Nature's way of helping you to stay alive.

Meanwhile, it got down to -52 C again last night. It's hard to keep warm enough in the sleeping tent, even with the oil heater.


Sunday, November 16, 2003


Traditionally a day of rest, Sunday is observed at Dome C simply by things going a bit more slowly than usual. At 3 am the Twin Otter that had arrived yesterday decided to leave, and of course woke everyone up in the process. There are certain disadvantages associated with living next to an airport, especially when the taxi-way comes more or less up to your door.

We don't seem to be getting any emails at the moment; maybe the email system has frozen or perhaps everyone has just forgotten about us.

This morning we took our first guest on a guided tour of the AASTINO. Marianne is French electrician who is in charge of wiring up the power plant for the new Concordia Station. She has previously spent a winter at the French coastal station of Dumont d'Urville as a geotechnician, and is of the opinion that astronomers are a little bit crazy. (This impression seems to have been formed during her undergraduate days with Eric Fossat's group in Nice.) I fear her tour of the AASTINO did little to alter that view although, like everyone who knows something about power generation, she could not help but be impressed with our Stirling engines. The AASTINO was a toasty +5C when we arrived, and I took the opportunity to turn on the second fan heater so it will be very comfortable by this afternoon.

Lunch was prosciutto and melon, prawns and avocado, fish with tomato and herbs, and some excellent pesto. After lunch Anna and I headed out to the AASTINO to see what we could get working. We had an amazingly successful afternoon, which included logging on to the AASTINO's "supervisor" computer, getting the Iridium satellite link to work, and generally starting to explore the mystery of why the AASTINO stopped talking to us last July 1.

Although we've still got a lot to do, it appears that there was some kind of "event" on July 1 during which a lot of bad things happened. Despite this, much of the AASTINO seems to have kept running until August 19, at which point it just sort of lost track of time. Over the next few days we'll piece together the clues and reconstruct the fateful last days of the AASTINO.

With the Iridium phone working we were able to log on the computer at the University of NSW and send some email messages out directly. I noted with some alarm the volume of mail accumulating in my Inbox, but the link is too slow for me to look at it properly.

The AASTINO was so warm by late afternoon that we had to turn one of the heaters off. It's great to have a comfortable working environment. The Eurotherm temperature controller has now stopped saying "EEErr" and now says 18C or so, after I entered the magic password it had been waiting for. (The password is "2", by the way, just in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation.)

I have an acid burn on one of my fingertips which is not so much painful as annoying, especially as now, in retrospect, I can think of several better ways I could have determined whether the pool of liquid under the cracked batteries yesterday was battery acid than by just dipping my finger in it and seeing if it hurt.

The World Cup Rugby is attracting quite a bit of interest here. This morning I was congratulated on Australia's victory in the semi-finals so enthusiastically that one might have thought I had personally trained the entire team. In contrast there were a few long faces at dinner, as the French absorbed their semi-finals defeat at the hands of their traditional rivals in just about everything.

Today's Twin Otter brought in Jean-Louis, master chef extraordinaire. With his arrival the meals can be expected to change from the outstanding to the simply sublime.


Saturday, November 15, 2003

Glycol and other spills

The day dawned on a beautifully clear morning - not a cloud in the sky and just the smoke from the generators and oil heaters mixing to create a slight haze across the station. The temperature dropped to -52C last night; the coldest weather I have ever experienced. Anna was feeling a bit unwell (which is not unusual here for the first few days), so I headed out to the AASTINO on my own. I was pleased to find it at a moderate temperature inside of -6C; not exactly balmy but certainly warm enough that I could get to work. I took with me a walkie-talkie, and the radio room promised to contact me every 30 minutes to check everything was OK.

I began by reading through the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for ethylene glycol. It's not that it's a particularly nasty chemical, but I thought they might have some useful tips for cleaning it up. Indeed they did: "Use cautious judgement" was the advice proffered, and better advice is hard to imagine whatever the circumstances. The MSDS also helpfully suggested I keep the glycol "well away from children and pets" (OK, done that: the nearest example of either is several thousand kilometres away), and went on to recommend "Do not use in theatrical fogs". What do these people think we get up to down here? Toxic dose is about half a cup. Seems fair enough, and it's unlikely to kill in less than the 30 minutes that will elapse before the next radio room call comes in.

Armed with rubber gloves from the kitchen and a huge roll of paper towel, by lunchtime I had the AASTINO looking perfectly inhabitable. Although there's still a bit of glycol oozing out from under the batteries, I think it's clean enough now for us to have guests in. And the temperature is now up to -1.5C.

Anna was feeling much better after lunch, so we took a second fan-heater out to the AASTINO and continued cleaning up. Unfortunately the two big lead-acid batteries that supply back-up power to the computer had both split - one quite dramatically - and leaked out all their acid. Even more unfortunate was that the batteries were sitting on top of the aluminium fuel tanks, and the acid has left large corroded patches. It's not actually as bad as it sounds, but there's probably an engineering text book out there somewhere (called "How to design stuff right" or something similar) that says: "Do not sit lead-acid batteries on top of fuel tanks".

The final disaster was a squeeze bottle of what I assume was lubricating oil, which had somehow managed to empty itself over all our glues and solvents, while sitting perfectly upright and completely undamaged.

By now the temperature inside the AASTINO was above freezing, so we fired up the computer to see what would work and what wouldn't. Amazingly, it looks like the computer is fine and, now that the peripherals have thawed out, they're mostly working too. The circuit breaker to the Iridium phone has tripped - this could explain why it stopped talking to us, or could be another red herring. Tomorrow we'll do some serious trouble shooting.

The Eurotherm temperature controller, which is supposed to keep the AASTINO from getting too hot, is looking rather forlorn and has "EEErr" displayed on its screen. I assume it's some kind of error message but I can't find it in the manual - maybe it's the noise a temperature controller makes when it hits -85C and finds there's nothing it can do about it.

Meanwhile, Geanpiero has been searching the base for the past two days for our missing boxes which, according to Jon L., were to be taken away and stored at the end of the season. This afternoon Geanpiero finally admitted they were nowhere to be found and, not only that, he had no recollection of storing any boxes for us last season. It was at this stage that the slow and somewhat embarrassing realisation dawned on me: weren't there in fact four wooden boxes sitting right next to the AASTINO; boxes with snow drifts that we had admired and much photographed, and didn't these boxes have "AASTINO" written on them in large friendly letters - the one clue that we had given Geanpiero to guide him on his fruitless search? The human mind is extraordinary in its capacity to be fully aware of two ideas at once, and never see the connection between them no matter how obvious it is. Overpopulation and running out of natural resources are two other such concepts that come to mind.

We unscrewed the boxes (using the cordless screwdriver; having thawed out the batteries and charged them) and found them to contain everything we need, including the tent, the nitrogen cylinder for re-gassing the engines, and even the galvanised-iron garbage tin that sits outside the AASTINO and gives it a nice fifties retro feel.

By late afternoon things were in such good shape that we did a quick tour of the station on the snowmobile, swinging past our two remote instruments (COBBER and ICECAM) and noting them to be both satisfyingly free of ice. The temperature reached a maximum of only -40C today, so this was definitely a cold one.

Station life is very pleasant, with only 31 people here and no over-crowding. There will be no EPICA drilling this year. This is the major science project for the Station, but it has hit a bit of a snag. Apparently the drill (which, as can be imagined, is no ordinary drill but one that can bore straight down through over 3 kilometres of ice), was sealed in a container and shipped back to Belgium for refurbishment in time for the next season. However, when the still sealed container arrived in Belgium it was empty. No drill. Therefore, no drilling this year. One suspects space aliens again; they made off with all our resistors last year, and they're clearly getting bolder.


Friday, November 14, 2003

A day in the snow

Surviving the first night at altitude is always a physical challenge, so I was quite pleased this morning to wake up and find I was still alive.

I spend the early morning organising computers and things in the "Free-time Tent", and sent a couple of email messages out via Iridium (including yesterday's diary). Unfortunately the Free-time Tent has an aluminised roof through which the satellite signals cannot penetrate. Using Iridium therefore involves sticking the phone out the window with its antenna extended in the general direction of the satellites, while sitting inside typing.

Between the flakiness of the Iridium link, the sheer bloody-mindedness of Microsoft Windows and the inept interface software (which seems to have been written by a couple of poorly-briefed work experience students), this is an altogether frustrating experience. However, after about 90 minutes I was able to transfer a few kB in each direction - which included receiving some useful tips from Jon L as to where the boxes of stuff he stored here last winter might be located.

The remainder of the morning was spent organising email accounts, acquiring a walkie-talkie to use in the AASTINO, and making extra red blood cells to cope with the high altitude.

Later on we grabbed a snowmobile and headed out to the AASTINO. It was in great shape, with remarkably little snow accumulation despite its year of isolation. The wooden boxes, however, were rather more buried, but still nothing worse than a couple of weeks at South Pole would have created. Unfortunately, we could not get in. The previous residents had stuck both doors shut with Silastic - which probably seemed like a good idea at the time as the doors don't fit terribly well - but right at the moment posed something of an obstacle to further progress.

So, after lunch we returned with some serious house-breaking tools, including a steak knife which we kind of borrowed from the kitchen. We took lots of photos of the snow and then hacked away at the door seals. We worked on the "back" door (the one next to the engines, also known as the tradesman's entrance), because it seemed a bit less stuck than the front door and also because it was in the sun. (It's -40C here even at mid-day.)

Eventually our chiseling, prying and hacking succeeded, and we stepped inside. It was remarkably warm (-22; I'd brought along a little digital thermometer from Jaycar for precisely this purpose), as the sun warmed the shelter. First impressions were alarming - there was a large pool of glycol engine coolant on the floor, and the pink, sticky coolant was liberally sprayed around the wall behind the engines. At worst, the engines might have frozen and cracked their blocks, in which case the compressed gas inside them would have spewed coolant everywhere. I even convinced myself that the header tanks were empty by tapping on them. (This, however, turned out to be a false clue - the tanks in fact were half full but the glugginess of the cold glycol made the tapping test unreliable.)

In addition, one of the exhaust fans had dropped form the ceiling, and was hanging by its wires. One of the room-circulation fans had done likewise, with the result what the ceiling was festooned with fans, ducting and wires. None of this mattered much - these were all minor injuries that should not have contributed to the demise of the AASTINO.

In fact, everything else was looking pretty good. The display on the control panel told us the batteries were fully charged, and cheerful electronic displays and light-emitting diodes glowed from the instrument rack. The two big solar panels we installed last year were clearly working superbly. Once the AASTINO has warmed up we'll start sleuthing in earnest to find out why it stop transmitting messages to us, but for now it's good to see that there appears not to have been any kind of catastrophe.

Inside the AASTINO, Anna took lots of photos, and noted down the position of every switch and the reading on every display. This simple exercise was rendered a little challenging by the fact that all the pens were frozen, and we couldn't find any pencils to write with. Eventually I remembered that solder makes a passable substitute for a pencil (it is mostly lead, after all), and our process of documentation got underway. Using one of the cover strips that go over our cable trays as a dipstick, we found that both glycol header tanks were half full, and that about 85mm of fuel remained in the fuel tank.

Just before 7 pm we finally got the AASTINO wired into the station power again. The final impediment to warming the AASTINO came when I found that the fan-heater (which we stole from Michael Ashley's office last year) was so cold that the fan wouldn't turn. After a few minutes of prodding it with a screwdriver through the grill (kiddies - don't try this at home), it started to slowly groan its way around and, as it sucked warm air through itself, gradually whirl into life.

Tomorrow we should have a warm, if somewhat gooey AASTINO.


Thursday, November 13, 2003

Dome C in a day

Our research campaign for 2003 - 4 has now begun! This year, the University of New South Wales will be engaged in our most complex ogistical exercise yet, with two teams going to the South Pole and two to Concordia Station at Dome C.

I am part of the first Concordia team. Our job is to get in to the Station as early as possible in the season, find out why the AASTINO (our remote laboratory) is no longer transmitting messages to us, and fix it. (Or, if the problems are too serious, at least diagnose what's wrong so the next team can bring the right bits with them to fix it.) The other half of this team is Dr Anna Moore, an instrument scientist from the Anglo Australian Observatory. As well as being possessed of all the skills that the title "instrument scientist" implies, Anna is also talented in an area in which I am sadly deficient - the ability to communicate with computers in a meaningful way. Given the dominant position that computers have come to occupy in the AASTINO (ie, it won't work without one), my continuing poor relationship with software in any of its manifestations would otherwise pose a major impediment to the success of this expedition.

Our flight from Sydney to New Zealand yesterday was uneventful, although the Qantas check-in staff did baulk at the 74 kg of luggage I placed on their scales. In the end, after the usual explanations about going to Antarctica and having all kinds of stuff to carry (including 6,100 resistors to replace the ones the space aliens stole last year), I escaped with a relatively minor excess luggage charge.

I was actually somewhat late in checking-in, as I realised at the last moment that I had forgotten our full-colour multichannel Tektronix digital oscilloscope, and had to swing past the University to collect it. Leaving this behind would have been a disaster, as it is the only one of the three of us that is fluent in both French and Italian. (Admittedly its conversational repertoire is rather limited, but it also speaks about six other languages which means you can leave it set to Chinese when you want to annoy the next person who's going to use it.) Once we landed in Christchurch we took the bus in to Whispertech, the folks who make our very fine Stirling engines. (Regular readers of the Antarctic iaries will know that out two Stirling engines, Sid and Nancy, generate heat and power for our AASTINO throughout the inter.) At Whispertech we collected some spare evaporators, glow plugs and Flame Ionisation Detectors, which we'll need to service the engines. In addition, Whispertech kindly threw in a spare fuel pump and a couple of other components which I don't immediately recognise though I'm sure they'll fit somewhere.

We stayed last night in the Sudima Motel, which has the advantage of being within walking distance of the airport. Anna and I are kitted out in Australian Antarctic ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear which, although adequate for the job, compares rather unfavourably in appearance to the very stylish red and blue ski-suits of the French and Italians ith whom we'll travel to Dome C. Sadly, in our orange/yellow freezer suits we look a bit like workers in a meat-packing plant or, perhaps more topically, like prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay. We did get issued with some great parkas though, so once we get to Dome C we'll be better able to act as walking advertisements for the Australian fashion industry.

Our flight from Christchurch to Terra Nova Bay to the Antarctic coast was in a South African C-130 Hercules, operating under contract to the Italian Antarctic Program. Unlike the US and New Zealand Herculeses, this one has proper aircraft seating in forward-facing rows, complete with pull down tray-tables.

The pre-flight briefing was given by the South African load-master, who bore a passing resemblance to what Freddie Mercury might have looked like had he lived to middle age. He explained all the usual things about life jackets and oxygen bottles, and referred us to the card in our seat pockets that explained where the exits are. Despite the fact
that the card appeared to be from an entirely different aircraft, its very existence does mark a major step forward in the annals of Antarctic aviation.

The flight itself was fast (7 hours) and remarkably pleasant. We read, worked on our computers, and tried to identify edible items in our carry-on lunches. After a smooth landing on the sea-ice at Terra Nova Bay we taxied across to a small group of vehicles, finally coming to a halt in the usual flurry of snow that engulfed the whole aircraft as the
pilot engaged reverse pitch.

We spent only a couple of hours at Terra Nova Bay, just long enough to stretch our legs, take lots of photos, and raid the chocolate stash. Then we drove back down to the sea ice where not one but two Twin Otters waited to take us Dome C. There's about ten of us on this leg, and we'd all fit comfortably in a single plane if we hadn't also brought so much luggage with us. Flying to Dome C is always huge fun. Being unpresurized, the Twin Otter cannot fly too high without everyone being put on oxygen. So, from Terra Nova Bay you fly straight up to a cruising altitude of 10 - 12 thousand feet, cross the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, and then the watch the Plateau slowly rising up to meet you until you're skimming along at just a thousand feet or so above the snow.

We stopped half-way to Dome C to refuel at Mid-Point Charlie, an unremarkable spot whose sheer isolation underlines the vast emptiness of the Plateau.

Approaching Dome C to land I was secretly very relieved to see the shining green and gold AASTINO, sitting happily on its artificial hill next to the new station. One theory as to why it had stopped transmitting was that it had simply blown up, so at least we can now eliminate that possibility. Our total travel time from Christchurch to Dome C was just over 14 hours - a personal best for me and a delightfully smooth introduction to Antarctica for Anna.


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