Tuesday, February 03, 2004
This is my last day at Dome C. Tomorrow morning at 4am the plane will take me back to DDU, leaving more space in the AASTINO for Jon and Colin to finish the job in the two extra days that they have. The good news is that we are more or less done. There are still a few tests to be done but as a whole I think we have put together every new instrument and made all the upgrades we had scheduled to make. Yesterday we gave a good clean to the interior and I took down the tent that we used for storage. The SODAR is singing as it should, the MASS is tracking the star with acceptable accuracy for now and the AWS is already recording data. Structurally the AASTINO looks much better than last year, partly because of the shiny electronics and the new cable tray installed by Colin. I will be a bit sad to leave Simone behind. She will have a very lonely winter with the supervisor computer as single company.
This last day is not quite what I expected since I am scheduled to do the dishes today. Thank god we eat Crepes tonight. It will minimize the number of dishes and will also be a very enjoyable last meal. Packing up is also taking a lot of time. Since I leave with 7 other people, the washing machines are used continuously. I have to make sure I don't forget anything behind because there is no second chance after the station is closed down at the end of the week. Already the camp is half empty I think we must be about 25 people left (a good thing for the dishes). I think I will spend some time tonight taking some last pictures and footage as I am not sure to come back next year. It's funny how quickly you get used to this kind of trip.
I will have six days at DDU before the Astrolabe takes me back to Australia. I am not too worried about getting bored there. I brought a lot of work with me and when I get sick of working I will just need to walk outside and enjoy the panorama.
Sunday, February 01, 2004
The traverse arrived this morning, before I got up. It is the last of the season and what it carries I mainly for the following year. Amongst its cargo is an additional 2000l of jet fuel that the AASTINO will burn during the long and cold winter. Most of the traverse crew is the same as last time. I don't know how these guys can enjoy driving though the Antarctic continent continuously like that. I guess doing it once must have a certain feel of adventure but doing it 4 times per summer would be a bit much for me.
This time they brought with them two journalists. One from the French radio station "France Info" and the other from the TV station "FR3". As it became obvious that we were going to be interviewed, I made a long trip to the bathroom, fixing my hair that had become out of control over the past few days. It turned out to be a good idea as we were the first team of scientist they visited. Being the only French speaker, I got the honour of being the centre of attention, answering all the questions they asked me in front of the camera. Jon was also asked a couple of question that had to translate semi-simultaneously. It was the ideal occasion to advertise Antarctic astronomy, so the both of us had long and accurate answers to what were for us very predictable questions.
It is a tradition at Dome C for the scientist to give an oral presentation on Saturday night. As it was my turn, I decided it was a good time to pull out the DVD of the movies I made the two previous years at the South Pole and at Dome C. It was the first time someone used such media to make a presentation so the attendance was high, filling up completely the TV room of the station. I started the South Pole movie first as it was the first I made and the less impressive technically. I noticed a lot more reactions when I showed the Dome C film. I guess people were happy to see themselves in it or at east someone they knew. At the end I was asked for so many copies of it that I think it was well appreciated. The only problem with this is that the expectations will the high for next year's movie.
Friday, January 30, 2004
Two days fully orchestrated by work. Jon was working full time on the MASS, an exciting job consisting of making dots on our TFT monitor to track the motion of the star, a technique that I passed on to him after having learnt it from Eric. Our later character has finally crossed the line of sanity. He came in this morning with only half of this face shaved. I guess it would be a great time for him to make passport photos, showing simultaneously two versions of himself. Antarctica is the ideal place if you want to try a new hair cut. If it doesn't suits you there won't be too many people to complain about it. Thank god, Eric promised to shave the other half by the time we get to Hobart.
In the mean time Colin has developed a fixation for cable trays. I gave him a tour of the Concordia station still in construction. As we passed the storage room he noticed some cable trays lying in the ground. Thinking of how great they would look in the AASTINO, we asked the authorization to take to back with us. The next morning he had them installed on the ceiling of the building. Jon and I admitted that it did look very classy; every cable lined up and tied to the tray. It was so strongly attached to the structure of the building that they can even sustain my weight. It's a shame we don't have monkeys to hang them on. Inevitably, Colin asked me to go back to Concordia to negotiate more trays. I came back a few minutes later with a whole bunch of trays with different size and shape. The AASTINO has now cable trays on almost every wall, and if you look at the ceiling of the building it looks like a railway network.
My job has been to get a few of the scripts working and install ICECAM, a camera that will take pictures of the sky during the winter to see if there are any clouds. This instrument is battery powered and is independent from the AASTINO. It's kind of our plan B. If the AASTINO fails during the winter we will at least have its data to show that we are not complete failures. Of course, this is assuming that I can get Icecam to work. When I installed its hard-drive, it complained that the operating system was missing. This problem is unexpected as it was tested in Sydney before arriving at Dome C with Jon and Colin. My guess is that this is a hardware problem ( a dodgy connection) but even smashing the computer against the cable tray didn't help it work. Tomorrow I'll see if dropping it from the 30m tower helps.
Thursday, January 29, 2004
Today I was given a good change to evade the AASTINO for a couple of hours. In the morning, Joel, a glaciologist, requested my help to collect some ice sample 11km upwind from the station. Being something I never done before I quickly agreed and a few hours later, we were on a road trip to an unknown destination. It was also for me the opportunity to drive the flex-Mobil for the first time. This vehicle is like a caterpillar-mini-bus. It's bright red, big and instead of a steering wheel, it has this sort of joystick that reminded me of some video games I used to play when I was young. The flex-Mobil is renowned to be hard to drive but I quickly got the hang of it. I knew all these hours in front of my Nintendo would pay off one day.
So after a security check with the radio room, we drove south for about one hour. The landscape didn't change all that much except that for the first time I was going in totally uncharted waters. There were no traces on the ground and the sentiment of isolation became fully apparent. After the 11km I looked back but I couldn't see the station. 360 degrees around me was nothing but a flat desert of ice. Even the total lack of sound was impressive. I got the feeling that this was the closest feeling to being in space or on the moon. While I was standing there marveling, Joel was taking his gear out. The job was easy. We would dig a 1m deep hole from which he was going to collect samples every 2cm. After the hole was done he put on a white suit (to keep him from contaminating the samples) and carved out a section in the ice. My job was to pass him the test tubes and label them after he filled them up. It took about one hour to complete the job and as he was loading the samples and the tools in the truck, I took pictures and videos of the panorama. I was thinking of how cool it would be to come back here for a picnic. We made a final call to the radio room to say we were coming back and we drove back to the station.
This little tour was a lot of fun and I didn't even feel guilty leaving my two work mates alone in the AASTINO. I kept on telling myself that three is a crowd in our little building so I am sure they appreciated the extra space. As I walked back in the AASTINO, I found Colin glued as usual to the soldering iron, his head buried in the electronics and band-aids all over his fingers. John being the usual Antarctic hero that he is, was about to make a major breakthrough with the MASS. He made some final modification to the spatial parameters of the instruments and pointed it in the direction of the bright star Canopus. As it was our first pointing test we expected to see nothing by the sky through the ocular. Instead, Jon looked in the eye piece and made a loud noise of surprise when he saw the star sitting in the middle of the field of view. This is an amazing achievement considering that the instrument only sees a fraction of a degree in the sky and that we orientated it exclusively from geometrical measurements. To make sure that it was not simply luck, Jon pointed to another star and again it appeared right in the centre of our telescope. If this achievement does not deserve the Antarctic medal of merit, I don't know what does.
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Monday being Australia's national day, we decided with Jean-Louis's help to celebrate it on Sunday. We hoped to reiterate last year's Australia day which finished with 20 people filling our little tent and going through the bottle of Champagne we ordered from DDU. Weary from my late night I didn't even make it for lunch. It was a shame because I missed some salmon, kangaroo and crocodile. Jon and Colin did however enjoy it a lot, especially after cleaning the AASTINO for our afternoon guest. I gave the invitations during the regular Sunday meeting. The meeting takes place at 2pm and every group makes a report of the progress my made during the week. When it was my turn, I mentioned the pending arrival of our SODAR. Having received an email from Michael stating that the SODAR had arrived in Mc Murdo, I was expecting it to take another week to get to Dome C. Instead, I was stopped in the middle of my announcement by the manager of the station who corrected me by saying that the SODAR had arrived a day before and was patiently waiting to be picked up in the workshop. Completely surprised, I finished my report forgetting to invite everyone to visit the AASTINO in the afternoon. Thankfully, Jon raised his hand and fixed my mistake.
After the meeting was over, we jumped on a skidoo and drove back to the AASTINO in order to get some work done before the arrival of our guests. It was a real pleasure to work inside the AASTINO after the spring cleaning that was done earlier on. During that time we completed the automated weather system (AWS). Standing about 30m from the AASTINO, it consists of a 3m antenna, with wind, pressure, temperature and cloud sensors. Meteorology is an important par of our work and it is nice to measure these quantities along with the other experiments. So we got the AWS completely wired, and we quickly programmed a little script that automatically records the data. I would like to get a couple of days of data to compare with the station weather system in order to make sure that that what we measure is right. As we did this, people started to come into the AASTINO. I took care of the tour for the French speakers while Jon was doing the English translations for the others. Unlike last year, no one actually stayed very long. Instead of visiting and then pilling up in the tent, people came and went, probably put off by the fact that we had replaced the Champagne with beer. So it was not exactly the event we had the year before but it meant that we got a lot of work done instead.
Monday, January 26, 2004
We are back to full speed. Michael has replied and it magically made most of our problems disappear. I don't know what we would do without him. Honestly, how was I supposed to guess that to fix a corrupted compressed file all I had to do is type: "dd if=hdb BS=102983 skip=3"? To me, it makes just as much sense as a movie from David Lynch. The important thing is that everything now works and it makes a big difference to our confidence. Jon in particular needs all the positive energy he can get since we have been eating mushrooms at almost every meal. I don't know why he does not like them.
The major thing that happened today is the balloon launching marathon. As the coordinator, I am very happy that it went as planned. The idea is to launch a weather balloon every two hours to get a better idea of the daily variations of the temperature and wind speed through the atmosphere. We did the same thing exactly a year ago so we will even be able to do a comparison between the two years. So for the marathon we had a team of four players: Eric, represented France, Brad and Lance represented the US and I represented Australia. Being the party animal of the station (I wish.) Itook care of the three night flights. The first launch took place at 2am, the second at 4am and the last at 6am. Needless to say, no one saw me the following morning. I didn't really mind the first two but the last one made me regret my bed.
Speaking of bed, I should mention that I attempted to sleep in the DIMM shack a few nights ago. Since I work late and usually finish my night by a final check on the DIMM, I thought it would make sense to try to sleep there. There is a sort of bed in the shack and a pillow. So I aluminium taped the windows to get rid of parts of the light getting in (remember the
sun does not set yet) and laid down. Unfortunately, the temperature was not quite high enough so I didn't fully fell asleep. At about 9am (just when I was finally sleeping) the DIMM made a sound of complain asking me to re-centre the star. A bit grumpy, I restrained myself from kicking it and using it as a new skidoo trailer and complied with its demand. I decided to
go back to my tent to grab a couple of hours of sleep when Eric walked in the building a bit puzzled to see me up so early. I now fully appreciate my little bed in the tent.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
We are getting a bit worried. Three days ago we have encountered computer
problems which stop us from getting parts of our system working. We have
emailed Michael, our software guru who is the only one who can help us since
he designed the software architecture of our project. The problem is that he
is at the South Pole at the moment and we fear that he might not get our
emails. It does not create delays to our work yet, but we are getting very
close to the point where we won't be able to advance unless we can resolve
On a more positive note, we have received today two extra fuel tanks. They
are necessary if we want to make the AASTINO last all year long. Gianpierro
brought them on a forklift and lined them both next the AASTINO in such a
way that we can parallel them together to a fuel pump sitting inside the
building. When the two indoors tanks are filled up at the end of the season,
we will have a total of 4500 litres of jet fuel.
Life at Dome C continues as usual. Jon and Colin are obviously hooked on
baby-foot and they are slowly making some progress even if it is still a
piece of cake to beat them with eyes closed and with one hand. If I don't
see progress in the next few days, they will have to stay here all winter to
practice. The only difference in the station is this feeling that people are
on their way out. Some scientists are already starting to pack while the
station management is already asking us the weight of baggage we will be
taken back with us on the plane. The end of season is indeed drawing nigh
but when I think of all the jobs we still have to do it makes me wonder if
we will be able to finish it all.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
Work, work, work. I now miss the Antarctic coast. Now that we have all our
equipment, we have been working constantly, and it's not about to change
because the amount of work we need to do is plain scary. I am here for less
than two weeks and John and Colin are only staying a couple of days after I
go. In this last couple of days we have exchanged one of the generators,
replaced the electronics and computer, redone all the wiring in the building
and put together a part of the MASS. This last part was not as easy as
firstly thought. The MASS is essentially an indoor telescope than looks
through a glass window of the AASTINO and measures profiles of atmospheric
turbulence. All its parts are bolted to a big slab of aluminium, itself
attached to one of our fuel tanks for support. The problem is that in
Sydney, we designed it using the theorical size of the building. It was
meant to fit inside one of the panel of the AASTINO. When we tried to
install it, of course it didn't. There probably was a good minute of silence
when we realized it. Then the magic word was pronounced by one of us: Angle
This tool is Jon and my favorite because it is the one that can do the most
amount of damage and we didn't even get to use it last year. We made a quick
assessment and it became clear that the MASS would fit if we took off the
insulating foam that makes most of the thickness of the AASTINO. After
trying to find other alternatives, we came to the conclusion that it was
surgery or an early return to Sydney. So we decided to give it a shot right
after lunch. We thought it was better to act first and then explain it to
John back in Sydney instead of the other way around. If it didn't work, we
could always say that it was the dog's fault.
After lunch we grabbed a few garbage bags from the station and used them to
isolate the part of the AASTINO requiring surgery from the rest of the
building. It was obvious that it was going to be a messy job and that plenty
of fiber glass dust would end up covering everything including our sensitive
equipment. Being the most agile with my fingers (or rather being the
tallest.) I was given the task to perform the duty. Jon drew around the
section to be removed while I put on a mask and my goggles to protect me
from the dust. After making the first whole, we realized that it would be
easier with a jig saw so I changed tools and carried on. Jon filmed the
procedure while Colin assisted with the vacuum cleaner, minimizing the
amount of dust falling from the cavity. After 10 minutes of struggle,
leveling and cleaning, the AASTINO had two pretty holes on either sides of
one of its panel. We reinstalled the MASS that was perfectly fitting into
its new section. Of course there is now a small section less isolated from
the cold but since no wind can get in I don't think it will make a
Monday, January 19, 2004
The A team is now ready to work. The first lunch enjoyed by my two
companions was mainly made memorable by Colin's discovery of the ice cream
machine. Very enthusiastic of having free ice-cream any time he wants, he
armed himself with a bowl and a spoon even before the beginning of the lunch
and after making his mind on the coffee flavored one, pulled down the handle
and splattered liquid cream all over himself (just after he did his laundry
if my memory is right). This is what happens to newly arrived people who don
't ask permission! The bit of knowledge he didn't have was that the machine
was empty and turned off.
After this rather promising start, we got Colin working on the AASTINO's
circuitry, chaining him to the desk in case he got the idea to run and get
more ice-cream, while Jon reenacted the scene in Rambo where Stallone packs
himself with all the gears of destruction he can carry. The only exception
was that instead of knifes, he filled his belt with spanners and he replaced
the gun by a power drill (just as scary if you stand too close). His mission
(as read to him by the general) was to replace Sid by Jim. It was not a
story of puppet regime but an exchange of engine. If anyone can guess why we
chose the name Jim, please contact us and you will have the chance to win an
angle grinder and lots of coffee ice-cream.
Left in the middle, trying not to walk on a chip or a screwdriver, I took
the aluminium boxes I made for the batteries and equipped them with the
resistances and circuit boards that they had brought with them. It was a
satisfying job because I could do it sitting while Jon spent the day on his
back removing pipes and avoiding repeating with glycol Colin's adventure
with ice-cream. It is good to work with a team where everyone knows what
they are supposed to do and does it very well. Colin is very good at
electronics, Jon is very good at pluming and I am an excellent janitor. I am
saying that because I spent a big part of the afternoon cutting through
insulation foam and as you can expect made so much mess that I ended up
vacuuming the whole building, probably swallowing a few resistors and nuts
and the process.
On Sunday morning another event forced me out of bed early. In fact it was a
double event. At ten o'clock were scheduled two Twin-Otters. The first one
coming from DDU was carrying the final part of our instruments. This was
great timing considering we had done again everything we could have done
without it. The second one was coming from Casey, one of the Australian
bases on the coast of Antarctica. It was just stopping at Dome C to refuel
on its way to Mc Murdo. As I understood it, they were going there to see how
the Americans deal with the landing strips for large planes. Next year, the
Australian bases with be accessible from Hobart by plane and they probably
want to make sure this year that they will have a nice surface to land on.
The two planes arrived literally at the same time, landing one after the
other in front of a rather small crowed (Sunday morning.). We shook a few
hands, took a few pictures and stood in front of the cargo to see if our
boxes were there. As soon as we found them we took a skidoo with a trailer
and drove everything to the AASTINO. We then opened everything madly like I
it was Christmas (although it was the third arrival of cargo for me so it
felt more like the opening of a letter from the tax office). On our way back
we made the enormous mistake to let Colin drive the skidoo. With the three
of us sitting on this tiny vehicle made for two we often got close to tilt
it over and dive heads first in the snow.
Sunday, January 18, 2004
Hey, hey, it's Saturday! But it's not starting too well. There is a notice
in the TV room stating that due to Marisat problems, no emails can be
downloaded today. When I am in Sydney, I don't really mind a delay of email,
especially since 90% of them are asking me to buy a breast enlarging balm or
telling me that I can participate in a scam that will make me an overnight
millionaire. At Dome C however, I have become quickly dependant to this
source of communication with the outside world. I even get cranky if I don't
get at least one every twelve hours. Not being able to receive email is also
synonym of not receiving the news paper. Normally, at ten o'clock everyday,
the person in charge of the computer network downloads all the emails. At
the same time he goes on the internet to download news papers in French,
Italian and English. I always enjoy reading it after lunch. I usually eat
too much and it takes me half an hour to be able to anything more than crash
on a chair and read political or economical facts that don't really affect
anyone here at Dome C. The only down side is that the paper in English is
from Philadelphia (.there is no one from Philadelphia at Dome C.) and it's
really hard for me to find interest in the housing price in that city or in
the retirement of the city's football team coach.
Of course after dinner, my digestion time is just as long, if not more, so I
found a new source of entertainment to help me during this difficult time. I
found a chess board as well as a motivated opponent. We are both keen on
playing a game every evening. He's a very good player and my lack of
practice in the last couple of years mean that he already leads two games to
one. We even have the added difficulty of having the baby foot players
screaming a couple of meters away from us or people telling us what move to
do next (as if pros like us didn't know what we were doing..). I remember
playing a game of chess with Jon at a conference a few years ago and I think
he won. Maybe we'll play in the AASTINO while we get Colin to do all the
work for us. Now that I think about it, chess would be a good way to measure
the brain capacity of a person placed at high altitude. By playing a
statistically large number games against a computer both at sea level and at
Dome C, the ratios of game won would give us the proportion of brain power
we lose here. I think I'll write a proposal to the French polar institute to
carry out this test next year.
Friday, January 16, 2004
To some, the first night at Dome C is always the worse as it takes some time
for your body to build the extra red cells necessary to grab the few oxygen
molecules available in the air. Jon and Colin didn't have that problem
though and they are now working in the AASTINO so routinely that you'd think
they were born there. My day still being shifted by about six hours, I join
them late in the morning or early in the afternoon. After decorating the
interior with a poster advertising the natural goodness of kiwi fruit (take
a look at the AASTINO to see why this is funny), I joined the work by
modifying the battery heaters. Jon was buried deep in what he loves the
best: the plumbing system. I think I missed his chance to become a plumber
early in life and I would probably have to pay him to offer him a hand with
it. The truth is that this can only be a one man job considering how cramped
the space is around the engines. At the other end Colin was busy soldering
component onto a board. Colin being 19 years old is the youngest (ever?) of
the station. I used to hold this title before his arrival, but I am now so
far beyond that I won't mention that ever again. Despite his youth, he is
excellent at anything involving a circuit board. The first thing he did when
he walked in the AASTINO was to inspect the soldering iron and to ask me if
we had finer tips for it. I never asked myself this question before since
that at my old age my hands shake too much to care for the thickness of the
iron tip. I hope he doesn't faint when he'll see the soldering jobs I did
The only negative point since their arrival (despite the daytime temperature
dropping below -30C) is the fact that our new instrument, the MASS and the
new electronics are still stuck at DDU. They were not allowed to carry it on
the plane with them because of the weight of the guest who came with them
(not that they were overweight or anything). We therefore need to wait for
the next round of Twin-Otter fight that is scheduled to come back to Dome C
this week-end. It is not a great loss of time because they carried enough
with them to be busy until then but it's just the stress of the uncertainty
that will be with us until we see our equipment land and skidooed in front
of our door.
I still enjoy working late at night. Three people in the AASTINO is clearly
a maximum, especially since Jon is the messiest worker I know. This way Jon
and Colin get the morning time with more place to move around and we are
only all together in the afternoon for jobs that require us all. It's also
important that I stay up late because thanks to the new components that
arrived from Nice, Eric got the second telescope together. We have now two
telescopes working, the first one tracking the stars very accurately while
the second needs adjustments and therefore more attention throughout the
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
The A team arrived at 4pm. They came on a real diplomatic flight,
accompanied by 6 VIP guests of the Station. I had my video camera pointed at
the plane door as they all got out one by one. Jon and Colin were easy to
spot. Jon was wearing the same yellow suit he had last year and Colin had
one of the same orange color John Storey had last season. I guess I am the
only one of the group lucky enough to have been upgraded to black and green.
A lot of people had come to welcome the new comer, mainly because Mr. Jugy,
the director of the French polar institute was amongst the passengers along
with European guests of his. Their trip is very short as they have to go fly
back to Terra Nova the next morning at 7am. After a brief coffee break they
embarked in the tour of Concordia and the scientific experiments currently
operational. The AASTINO being part of their visit, I had two hours to show
Jon and Colin to their rooms (not too difficult since they are in my tent)
and Filled with hot coffee. We then drove to the AASTINO for a quick clean
up. I got Jon up to speed on the new things and Colin discovered the
installation for the first time. We fired up one of the engines which
started without problem. Eric, whose DIMM is also on the guests menu joined
Soon after, Carlo the station manager reconverted as a tour guide arrived
with the group of six. I was wondering if the total of 11 people would fit
inside but after a bit of pushing and layering the door finally shut.
Assuming that all the guests were French, I started the visit in that
language. After my first sentence I was informed that one person was German
and another one Dutch. I therefore started again in English to describe what
our goal was at Dome C, describing our instruments one by one. I then let
Jon, who was standing at the other end of the building next to the engine,
talk about our method of automatisation. Being the only group of scientist
capable of making winter measurements before the opening of the winter
station the two of us had plenty of questions to answer, the scientific ones
being directed to me while Jon was asked the technical ones. After this half
hour tour (which I am pretty sure impressed all our guests), Eric lead the
group to the DIMM located less than 100m from the AASTINO. I joined him in
case there was again too many questions for a single man to handle. We all
climbed up the tower (which we now know can support at least 8 people and
two telescopes) and they all took turn to look through the DIMM while we
described the experiments. We didn't stay on the tower as long as we did in
the AASTINO because of the obvious 50 degree temperature difference but
everyone was also very happy to be able to see the experiment working so
At 7 o'clock a gigantic aperitif was served in the free time tent with all
sorts of petits-fours prepared by Jean-Louis for the occasion. Mr. Jugy made
a short speech in French which was then translated in Italian by Carlo.
Chiara finally gave us the English version that had lost about half of its
original content after the multiple translations. The dinner, which to Jon's
horror started by mushroom soup, continued to my delight by a green pepper
sauce duck magret, a treat that I have difficulty find in Australia yet is
readily available at Dome C.
Monday, January 12, 2004
I got words that Jon and Colin's plane is delayed to the 14th. This kind of
doesn't suit me because I had organized my work to have everything done by
the day they'd arrive. What I am going to do until then? Write papers I
guess. It's not that I have nothing to do; in fact I have plenty of things
to write. The problem is that I feel guilty sitting on the computer. I can
do that anywhere but being here has something special to it and I feel like
I need to go and do something outside or build something. Maybe I should
have brought Lego. Even the DIMM is working extremely well and requires less
and less human intervention. Eric is in the same situation as me. He is
waiting for some parts from Nice to put together the second telescope. Guess
who is carrying these parts: Jon again. So we both wait for him like some
sort of Messiah. You probably wonder how come Jon got the spare parts from
Nice. It turns out that amongst the Astrolabe passengers was a geologist
from Nice. Eric's colleagues found out this information and gave him the
parts before he left Nice. He then gave them to Jon who will carry them to
Dome C on the plane. Simple isn't it?
I also found out that my Sodar will follow a similar faith. Being
recalibrated in Paris, its town of origin, the Sodar will come to Dome C
before the end of the season. It is flying tonight to Christchurch in
New-Zealand where it will wait three days for Michael to pick up and take it
with him to Mc Murdo, the American coastal base in Antarctica. It will then
transit through Terra-Nova before eventually reaching Dome C. This last part
of the trip is usually the most uncertain and I have frankly no idea of its
exact date of arrival.
Weather wise, the sky continues to be cloudless. It is a pleasure to walk
outside even if the daytime temperatures are now reaching -30C. It reminded
me the end of last year, launching balloons at -50C. I am kind of glad that
someone else is doing it this year. In fact most of my work apart from
setting up the weather tower is inside. Most of the time, I am in T-shirt,
track pants and tennis shoos. It's not quite what I was wearing last year or
what people expect to wear in Antarctica. Dome C does not have extreme wind
conditions is therefore very friendly to human and telescopes. If the club
med wanted to open an hotel in Antarctica, I am sure they would chose Dome
Thursday, January 08, 2004
I finished the weather tower. All the sensors are sitting very proudly on
its top and I have to say the ensemble looks very good. Painted yellow, it
stands out from the snow without crying too much for attention. I buried all
the cables that run between the sensors and the AASTINO where the power
originates. It's a shame I have to wait for Jon and Colin to be able to test
them. Amongst the 160kg of equipment they are carrying is the new power
distribution board, so I need to wait for its installation to dispense my
knowledge of the weather to the rest of the station. By the end of the
season, the AASTINO will measure so many parameters that it will be almost
worth making a data analysis screen saver and spread it around the internet
like the SETI program did a few years ago.
The DIMM is working overtime these days. Since the beginning of the year,
the weather has been great, with no clouds and very little wind. This is
good for the experiment because that means we can take data continuously for
as long as the sky is clear. It is also good for us because it means we don'
t have to wear as much clothing and therefore save a lot of time dressing
and undressing, an activity we have to do every time we get in and out of a
building. So at the moment I don't need to wear my wind proof overall that
requires me to take my shoos off when I need to go outside. The only
disappointment with the good weather is the disappearance of the sun dogs,
this atmospheric effect that reminds us we are in Antarctica.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
The days are getting more and more the same. I am now very comfortably
installed in the AASTINO. I uploaded all my music into Simone and she now
sings to me all day long while I work on the structure of the observatory.
My only time away from her is when I am outside to put the weather tower
together. When I say weather, I mean wind speed and direction, pressure,
temperature and cloud coverage. All the sensors will sit on top of the three
meter tower, far enough from the AASTINO not to feel the disturbance it make
on the air. I therefore spend a lot of time measuring and cutting electrical
cables that will link all the different pieces to the observatory. This part
of my day does not require my brain too much so I can't wait for the two
boys to arrive with the new instrument. Still hot from our lab in Sydney, it
will be a good challenge to install it and get it running.
The station population has increased lately. We were 44 last week but today
we have just reached 50, I don't know where all these extra people sleep. I
am in a six bed tent and only three of them are filled. I was expecting the
new arrivals to change that but apparently they found space for them
somewhere else. Mind you, I don't complain. It's nice to share a room with
only two people especially when they don't snore and go to bed before I do.
The DIMM also continues to work like a beauty. We even make it measure
physical quantities it is not supposed to measure. I noticed we come up with
interesting scientific ideas right after lunch. We sit in front of our
computers, Eric with his espresso and me with my lemon sorbet, and spend a
good hour stretching the laws of physics. Who knows maybe a month, 10 litres
of coffee and 50 litres of ice cream later we might propose a grand unified
theory or build a pair of telepods to teleport ourselves between Sydney and
Dome C. Enough dreaming, for now we are on schedule and waiting impatiently
for the next shipping duck magret.
Sunday, January 04, 2004
Today I decided to put on my plumbing hat. The ventilation of the AASTINO
need to be redone from scratch so I gathered all my fans and PVC pipes and
started axing them in several bits of several sizes. It was particularly fun
because weather wise, today was perfect. No wind whatsoever and a mild -22C.
Just before lunch, I was so hot from the sawing of the pipes that I took
most of my clothes off and finished the job outside in Jeans and T-shirt.
As part of my daily routine, I went to check on the DIMM to see if t was all
working fine, but when I tried to re-center the star into the telescope, the
whole thing went berserk and decided to slew in the opposite direction. It
happens sometime because the telescope mount is of German type, which means
that it has several orientations to point to the same position. So as
regularly as Windows 95 crashes, the mount decides to move both its axes at
180 degrees. It's fine in theory but in practice that means that we need
spend an hour finding the star again. The rescue was worth it because for
the rest of the day, we measured resolutions that would put to shame the
telescope sites in Hawaii and Chile.
After this problem was fixed I went back to my pipes, getting the old one
off the roof with Eric's help. By dinner time I started getting dizzy from
the glue and was glad to leave the AASTINO for a while. After this interlude
Eric and I went to launch another balloon as we normally do. This time I had
the bad surprise to find the rope of the pulley all the way up the 30 tower.
So I had the pleasure to run up and get it.
I think it's time to keep you up to date with the baby-foot tournament. It's
about halfway now. The ranking so far is as follow:
2.. F.C Roma.
3.. Olympic de Marseille
I think the Italians should be ashamed of themselves considering the only
two French teams entered in the tournament are in the top three (out of ten)
especially since they are playing on the Italian table and using Italian
rules. The French table which had suffered from the cold and was unplayable
had been fixed today. Thanks to whom? To the AASTINO of course! That's
right; the table mat was cracked so we ripped it out and replaced it with
some spare anti-static mat that we use on the desk and floor on the AASTINO
to avoid sending unwanted sparks into our electronics. Now people can play
baby foot safe from electrostatic shocks. Another great example of science
Saturday, January 03, 2004
Finally some activity! After a day and a half of spent unloading the
traverse, our temporary tenants drove back to DDU. We said goodbye just
after lunch and as soon as the last person stopped waving, I started the
hunt of Gianpierro, the man who would drive my boxes to the AASTINO and at
the same time, take the SUMMIT antenna down from the roof (I need to dust
the instrument). The chase lasted about 10 minutes; it was difficult to
track him down since he knows the station pretty well. Eventually I found
him hiding in the kitchen. Under threat, he agreed to take care of my demand
right after he finished unloading the Twin-Otter that was due at 2:30pm.
In the end it was Marco and Claudio who came and helped me. Gianpierro had
spilled jet fuel all over himself and preferred to go take a shower instead.
The job was done in half an hour. The SUMMIT is now waiting patiently in the
tent for the time of its surgical operation. Eric joined me for the opening
of the boxes. We brought inside most of the things that I could work on
immediately or that had a neat place to be stored in. We started installing
the spare computer. The first step was of course to give it a name. Eric
came up with an excellent idea: Simone. It's the title of a movie we saw on
New Year's Day. In this movie Simone (Simulation One) is a virtual actress a
producer is using to become famous. Obviously Simone's physical assets (and
acting?) conquer the audience and the film finishes on the usual happy
ending. So after we installed Simone and introduced her to the rest of the
network, Eric went back to the DIMM. Still in box mode, I decided to build
some heated aluminium boxes to protect the batteries from the cold. I was
not quite finished with them when Eric came to pick me up for dinner,
something my stomach has for the first time forgotten to warn me about. I'll
go back to the AASTINO after dinner. The inactivity of the last few days has
made me very eager to use my now atrophied hands.
Thursday, January 01, 2004
The day was short, very short. I opened my eyes to realize it was almost
1pm. I had five minutes to get ready before the big lunch. I was hoping I
wouldn't be the last one to show up in the dining room and be called a big
baby for sleeping so late. I ran in and found no one at the tables. I
stepped in the video room and found a few familiar faces, half asleep and
not to eager to go eating again. By 1:30pm, however, the majority of the
station gathered to their now accustomed seat and the meal started. The
enthusiasm had decreased ten fold, and the conversations around tables were
a lot more serious than the previous night. I guess it was a slow and
comfortable way to start the day. The lunch finished around 3:30 and the
rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing (if only we had a beach here). I
spent 15 minutes in the AASTINO to give myself a clear conscience. Nothing
new had happened during the night and the dreaded 2004 computer bug turned
out to be another turkey. I looked one more time inside the AASTINO thinking
that the next time I walk into it; it will be to do some major redecorating.
This certitude was due to the knowledge that the traverse coming from DDU
was schedule to arrive tonight at 9:30pm.
They were right on time. At 8:45, we could see them at the horizon, some
people got on a skidoo to go and greet them a few kilometers ahead. Watching
this caravan pass in the station is always an event. I guess events are so
rare here that a new marriage of Elisabeth Taylor would be considered as
one. Everyone got out of the tents to wave and photograph each of the six
trucks as they passed the free-time tent. The cargo was unhooked from the
trucks which then parked all perfectly line up. I recognized most of the
drivers as they were on the boat with me. There was one Australian driver
whom I didn't know, one Italian and five Frenchman from DDU. I was
disappointed to find out that they didn't carry any food with them. When
will we receive new bars of chocolate? Why not switching a drum of fuel for
a drum of jelly beans? I counted a total of 9 containers, plus the fuel.
Tomorrow I'll find my boxes in one of them and feel useful again.
Wednesday, December 31, 2003
Let's be realistic, the day only really started at 7pm. Soon we'd be in 2004
and I was trying to find some reference or a sign that would tell me we were
about to cross another year. For this kind of occasion, the mood here is
very different to anywhere else. In Sydney, we have the fireworks to tell us
it's New Year. At Dome C, it's a big party (very big) but I got the feeling
that it could have been for another reason and yet be the same thing. When
you cross midnight, it's still bright day light, white and no big clock to
show you the new date. But what the heck, it was an amazing party.
Just like Christmas, we started in the free-time tent for a two hour
aperitif. The only difference was that this time there was a lot more smoked
salmon on toast (one of my favorite). Everyone was still calm and probably
saving themselves for later in the evening. Again we moved to the dinning
room at around nine and it was then that it hit me. Today was my turn to do
the dishes. At Dome C the tenants take turns to clean the dishes. There is a
list and everyday two people are in charge of cleaning after each meal. It's
not that bad really, first because the two poor souls keep each other
company during the ordeal but also because the kitchen is equipped with a
professional dish washer. Lucky me found out when he arrived two weeks ago
that his turn fell on the 31st, but had done well in forgetting until today.
My companion was Brad, an American scientist I already knew from last year.
The meal started well, I jumped on the seat closest to the kitchen. This
time Jean Louis had set the tables individually. It was a better arrangement
than Christmas because we had more space to move around the dinning room.
The menu was great. Unlike Christmas, which was more centered on seafood, we
had this time a lot of meat like duck and Venison, a real treat for a
carnivorous like me. Every second dish, the plates got replaced and I had to
disappear in the kitchen to clean them in record time as there is not enough
to go around a second time. It was not so terrible as many people (actually
the girls) helped bringing the dirty dishes in and the clean ones out. Jean
Louis also kindly waited for us to be back to our seats before serving the
next dish so we enjoyed the meal as much as anyone else. At the table the
mood was very much like at Christmas, although the Italians having learnt
from their past mistakes waited for the main course before toasting at the
drop of a hat. Before dessert, the two cooks were honored by a speech from
the station manager. It was written as a poem on a scroll made of wood and
paper. Being in Italian, there was one reader and a translator. The reader
would read the paragraphs one by one punctuated by the laughs of the
Italians sometime even bringing a few to the floor. The poor Carlo had a lot
of difficulties translating them to French but it made it even funnier
watching him struggle and jesting like a typical Italian, sometime even
miming entire sentences.
After dinner we walked back to the free tent. Tens of bottles of Champagne
were opened simultaneously on the stroke of midnight and everyone kissed to
celebrate the start of a new year. Someone turned up the volume of the CD
player and the majority started dancing to the tune of the Blues Brothers
Soundtrack. I would I preferred the music from Pulp fiction, but I couldn't
be picky since I didn't bring any CD with me. The party was very intense,
this time the Italians who had better managed the night lasted as long as
the French side. I vaguely remember going to bed at around 4:30 while a
handful of people still argued whether the elephant was stronger than the
Happy New year everyone!
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Today was a big "déjà vu". Eric was supposed to run two telescopes this
summer but early in the season a chip blew up inside one of the controllers.
If you have been following last years adventures, you will know I am
referring to a very similar problem we had with the Sodar. Since there are
two of these chips per controller, Eric ordered 4 from Christchurch in
New-Zealand just to be safe. This morning a Twin-Otter came from Mc Murdo
with a small package for Eric. He opened the package but found one chip
only. Anywhere else in the world, you'd call the supplier who would rectify
the error within a day or two. In Antarctica, this kind of mistake is more
severely punished. Anything we need to send to Dome C unmanned has to go
though Christchurch (or is usually purchased there), then to Mc Murdo by a
C130. This first leg is the easiest because flights are frequent. Then from
Mc Murdo to Terra-Nova Bay and that can take a long time because not many
people need to go between the two bases. Finally, it leaves Terra-Nova for
Dome C with a flight every week or so.
Indeed Eric was disappointed and started to pray the gods of electronics
that only one chip was damaged and that the other ones would hold on for the
rest of the season. The resemblance to last year's events became even more
obvious when Jacomo, the station electrician came and help us testing the
circuits. After 5 hours of brainstorming it was concluded that only one chip
was damaged and was promptly replaced. Unfortunately, the encoder of one of
the motor didn't work either. Jacomo took it and hopefully will bring it
back to life. In the mean time we are still working with one telescope.
In the evening I had the pleasure to screen "the castle", one of the eight
classic Australian films I took with me. Being one of my favorite film, I
was wondering how it would be appreciated by foreigners. This movie is full
of Australian clichés. Not the clichés known overseas like the Kangaroos or
the Vegemite but rather the domestic ones, so it wasn't clear that it would
be funny for a non Australian. I gathered a few English speakers and
launched the movie. It was fully appreciated, everyone laughed every two
minutes. At the end some people tried on an Aussie accent and some asked me
if there was a version in English. It's good to spread some cultcha!
Monday, December 29, 2003
This is the time of the year where people take the chance to spend some time
with their family. It's not possible here, but the spirit is a bit similar.
The meals are longer and we spend more and more time in groups having
evening gatherings. The drink of choice is Champagne and there is plenty to
go around. I wonder if they have to dedicate a whole traverse for it every
year. Speaking of traverse, the next one which carries my equipment has been
delayed. They were supposed to arrive on the 31st initially but technical
problems have slowed them down and they now think of arriving on the 2nd. I
guess it doesn't make that much difference since it would have been
impossible to find someone willing to move my boxes to the AASTINO on New
Year's Day. I don't know if it's me stressing about my boxes or if it's the
Christmas spirit but I find everyone around me way too relaxed. I really
need something to get out of my daily routines. Maybe I should break one of
our instruments just to have something to repair and feel like Mc Giver
again. I can almost hear the aluminium tape calling me from its box. The
cable stripping tool wants to see the sun and the soldering iron is in
tears. Don't worry I am not going insane, it's almost dinner time and I must
be low on sugar. If you feel sorry for me nevertheless, you can send your
donations and broken instruments to the A.F.S., the Association of
Thursday, December 25, 2003
Christmas day started late fore everybody here. I got out of my tent at
11:15, while most people were still in it sleeping. I joined a couple of
people in the free tent who were sitting quietly. Five people only made it
to breakfast. At lunch time, the camp manager decided that enough people had
risen to start distributing the present. I guess he makes a good Santa Claus
being always dressed in red and with a beard of decent size. Everyone was
gathered in the TV room and called one after another to receive a t-shirt
from the IPEV (Eric was profoundly disappointed when he realized that they
only had XXL sizes) and a certificate stating we crossed the polar circle.
There was still a few people missing for this event and no one really cared
to wake them up for it.
The Christmas lunch was served at 1:30. As you can expect, it was another
nine course marathon. This time the Italians behaved remarkably. The
conversations around the table were of a slightly more serious nature and by
5pm we started exhausting the dessert: a 3m long Christmas log, a
traditional Christmas cake in France that is shaped like a tree log. We all
gave up at about 5:45 while about half a meter of cake was left untouched.
The rest of the evening was pure laziness. After all, digesting the quantity
of food we ate is an effort in itself. Some people took a nap, others like
me just collapsed in front of the TV to watch a movie I already forgot the
Have a Merry Christmas everyone!
Wednesday, December 24, 2003
This is my first Christmas at Dome C. I didn't know what to expect. A couple of days earlier a ply-wood tree was set outside, between the "free time" tent and the main building. They wrapped the tree with plastic bands (the type the police uses to limit access to a crime scene) and let a hose slowly sprinkle hot water over the tree. After 24 hours, enough water had condensed to form stalactites all over the tree, making it look like a proper pine tree covered with snow. A person even had a pair of boots below its branches. I don't know what's the point of doing that. Everybody knows Santa lives in the North Pole.
Most of the day behaved as usual. Eric and I tried that idea of attaching a weather sonde at the end of a pulley and dragged it to the top of the tower. It worked like a beauty. It is a bit hard on the heart to pull it back though since the pulley has a lot of friction. If I do this everyday, I should be able to run a marathon when I get back to Sydney. At seven, we went back to the free-time tent where a buffet of toast, mini-quiches and other appetizers was waiting for us. There was enough to feed 100 persons. Five tables were aligned for the occasion and no one was late to celebrate Christmas Eve. The 40 litres of punch didn't last an hour but we all went easy on the food anticipating for the dinner that was to come. At 8:30, Jean-Louis clapped his hand and invited us across the street for the meal. We obeyed instantly, continuing our conversations on our way to the dinner table. We found the mess filled with candles and sparkling decorations and all the tables left on the camp were assembled together forming an "E" big enough to fit everyone in the same room. The menu was displayed in front of each plate and I couldn't help noticing the dropping jaws of our American colleagues when they realized they had to sit here for the length of the nine course meal. It would take too long to enumerate every dish we bravely conquered but I can tell you that the Italian population of Dome C didn't wait for the second dish before starting singing and toasting. Louder than anyone was "Fantomas". Let me say a few words about this Character:
It took about five days for me to learn his real name, Aldo. Fantomas is a nickname he borrowed from an old French-Italian movie (a classic) where the lead character, Fantomas, is a high-tech thief who wears an emotionless latex mask and spends 90% of the movie escaping the police usingtransformable cars and fancy toys after stealing some unique jewelry or a large amount of cash (there has been several sequels). As any other gentleman thief, Fantomas never gets caught and the credits start rolling over to the tune of his satanic laugh. So why did he pick that name? Because Aldo is also a thief. He collects the stickers you can sometime find on fruits and vegetables. So to save himself the cost of a whole bag of oranges (which according to this logic must cost a fortune), he simply steals the sticker (that must take a very well organized plan.). He is officially ranked number 7 in the world for this type of collection with over 7,000 stickers and he will remind it to you if you dare bring up the topic. This peculiar habit and the fact that he's always loud and full of energy made him the perfect pick to be the mascot of Dome C. He's very friendly and you can't help smile when he enters the room.
So right at the beginning of the dinner, Fantomas started bursting into songs and other loud discussions in Italian that I didn't understand. After the second dish the Italian side already had downed a fair amount of bottles of white wine. The French side, nowhere near as loud and keen to see the remaining bottles last until the end of the meal decided that to calm this horde of Romans; they had to strike at the head. Two of them sneaked behind Fantomas, grabbed him and started kissing him on the lips. This was a horrible spectacle for all of us but especially for the Italians who quieted down for at least two and a half minutes. Fantomas was never quite the same after this.
By the time we reached dessert, a 3m long Christmas log, the French side which had better managed the length of the meal started their own songs and offering Cognac to the reluctant Italians who started to fall asleep on thetables. By 1 am, the brave Gallic village that had stood alone against the armies of Caesar made its way toward the free-time tent (with the three surviving Roman soldiers) to continue the celebration with some dancing. French Rock'n Roll not being my type of music, I was one of the first people to call it a day and made my way to bed at around 3am. It felt funny to walk outside to be blinded by the sun at this time of the night (I mean day.). That was a very entertaining Christmas and I am not about to forget this very special occasion.
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
I know I am getting lazy. Summarising three days in one journal is clearly not acceptable. My superiors in Sydney are probably starting to think that I have been sleeping the whole time. In fact it is quite the opposite. The bed is small, and the temperature in the tent is too low in the evening and too high in the morning. Part of the problem was fixed yesterday after the departure of Eric F. He was occupying the only long bed of the station that was built last year for a 2m giant who didn't come back this year. So as soon as Eric's plane took off, I rushed in my tent. Took all my stuff and claimed the bed. It felt good to sleep with my feet inside the blanket for once.
The big part of the day is starting to become a routine. This is why I thought that one journal would suffice to talk about the last three days. In the morning, I do my round in the AASTINO. Armed with my torch, I check that no one is hiding in a corner, waiting for me to turn around to steal the SODAR or worse hit me at the back of the head with the Iridium to strip me from my dear parka. Accessorily I check that all the instruments are working as they should. So far, they are behaving themselves. It is not really a surprise considering the effort we made last year to get the whole system fully automated. It is so self-sufficient that I expect it to start talking to me and propose to make me a cup of tea (hey, that's an idea for next year!).
Writing these lines, I realize that I have only been at Dome C for 6 days. It feels a lot longer because all the people around me are so familiar now. It's almost as if last summer and this one has been connected and everyone lives here permanently. It's always the same groups chatting together during the aperitif. The ambiance is great. Almost everyone has a nickname. I don't have one yet this year (no more Casimir, thank god), although I get called "L'Australien" sometime.
A baby-foot tournament has already started. I haven't entered the competition this time. I haven't even touched the table yet. I'll wait for Jon Lawrence to arrive before I play. I don't want him to say that I had more practice when I beat him next month. This year the tournament is a bit more elaborated than last year. Each team must choose the name of an existing French or Italian team (like Olympique de Marseille or A.C Milano). There is a preliminary round that follows the Italian Championship point system before entering the final ladder. I think it will take at least a month before they get to the quarter finals. The first game played yesterday gathered a big crowd. There were at least 15 people screaming to motivate their team. It's almost worth building a stadium around the table.
Sports wise, I am a bit disappointed that the scientist who brought a golf club last year is not back this time. I wanted to take a sand-wedge with me but I forgot at the last minute. Dome C is the perfect place for golf as long as you use pink or orange ball. The texture of the snow is just right and buildings like the AASTINO make great obstacles. I hope that Jon will think of bringing a club after he reads these words. After all he and Colin will only have to take about two or three hundred kilos of equipment with them, what difference does a golf club makes (especially if it's a titanium one). It's always the same story each year. We rush to get thing ready on
time and we forget the essentials like golf clubs, beach towels and glow in the dark stickers.
Going back to my story; after my check up of the AASTINO, I go through a few biscuits and I join Eric in his little lab next to the telescope tower. There, I eat some more and help him re-centre the star on the CCD. The DIMM is meant to track the star automatically, but the inexactitude of the pointing makes Canopus (that's the name of the star we are using) wonder around and sometime get out of the field of view. Then we sit there for a while, marveling about how low the numbers the DIMM is giving us (low is good!). We also analyse the data coming from the weather balloons. After looking at a few hundred flights, we noticed that the first 30m of the atmosphere were not properly sampled, partially because the sonde usually shakes a lot from the acceleration it is under right at the launch but also because the sonde needs to adjust its first few data points. We were wandering on how to fix this problem when a bulb lit above my head (it was
Eric switching the light one.). The solution was looking at me through the window. All we had to do is attach a sonde to a pulley at the top of the 30m tower next door and pull the sonde to the top. We could do it at any speed we want and sample these 30m many times by letting the sonde go up and down a couple of times. Tomorrow, we'll test this idea of genius. At an altitude of 3268m and at -30C this counts as an idea of genius; especially since there is no one to argue with me about this issue (Eric could, but since he' s as tall as John Storey I don't think he will.).
Saturday, December 20, 2003
Today was orchestrated by the construction of the second telescope tower. The DIMM sits on the first one, but a second one will be required next year hen up to four telescopes will be running simultaneously. The second tower is an exact copy of the first one and looks like the first level of the Eiffel tower. We borrowed four workers from Concordia to put this 5m beast on its feet. The construction was very reminiscent of last year's building of the AASTINO, with breaks every 20 minutes to get those fingers warmed up in the tent.
A bit before lunch I was called on the radio by the station manager to tell me that the power had tripped in the AASTINO. During summer, we use our solar panels to run the instruments and we borrow the station power for heating. I jumped on the bat-skidoo and discovered that the station power was not coming in. The electrician joined me a few minutes later and after a quick investigation came to the conclusion that a crane had strained a cable outside, uncovering the plug enough to create a short circuit in the ice. When I came back to the base, I was humorously blamed by Eric and the American team for the loss of their precious data. Since they are also wired to the station power, a short circuit in the AASTINO means that they also lose power. I had to put on a real legal case to prove my innocence. After all, I had the perfect alibi; I was not even in the AASTINO when it happened.
The tower was finished before dinner so the two Erics opened two bottle of Champagne to celebrate the completion. They came to Dome C with six bottles but the other four exploded. It's a good thing that human beings react less dramatically to the change of temperature and pressure. Speaking of human reaction, I forgot to mention that we have a dietician in the station this year. She is here to study the diet of people in extreme conditions. I hope she won't study me in particular. I don't think she would approve my daily intake: 90% fat, 50% sugar and the rest mainly pasta. I know it sounds bad, but when you think about it, it is not so different from the diet of a walrus (plus the sugar). I can add to my defense that I actually lose weight every time I go to Antarctica. Maybe I should start a weight loss company. Instead of providing my customers with equilibrated meals like the competition does, I will send them a month at Dome C to eat Jean-Louis's exquisite menu and still guarantee they a better figure.
After dinner, Richard, one of the American scientists, gave a great talk about the South Pole station. It was interesting for the station workers to see what the competition does a few hundreds of kilometers down the hill. Most of his slides were taken the year I went there, so I was glad to recognize a few familiar faces. His show was very well attended as most people going to Dome C have never been to the South Pole. At the end of the talk I was asked by Carlo, the station manager, to give a similar public talk one of the following weekend. I think I will run them through the financial plan of my weight loss company.
Friday, December 19, 2003
I slept like a baby. I am relieved that none of the 7 other occupants of my tents snore. The only imperfection is the length of my bed, I barely fit in it. I guess it's not a problem for anyone else since I am the tallest of the station, but I can tell you my feet don't enjoy being exposed like that. I got up at 8:00 which is too late for breakfast. Last year I don't think I made it to more than two breakfasts. I much prefer sleep an extra hour instead.
I went straight to the AASTINO and found everything working as it should. I noticed the large room fan that John had set up to keep me away from the two engines. He judged very well the height of my neck, I have to say. I was mainly surprised by how clean the building was. The last tenants obviously wanted their bond back. The only sign of decay I noticed was the antistatic mattress on top of the desk that was unglued at many spots. I found a brush and the appropriate glue right away and fixed this imperfection. John also left plenty of post-it notes everywhere. They were all very useful to get me up to date with my surrounding, with the exception of the one left in front of the fan that said "don't cross this line if the fan is on" which was reminiscent of the warnings like "do not swallow" that you can find on paint tins.
After a general check of the AASTINO, I went to visit my colleagues from Nice. Beside my work on the AASTINO, I am also at Dome C to help them with their own experiment: the DIMM.
A DIMM (Differential Image Motion Monitor) is a small telescope with two apertures that measures the loss of resolution due to the atmosphere. Eric A. and Eric F. arrived at Dome C at the same time as John. Eric A. will remain here until the end of the summer while Eric F. leaves next Tuesday. By then I should be fully capable to run the DIMM by myself. Their experiment is based 200m from the AASTINO, so it shouldn't be too hard to work on two things at once.
The third job I was meant to do this year was the daily weather balloon launch. This experiment also initiated by the University of Nice, has been joined by the University of Idaho last year. I was given the good news that I won't have to do the launches this year because our American colleagues brought a student to work exclusively on it. My only involvement will be the analysis of the data and a couple of launches during a day when we are planning to launch a balloon every two hours.
The morning was nice and sunny, however after lunch the all sky became covered by a thick layer of Sirius. I am not used to the place under these conditions. Last year we had two days of clouds at the most. The current weather is therefore unacceptable, and I will ask the station manager to organize a sun dance later tomorrow.
The day ended with the celebration of Eric's birthday. Jean-Louis had a massive black forest cake ready to be devastated for the occasion.
Monday, December 15, 2003
Hurray!!! That was the best day yet. The captain felt sorry for us so he gave us a day of vacation at DDU. We took the helicopter at 8am and let me tell you that there is nothing better on earth than flying only a few meters above the ice before spiraling down to the station. Being the only person amongst our group of six to have already been at DDU, I was given the leadership of our morning hick around the island. Our first destination was the wharf. I was curious to see it under the ice. Going down the walkway, we came across the usual nests of Adelie. It is still early in the summer so the fathers were still sitting on their eggs while the females were feasting in the ocean. Further down I pointed to the cliff where the white petrels had their nests. I was surprise to find even more than last year, you could see one under just about every rock. A few meters later we got a clear view at the wharf. It looked so different covered with all this ice and totally desert of activity. We walked off the land and on the ice after a quick inspection of the ice thickness (with a complicated instrument called the foot). It turned out to be the perfect spot for photos. Five seals were tanning where the Astrolabe normally anchors. I believe there were two females, their two young and a juvenal male. The females are huge during this season has they need to fast and feed their babies all summer long.
Still near the wharf, we saw our first colony of Emperor penguins. I didn’t see them last year apart from the last three babies who left the day we arrived. This time there was more of them than I could count. They are about twice the size of the Adelies, around a meter tall. They were organized in nurseries the young already as tall as their parents. We spent the rest of the morning just observing them still in awe in front of the unique and spectacular scenery. At lunch time I was glad to speak with last season’s winter-overs I met during the last trip. They had a lot to tell about the winter. One of them proposed to take our whole group on an afternoon tour. We walked out of the island on what would have been last year the middle of the ocean. We walked amongst icebergs, often touching them and our guide surprised us by taking us into a cave they found in September. It was a good hour walk from the station but truly worth it (a bit scary too maybe…). We got in through a very small opening about the size of my bum. Once inside we found the most remarkable gallery of ice crystals and stalactites. I spent at least half an hour trying to figure out how to photograph ice in total darkness using a digital camera and quite frankly I am still unsure of the answer.
After this show, we got back to the base and had dinner before being lifted back to the boat. We were all very tired from the long day of walk and all got to bed right away with a big smile on our faces
Sunday, December 14, 2003
Not much happened today. I spent all day working on my laptop computer and raid through the supply of chocolate. The helicopter pilot was, on the other hand, more busy than me. The cargo has started to be flown to DDU. One good news: my tan is starting to make me look like a ski instructor (did I mention my black parka?)
Saturday, December 13, 2003
This morning, the captain decided to try another direction. Yesterday’s effort didn’t get us very far, the ice bring quite thick. So after a recon flight, he found a breach a few kilometers down from where we were. We backtracked out of the ice and followed the ice shelf toward the west. We got to a location where the ice was nice and soft. We could even see the station in the horizon with a pair of binoculars. On the continent I could also see the traverse and the point called DC10 where I’ll be catching my plane in three days.
I spent all day doing what all the remaining passengers did, that is, following the ice breaking from the deck. Since this is all that went on today, let me give you the first lecture of icebreaking 101. With a small ship like the Astrolabe it is not possible to simply run right through the ice like a fat kid through ice cream. Instead, you have to drive through the ice until the ship comes to a complete stop. On average we were able to break about a boat’s length of ice per run. Then, you keep the propellers going in order to create a current behind the boat that flushes the broken ice away. If you don’t do this, the ice would accumulate right behind the boat leaving us eventually trapped. So after about 5 minutes of flushing, the ship backs up about 100 meters in order to get enough momentum for its next break. The method is of course very slow, we got told we traveled about half a mile today. At this pace, there is no way we’ll make it to the station but apparently, every meter gained is enough to save a lot of fuel to the helicopter when it will have to get all the cargo to the station.
Friday, December 12, 2003
Today was a lot of fun. We progressed 500m! The ice is now thick and our small vessel simply cannot handle it. We are officially 12 km from the station and yet we never felt so far from it. However, this situation made for an excellent day of sight seeing. We saw colonies of Emperor and Adelie penguins passing our boat all day long. They also have to traverse the ice shelf to go between their nests at DDU and the ocean. In fact, they like to hang around the boat, not only because they are in awe in front of my shinny parka but because the amount of ice broken by the Astrolabe is that much less for them to walk. You’d know what I mean if you saw them walking without crutches.
The day was also great to take photos. It was our first sunny day and all the passengers had a ball gazing to what was for most of them their first view of the Antarctic continent (that sentence makes me sound so senior…). After lunch, the captain decided to start taking some of the passengers to DDU by helicopter. It took about five trips but eventually all the technical staff we carried found a new home at the station. Unfortunately all the scientists and I are kept on the boat as our use at DDU does not justify the expensive trip. I also found out that my plane has been delayed to the 16th, another reason to keep me on board. It was decided that the boat would keep trying to get through, slowly breaking 200m of ice per hour. It might take a while but it is still cheaper than getting all the freight to the station by helicopter. In fact they are also using the "squirrel B-3" in recon missions to try to find a breach in the ice for the Astrolabe to pass or more easily break through.
At the end of the day, the remaining passengers were treated to a special dinner for the close-arrival of the Astrolabe to its destination. I now have a room all to myself. The only major catastrophe of the day was that my stash of candies ran out and I must now survive on the 500 boxes of tim-tam left on board until I touch the land.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
We’re still at sea! I know, we were supposed to arrive about 12 hours ago but it looks like we’ll be another day. Bad weather you say? In fact exactly the opposite, the last three days have been perfect. The sea looked like a lake; the captain couldn’t even believe it. My only disappointment is the grey sky. I have a great DV camera lent to me by the ABC channel (the A stands for Australian not American…) but nothing much to shoot so far.
So why aren’t we at DDU yet? Simply because this time there is a lot of ice to break through. In fact this is the first time I am actually excited since I got on that boat. Finally something new, something that wasn’t there last time. Last year, if you remember, the trip was picture perfect, not a cloud, Icebergs posing for us in every direction. This time, it’s a different experience. We have to slowly make our way into the ice shelf, maximum speed: 4 knots. So I finally got to see why we embarked on an icebreaker in the first place. What happens is simple. The boat slowly crawls on top of a big piece of ice until you see it break underneath the weight of my belly full for candies (and of the boat…). This would be long and tedious if the shelf was in one piece. Fortunately it is already well broken in and we mainly push our way around the ice. At the very least, it gives me the occasion to go out to try my black ensemble and film what starts to look like a real adventure.
I found out today that my plane is scheduled to leave DDU for Dome C on the 14th, so I should have almost 48 hours of fun on the island before getting busy.
Monday, December 08, 2003
Day three. You probably guessed the reason for gap between now and my last log. Not that the sea has been totally unforgiving, in fact it has been rather calm. Still, I felt much more comfortable sleeping most of the day while my body gets used to this motion. I haven’t missed a meal yet (I am not a sissy…) but I have noticed three people officially sea sick. So far it looks like a repeat of last year. I think I interrogated everyone on board and I am the only one on his way to Dome C. The rest of the passengers are mainly Dumont D’Urville (DDU) winter-overs and the usual bunch of scientist working on board. The only improvement this time is the renewed collection of DVD, about 30 of them. I have no doubts that we’ll go through them all by the time we arrive (We have seen about twelve so far). I guess there isn’t much to say yet. Obviously, there will be much more to say once at DDU.
Friday, December 05, 2003
It was good to be back in Hobart. Now a very familiar city, I flew down only one day before departing for to my third trip to Antarctica. I got straight to the Astrolabe to find out that we were leaving at 6am the next morning. That was just enough time to cancel my hotel reservation and run to the Australian Antarctic Division to receive my ECW gear (Extremely Cold Weather). This year I got much luckier than last time. I have to admit that I was not looking forward to the bright yellow suit I was expecting to be handed. Last year at Dome C, this overall got me nicknamed "Casimir" by several station workers. In France, Casimir is a TV character for kids, a bit like a Teletubie only much fatter. Luckily for my pride and for Australia's fashion, I received this time a dark green overall and a very slick black parka. It is the first one they received and they lent it to me for "testing" purposes. Anyway, the point is that this year, I will look more like Mulder and less than Casimir.
Once this was out of the way, I got back to the Astrolabe, checked that all the equipment we shipped earlier was there and went and buy the silicon I need to make the AASTINO for once and for all wind and bullet proof. On my way back I found Andrew parking his car in front of the boat. Andrew is a CSIRO scientist who we met last year on the Astrolabe. He worked in a container at the bottom of the ship, measuring several parameters of the Southern ocean like salinity and gas content. He won't be part of the trip this year (afraid of the Astrolabe??) but was making sure that everything was up and working for his colleague Emilie who was also on board last year and the only familiar face this year.
Andrew invited the both of us to have dinner at his place. It was a very special dinner, not only because he turns out to be a very good cook but also because I knew this was my last dinner before spending the next six day at sea. I took a last good look at a piece of grass and went back to the Astrolabe. I found myself in the same bed as last year. It is located on the lowest floor of the boat; next to the kitchen (maybe they don't like me...). I also packed a serious amount of sweets with me. In case the weather goes bad, I won't have to get up and will be able to survive on Mars bars and "Sour Snakes" and even if the weather is great it won't hurt...