Glossary of terms used by Australian Astronomers at the South Pole



John Storey, January 2000

Antarctica. Large continent (twice the land area of Australia), even further south than Tasmania. The high plateau of Antarctica is the best place on planet earth for infrared, millimetre and sub-millimetre astronomy. 

AASTO. Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory. Jointly owned by UNSW and the Australian National University, the AASTO is operated in Antarctica under a collaboration with CARA. Its purpose is to pioneer astronomy at remote sites on the Antarctic plateau by measuring the properties of the atmosphere over potential sites.

ADIMM. Antarctic Differential Image-Motion Monitor. An instrument built at ANU to measure the "seeing", or atmospheric-induced blurring of star images.

AFOS. Antarctic Fibre-Optic Spectrometer. One of several UNSW experiments in the AASTO, the AFOS will study UV an Visible starlight. It is mounted on ANU's G-mount.

AMANDA. Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array. A highly sophisticated (ie, expensive) experiment to detect elusive cosmic particles. It is being developed by a consortium of US and European institutions. AMANDA shares the MAPO building with CARA.

ANU. Australian National University. Located in Canberra, ANU is quite possibly the next best university in Australia after UNSW.

AST/RO. Antarctic Sub-millimetre Telescope / Remote Observatory. A sub-millimetre radiotelescope at the South Pole operated by CARA.

C130. The US military designation of the Lockheed Hercules transport plane.

CARA. The Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica. A Chicago-based centre with participants from several major US universities.

CCD. Charged-Coupled Device. Why it is called that need not concern us now, but basically it is the imaging "chip" inside a TV camera, digital camera and many kinds of scientific optical instruments (including the AFOS).

ChCh. Christchurch (abbreviation, pronounced "Cheech") Gorgeous little city in the South Island of New Zealand that serves as the jumping off point for US operations in Antarctica.

Cosmic Microwave Background. Left-over radiation from the beginning of the universe, or "Big Bang". (Not "Big Band", as I was quoted as saying in the Fox News interview. There are few serious astronomers today who believe that the universe began with Duke Ellington, though the theory still holds considerable sway in some jazz circles.) Studying the Cosmic Microwave Background is best done from space or from the South Pole.

CPU. Central Processor Unit. If computers actually "think", this is the bit they use to do it.

Dark Sector. South Pole station is divided into "sectors", which radiate out from the Pole itself. The dark sector is devoted to astronomy, and includes AMANDA, CARA and of course the AASTO.

DASI. Degree Angular Scale Interferometer. An experiment at the South Pole to study the Cosmic Microwave Background. Operated by CARA. 

DB9, DB15, DB25 etc. The connectors used by, amongst other things, RS232communication lines. In what is possibly the only rational thing about the RS232 "standard", the number actually refers to the number of pins on the connector.

Dome. Like most observatories, South Pole has a dome. However this is an dome in which people meet, eat and send emails. The dome also houses the communications centre, the doctor and other infrastructure. The telescopes, by the way, are a kilometre away in the "Dark Sector".

Dunny. (I guess I need to explain this to our overseas readers.) The room or building known variously around the world as the smallest room, the loo, the head, the john (not fond of that term myself), and, as a bizarrely inappropriate Americanism, the bathroom. Even astronomers need to use the dunny from time to time, especially if they have been drinking many litres of water per day to stave off high-altitude dehydration.

DV. A distinguished visitor. Usually a US Senator or other person perceived to be of substantial influence. Sometimes an eminent scientist.

ECW. Extreme Cold Weather. ECW clothing is issued in Christchurch and is very effective at making life at the South Pole not only possible but fun.

Ethernet. An elegant way of connecting computers (and other things) together so they can communicate with each other. Unfortunately, it is too power hungry for routine use by the micropower instruments of the AASTO.

FTS. Fourier Transform Spectrometer. An extraordinarily ingenious device that measures the spectrum of, for example, the atmosphere or stars. They tend to be used more for atmospheric science than astronomy, but most astronomers are aware of how they work and can derive great pleasure simply from thinking about what a neat idea they are.

G-mount. Generic Mount. An ANU designed and built telescope mounting that is "intrinsically winterised", that is, it can operate at temperatures down to -80 C without needing to heat any of its components. It is the first of its kind in the world. As well as carrying both the ADIMM and the AFOS, it serves as a prototype for future large, low-power Antarctic telescopes.

G-tower. A CARA built 7.5 metre high tower that carries the G-mount. Like the G-mount it is painted blue, but the two blues are sufficiently different and aesthetically incompatible to have excited comment from at least a few passers by. In CARA's defence it could be pointed out that they painted the G-tower first; ANU's best defence may be to draw attention to the difference between metric blue and imperial blue and to cite the Mars Pathfinder as an example of how things could've been worse.

Herc. Hercules (abbreviation.)

Hercules. Appropriately named 4-engined turboprop transport plane. Considered ugly by most who have not flown in one, they are adored by those who have for their incredible ruggedness and the sheer brutal grunt.

HF SSB High Frequency Single Side-Band. Standard means of world-wide point-to-point communication before satellites were invented, HF SSB is a particular kind of "shortwave radio". Not only does it make very efficient use of transmitter power and the available bandwidth, it has the added advantage that a slight adjustment to the receiver frequency will make the person speaking to you sound like Donald Duck, no matter how fierce and terrifying they are in real life.

Hypertat. South Pole sleeping quarters one step more comfortable than a Jamesway: it has rigid walls. Although it has no sound insulation between the compartments, it has a large and desperately noisy heater fan that helps drown out the snoring and other nocturnal activities of one's neighbours.

IP number. A unique identification number for computers and computer related things, rather like Australians have driving licence numbers and Americans have Social Security numbers. However a computer has the advantage that, with the agreement of the person in charge of the network, it can change its IP number and start a new life.

Iridium. A network of 66 low earth orbit satellites designed to give instantaneous world-wide telephone coverage to anyone with lots of money. Originally intended to have 77 satellites (hence the name: the atomic number of iridium is 77), it should now strictly speaking be called Dysprosium. Surprisingly, this suggestion of mine has not been taken up by the Iridium corporation.

JACARA. Joint Australian Centre for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica. A collaborative venture, principally between UNSW and ANU, to explore the potential of Antarctica for astronomy.

Jamesway. The standard "summertime" accommodation at the South Pole. Each Jamesway (there are several) consists of a semi-cylindrical tent divided into 12 separate sleeping compartments. Privacy is assured by separating the sleeping compartments from the centre aisle with hanging blankets with large holes in them and an acoustic transparency of 99.9%. Nevertheless the Jamesways are well insulated and are kept warm by a heater burning jet fuel. They are surprisingly comfortable, especially after a hard day's work.

LC130. A C130 with skis. Gets from McMurdo (on the coast) to the South Pole in 3 hours. If Robert Scott had had one of these, he'd have been laughing.

LIDAR. LIght Detection And Ranging. By analogy with a microwave radar, a light radar sends out a pulse of light and records the reflection from the atmosphere.

Mactown. Short (only just) for McMurdo.

MAPO. Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory. The main observatory building in the dark sector.

McMurdo. The southernmost port in the world, McMurdo is the staging point for the US Antarctic program. Travel between the South Pole and Christchurch usually requires at least an overnight stay in McMurdo. Opinion at the South Pole is divided on whether McMurdo is an exciting place surrounded by icebergs, penguins and seals, or "just another city".

MISM. Mid Infrared Sky Monitor. One of UNSW's AASTO instruments. Measures the brightness of the sky at mid infrared wavelengths (4 - 14 microns).

NISM. Near Infrared Sky Monitor. One of UNSW's AASTO instruments. Measures the brightness of the sky at the near infrared wavelength of 2.35 microns.

NSF. National Science Foundation. Wonderful US organisation without which none of our Antarctic research with the AASTO would be possible. 

poodle. The name given to my Macintosh Powerbook 2400; quite possibly one of the finest laptop computers ever devised (and, of course, dropped from Apple's product line as soon as this was realised).

RS232. A primitive means of communication between computers that dates back to the time of teletypes and horse-drawn carriages. Any two computers attempting to talk via this so-called "standard" can be guaranteed to have plugs with differing numbers of pins and of incompatible gender, be using a different kind of handshaking and baud rate, and be in complete disagreement about whether "carriage return" means what it says or something entirely different. Once you've sorted that out it still doesn't work and that's because you either used a null modem when you shouldn't have, or vice versa. It's usually simpler to take a photograph of what's on the screen of the first computer and then feed it into the second computer using a scanner.

Satellite. In its most general sense, an object in orbit around a planet. In the sense most commonly used at the South Pole (THE satellite), it refers to one of a very few once-geostationary satellites that have strayed sufficiently far from their orbits to be visible from the South Pole. (Strictly geostationary satellites cannot be seen from either Pole.) When the satellite is "up" (ie, above the horizon), internet and email communication with the Pole is possible. When it's not, the only communication with the outside world is via HF SSB radio or, for the first time this summer, by Iridium phone.

SODAR. SOnic raDAR. The SODAR, or acoustic radar, measures how high into the atmosphere the ground-related atmospheric turbulence extends. UNSW has a phased-array SODAR atop the AASTO. It has a highly directional beam that is very, very loud. Fortunately the beam is directed upwards; from beside the AASTO the sound is pleasantly reminiscent of a song bird.

South Pole. The geographic South Pole is the southern of the two points on the earth's surface through which the earth's rotational axis passes. For an observatory at the South Pole, any given star maintains a constant elevation (distance above the horizon) as the earth rotates. On most maps the South Pole is either left off altogether or stretched out to form the entire bottom edge of the map. On most blow-up plastic globes it is obscured by the manufacturer's logo and a sign that says "Made in China". None of these things applies to the real South Pole. There is also a magnetic South Pole, which is where you end up if you follow your compass, and a geomagnetic South Pole, Neither of these is anywhere near the geographic South Pole, although both are in or near Antarctica.

SPIREX. South Pole InfraRed EXplorer. A now defunct 60cm IR telscope at the South Pole. SPIREX was a collaboration between CARA, the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Ohio State University and UNSW.

Stepper Motor. An electromechanical device which is very simple in concept yet surprisingly complicated in detail. Failure to appreciate this has been one of the greatest sources of human misery since the invention of Lotto. Were it not for the fact that they are extraordinarily useful little devices I would have nothing to do with them.

Submillimeter tipper. Originally developed in a collaboration between Carnegie-Mellon University and the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, this particular tipper has been adapted by UNSW for deployment with the AASTO. Its purpose is to measure the brightness and transparency of the sky at submillimetre wavelengths, notably 350 microns.

Supervisor. All the UNSW instruments in the AASTO are controlled by the "Supervisor" computer. Communication between UNSW and the Supervisor is via the internet; communication between the Supervisor and the instruments is via RS 232. John does not like RS232.

TEG. Thermo-Electric Generator. In the best of all possible worlds the TEG would provide reliable electrical power for the AASTO instruments by cunningly converting heat from the combustion of propane directly into electricity. Unfortunately our TEG has a death wish, and erroneously assumes that its views are shared by our computers, instruments and other equipment in the AASTO, which it therefore attempts to wipe out, along with itself, at least once per year.

Telnet. Telnet is a universal (and free) computer program that enables any computer to talk to any other, even if neither of the owners of those computers has recently paid vast sums of money to Microsoft. "To telnet" is often the first step towards reading your mail on another computer, or controlling some of the functions of a remote computer.

UNSW. University of New South Wales. Not only is UNSW the best university in Australia, we also have more fun than anyone else. Located just a few kilometres from the famous Bondi beach, UNSW is the ideal place for both graduate and undergraduate studies in physics.

UTP. Unshielded Twisted Pair. The sort of wire you run ethernet signals down. For reasons I have never understood it cames in a variety of colours that range from ghastly to hideous.

VIPER. (Not an acronym - the team have a snake fetish) Another experiment at the South Pole to study the Cosmic Microwave Background. Operated by CARA.

Web camera. See The webcamera allows us to keep an eye on the AASTO during winter, and allows our loved ones to keep an eye on us during the summer.