John and I are scheduled to spend 2 weeks at the South Pole beginning Jan 26, as guests of CARA (the Center for Astronomical Research in Antarctica, based at Yerkes Observatory in the US). The reason for the trip is to install new equipment associated with the IRPS and microthermal experiments that were successfully operated at the Pole during 1994 by CARA scientist John Briggs. These experiments were installed by Michael Burton and Jamie Lloyd (an Honours student at UNSW at the time) during a trip to the Pole in February last year. Jamie is now employed by CARA as one of three scientists who are wintering-over at the Pole during 1995.
Our plans for this trip include:
In addition, we are carrying a state-of-the-art Sony Hi-8 video camera to record our exploits for a 27 minute documentary film being produced by the Audio-Visual Unit of UNSW.
OK, enough of the preliminary stuff.
It is the day before we leave for Christchurch and we are frantically trying to get all our equipment ready. Several crucial items are still being couriered to us. The couriers go on strike at 12pm, but alternative arrangements are made. Meanwhile, Eddie Lyon in the mechanical workshop is putting the finishing touches on the nitrogen filling wands. Two couplings that he needs arrive at 4pm, just in time to be silver-soldered to the wands. John is testing the assembly of the nitrogen fittings. I am testing the computer control of the solenoids. This sort of last-minute panic seems to be a feature of instrumentation work. By midnight we are satisfied that we have done our best, and we catch some sleep.
Up at 5:30 we finish packing and Michael Burton drives us to Sydney airport. There we panic some more since my airline ticket, that was supposed to be fed-exed from Colorado, hasn't arrived. No amount of faxing or phoning the people in Colorado helps, so I have to buy a new ticket. Meanwhile, John captures graphic footage of Michael and I sipping cappuchinos and shuttling between various airline service desks. John's enthusiasm for finding interesting camera angles is legendary, and we often catch the telltale glint of the lens from behind plants and airport furniture.
The flight to Christchurch is uneventful, although John is disturbed to find that only UHT milk is available for the in-flight coffee. Already we are experiencing some of the hardships and deprivations of previous Antarctic explorers such as Amundsen and Scott.
Upon arrival in New Zealand we are met by a representative of Antarctic Support Associates, who gives us orientation information. My hotel booking went astray but is easily fixed. I'm beginning to wonder if they will have a bunk allocated for me at the Pole ...
The current plan is for us to be kitted out with clothing on Monday, and to fly to McMurdo on Wednesday.
The afternoon is spent getting some last minute supplies (e.g., lip balm is apparently essential for the low humidity conditions at the Pole) and obtaining background video shots of Christchurch for the film. The Christchurch Botanical Gardens are spectacular, and John manages to film all but three of the 2000 ducks on the 5 km of river that snakes through the park.
With a day to kill before being kitted out with clothing, we hire some bikes and ride up to the ridge of hills to the south-east of Christchurch for some magnificent views. We discover that the roads are cunningly designed so that you can ride a 30 km loop returning to your starting point, and yet always be going up hill. The counter-rotating winds also ensure that you always have a headwind. We convince ourselves that our difficulties were due to various technological deficiencies in the bicycles, but the truth is that we just weren't fit enough...
Much exhausted, we spend the afternoon exploring the excellent Christchurch Museum, which has a particularly good Antarctic section. Later, we view our vide-taping efforts, and do more work on the IRPS software.
Alas, patient reader, these ``South Pole'' diaries have so far read more like a holiday in Christchurch. Hopefully there will be some interesting things to report during the next week.
STOP PRESS: it is now Monday 23 Jan, and we have just found out that we are on the 4am flight to McMurdo. Check in time is 12:45pm. The next message you receive will be from Antarctica (hopefully).
At 9am we attend a 20 minute video briefing on Antarctic safety, followed by being fitted with protective clothing. We receive about 20 kg of gear, including ``bunny boots'' - special air-insulated boots that have valves on them so that they can be de-pressurised when flying in aircraft. John and I videotape ourselves getting dressed, from almost nothing up to the complete kit, in simultaneous increments. This sequence looks quite amusing when viewed in fast-forward mode.
We learn that we are scheduled to depart at 4am the next morning, which is good news since it promises to maximise our time on the ice. Of course, these schedules often slip, sometimes due to mechanical problems with the aircraft, other times due to bad weather at McMurdo. It is even possible to fly half-way to McMurdo, only to have to turn back to Christchurch due to sudden changes in weather. There are horror stories of this happening 3 or even 5 times in a row. With luck this won't happen to us.
After viewing the excellent Antarctica exhibition at the Visitor's Centre, we make a bulk purchase of stuffed penguins for our respective families and headed back to Christchurch city to sample more of the local cuisine at the Dux de Luxe vegetarian restaurant. It appears that we are following a well-worn trail of previous Antarctic adventurers, as over half of the restaurant's clientele that night had either just come back from the ice, or were just about to go down.
Retiring to bed at 10pm we were alarmed to discover that the occupant of Room 16 (I was in 15, John in 17) had decided to spend the evening packaging his bicycle into a cardboard shipping container, using vast quantities of 120 decibel duct tape, while in Room 14 a person was experimenting with making repetitive mono-tonal sounds on a synthesiser. Sleep was therefore elusive, and at 12.15am we set off for the airport. Would we spend our next night in McMurdo? Only the new day would tell...
Upon arrival at the airport, we suited-up into our Antarctic gear and prepared our luggage for loading onto the aircraft. Ten other people were flying with us this morning: some were employees of Antarctic Support Associates, some were wintering-over, two Kiwis were destined for Scott Base, other people were scientists (`beakers' in Antarctic terminology) like ourselves. After a couple of hours waiting around, during which time Sam the working-dog checked us and our luggage for drugs on three occasions (the only time he hesitates is when sniffing John's suitcase - probably as a result of Ludwig, John's poodle), we board the Hercules C130 aircraft. We notice that this aircraft is not ski-equipped, which means that we will be landing on the ice runway about 20 km from McMurdo. Without skis the flight-time is shorter (7 as opposed to 8 hours) due to the reduced air drag.
The inside of the C-130 is very spartan: there is hydraulic plumbing everywhere, cargo lashed down to whatever those little things in the floor that you lash cargo down to are called, and military-style webbing seats for the passengers. The co-pilot cracks jokes about in-flight movies and frequent flyer miles and then leaves us for his spacious cockpit. Despite only having 12 passengers, the C-130 is full of cargo, and we are crammed in like krill.
When the engines start we reach for our ear-plugs to shut out the deafening noise. Then we realise that what we had heard were just the fuel pumps, the real engines are many times louder. Just when the noise level reaches a crescendo, another engine starts up, and so on until all four are humming furiously. The engine exhaust seems to be directly ducted to the ventilation system, resulting in tropical temperatures and a strong smell of Avgas. Eventually, the aircraft begins to rumble down the runway, the throttle is opened, and with a tremendous shuddering and vibration we lift into the sky. After fifteen minutes in the air the shuddering and vibration have continued unabated, and a couple of flight engineers appear with worried looks and poke at various mechanical sub-systems with a 1.5m-long aluminium rod. Ten minutes of poking later, with no improvement, the two shrug at each other and return to the palatial cockpit area.
I am writing this part of the diary on my HP palmtop computer. It is now 5 hours into the trip, and squinting out from one of the half-dozen tiny portholes we can see that the sea is 90% covered in ice.
After 6 hours flying-time we spot huge cliffs of ice on the horizon.
After 7 hours we begin our decent to the Pegasus runway, and 15 minutes later we touch down at latitude -78 degrees. Scrambling from the airplane and turning right (left leads into the propellers, as a sign above the hatch indicates), we are dazzled by the brightness of the Antarctic scenery and the bitter cold of the air. Actually, it was one of the warmest, calmest, days that McMurdo has had recently, but it sure feels cold to us Sydney-siders. The temperature was probably only -5C, although this is just a guess. The drive into McMurdo-proper takes another half-hour, passing New Zealand's Scott Base on the way.
McMurdo is a sprawling collection of buildings built over many years. In some respects it resembles a mining town. It hums with the sound of fork-lifts and bull-dozers, and a ship being unloaded from the port. There are about 1100 people living here at present - that number will dwindle to 144 by February 23 when the last plane takes the remaining summer workers out.
John and I were assigned a room in the ``Hotel California''. We have a filling lunch at the canteen and settle in to our room. John hangs his Antarctic parka up on a wire coathanger, and the parka and coathanger promptly drop to the floor as the hook on the top of the coathanger straightens out under the weight of the parka.
A climb up nearby Observation Hill gives us a panoramic view of McMurdo and its vicinity. The country around McMurdo is very hilly and picturesque, rising towards Mt Erebus, the upper reaches of which were obscured by clouds. We are impressed by the fact that only 10 hours earlier we were in Christchurch, and, despite the earlier description of the flight down, we both feel better than after an economy-class ride in a 747 from Sydney to Los Angeles.
In the afternoon we learn from the flight manifest that we have been allocated seats on tomorrow's Pole trip at 3pm, one day earlier than originally planned. If we can sort out the communication issues, John will be interviewed at the Pole by Andrew Olle on Sydney radio station 2BL on Australia Day, January 26.
It is now 9pm (sorry about the continual changes in tense, it all depends on when I write the entries), and the sun has hardly varied in altitude since we landed. I am going to try to send this message off via the internet connection in the Crary Science Center down the road. Next installment from the South Pole?
Our plane is scheduled to leave for the Pole at 6:30pm, leaving the whole day for us to explore McMurdo. John and I are particularly interested in seeing the generators and water desalination plant, so we ask at The Chalet (the administrative headquarters of McMurdo) for advice. We are lucky to meet up with Lynn Simarski, a public relations manager employed by the NSF, who was due to get a guided tour of the station from Al Martin, the station manager. We tagged along.
First port of call was a satellite groundstation in a geodesic radome on a hill over-looking the town. The fully-steerable dish is 10m in diameter, with simultaneous X and S-band capability. The radome is about 30m in diameter, and consisted of aluminium triangles supporting a kevlar shell - able to withstand winds of over 120 knots. The dish, mounting, and control room are extremely impressive. A state-of-the-art HP workstation controls everything - a few clicks of a mouse are all that is necessary to set up a schedule to acquire and track satellites and record the data to AMPEX cartridges with 100 Gbytes storage capacity. As we watch, they track the COBE satellite, which is now apparently not being used for its original purpose of mapping the cosmic microwave background.
On the way back down from the radome we stop at the huge Vehicle Maintenance Facility - boasting the capability of performing any repair that a Caterpillar shop could do back-in-the-states. The smell of lathe cutting oil and freshly made popcorn fills the air. Half-a-dozen vehicles and engines are in various stages of repair. They take environmental considerations very seriously here, as they do everywhere in McMurdo - for example, glycol from radiators is recycled, and used oil-filters are crushed and have the oil removed from them. All waste (`retrograde' in the local terminology) is sorted and sent back-to-the-states. In fact, the incoming ship will take out more weight as retrograde than it brought in as cargo and fuel.
Then it was off to view the five large electricity generators, total capacity 3 MW. Mechanics keep a continuous eye on the machines, and rebuild them every 20,000 hours. The engines run on JP-8, a hybrid fuel able to be used by diesel engines and aircraft, thus reducing the need to store two different types of fuel.
Right next to the generator building is the water desalination plant. Salt water is drawn from the Ross Sea (just 100m from the plant), filtered, heated to above the freezing point of pure water, and then pressurised to 9,000psi prior to being injected into the reverse osmosis tubes. These tubes are 20cm in diameter, about 8m long, and consist of 20 or so spirals of a special membrane. Pure water comes out one end and concentrated brine comes out the other. The brine is used by tankers which wet down the roads in order to reduce dust.
Just four of the reverse osmosis tubes are sufficient to produce 80,000 gallons of water a day, which is more than enough for the needs of the base.
After lunch we visit the aquarium. This is basically a lab for marine biologists to study the extraordinary variety of life in the waters just off McMurdo. There are a dozen tanks filled with fish of various sizes (including two cod that are 1m long) and octopuses, star-fish, feathery things, blobs with vents and tentacles, and so on (can you tell that I'm not a marine biologist?).
Next stop is the hydroponics building - a small (10m x 10m) building crammed with lettuces, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and a other plants, all illuminated by powerful artificial-sun lamps. This place is a favourite for winter-overers who may have become a bit depressed with the cold and dark of the base in mid-winter: a couple of hours a day in with the plants is said to do wonders for morale.
We picked up the key to Discovery Hut at McMurdo's TV station. Discovery Hut was built by Scott sometime around 1909. It is a few hundred metres from the edge of McMurdo, and well worth a visit if you happen to be down this way. One of Scott's companions slipped from the nearby cliff and slid into the icy waters of Ross Sea, never to be seen again. A cross commemorates this event. The hut was used for several seasons, and people actually wintered-over in it. We certainly have it easy now.
By now we have seen most of the high-points of the station, and thank Al Martin for the generous donation of his time and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the base.
Returning to the Crary Science Center for some Internet activity, we find ourselves sitting at neighbouring computers, both logged into our computer in Sydney. I am surprised to get an e-mail message from John. This is yet more evidence that John is gradually disappearing into cyberspace, and I'm worried about him. I've heard it said that people at the South Pole may be in the same room, logged into computers at their home institutions, and then use the Internet ``talk'' facility to communicate.
I should mention that John has been exceedingly diligent with the video recording. We should have a very interesting record of our activities.
Dinner is at 5pm. Afterwards we pack our bags and meet at Building 140 for the trip to the airport at 6:30pm.
Geodetic South Pole: this is the point at which the axis of the Earth pierces the ice. It is moving by 10m a year due to the ice sheet moving with respect to the rocks far below.
Ceremonial South Pole: a few hundred metres from the Geodetic pole, this is the one with the glass sphere and flags that you see in photos.
Geomagnetic Pole: a couple of thousand km from the South Pole, this is the point at which a dipole best approximating the earth's magnetic field would pierce the ground.
Magnetic Pole: a thousand km from the Geomagnetic Pole, this is the point at which a compass would point straight down.
The LC-130 lands very smoothly on its skis on the prepared skiway. The rear cargo door is opened while we are taxiing along, and impressive snow flurries are stirred up by the propellers. The cargo area (where we are sitting) is now very cold, and we are grateful for our special Antarctic clothing.
Upon disembarking, the cold hits like a sledgehammer. The water vapour in my nostrils freezes immediately. It is -37C, and the windchill puts the physiological temperature at -51C. The altitude of the Pole is 9,500ft, but centrifugal and temperature effects reduce the pressure to the equivalent of between 10,500 and 12,500ft depending on the weather. At this altitude the oxygen content of the air is only 69% of that at sea level, and any exertion will quickly tire you.
The horizon is dead flat - the ground is blindingly white, the sky is deep blue and cloudless, there is a gentle wind of about 8 knots. Nothing, not even the weekend in Christchurch, could have prepared us for the sense of complete isolation from the rest of the world. There are no inhabited places for over 1000km in any direction.
Luckily we only have to drag our bags a hundred metres to the protection of the dome (which is unheated, but blocks the wind), and then the warmth of the galley.
We learn that a Norwegian woman skied into the Pole a few weeks ago. She travelled about 1200km by herself, carrying 90kg in supplies, and made it to the Pole in 55 days with no airdrops of food. If she had needed rescuing she could have radioed for help from ANI (a company that specialises in Antarctic adventures), but it would have cost her $1 million.
Unexpected visitors to the Pole are treated very well, despite what you hear.
Our first priority is to establish satellite contact with Sydney for Andrew Olle's interview with John. We are lucky to have a newly acquired satellite available, and the Comms people are very helpful in setting up the call. We have missed our original contact time of 7:15am (Sydney time, 2 hours behind the Pole), but manage to make contact at 8:45am. At 8:57 Andrew introduces us as the two southernmost Australians, and John has a 2 minute interview up until news time. I'm not sure what the audience numbers are, but it could be as high as 100,000. This should be very useful publicity.
After the interview we settle in quickly, have something to eat, explore our living quarters (hemi-cylindrical canvas structures called Jamesways, about 500m from the dome), drink lots of water (to combat the effects of the altitude and extremely low humidity), and make contact with Bob Pernic, Bob Loewenstein, Jamie Lloyd, and various other of our CARA colleagues that are down here.
John visits the Pomerantz Building (where our experiment is) and makes good progress on locating our cargo and doing some preliminary organisation of the workspace. I'm feeling slightly unsteady on my legs so I catch a couple of hours sleep before dinner at 5:30pm, and a waste-management meeting at 7:15pm (they take this issue very seriously here - all waste is separated into about 20 categories and shipped back-to-the-states for recycling or landfill).
I'm going to stop today's entry here (at 11:00pm), and try to get this out to you'all via the satellite that has just risen. Then its time for some sleep...
Michael Ashley (with contributions, as always, from John Storey)
At midnight I head off to bed in Jamesway #5 (of 8), bunk #1 (of 8). The Jamesways are hemi-cylindrical sleeping quarters made from two layers of canvas separated by some insulation. They are well heated, in fact, too well heated usually. Each person gets a bed area separated from the others by a canvas curtain. The Jamesways are surprisingly comfortable, although the temperature excursions as the heaters come on and off are fairly large (perhaps 10 degrees or so, on a time scale of 40 minutes). The two major problems with sleeping are (1) you have to drink so much to combat the effects of the low humidity that you have to get up 2 or 3 times during the night to go to the bathroom (situated in another building 100m away, which leads to an interesting dilemma: should you spend half-an-hour getting into your Antarctic clobber for the trip, or should you risk making a dash, with the possibility of arriving too cold to do anything), and (2) sleeping at altitude is always difficult - you tend to wake up every couple of hours and can have trouble getting back to sleep.
Despite these problems I feel well rested in the morning, but quickly begin to feel nauseous at breakfast time. Apparently this is a mild case of altitude sickness, and it incapacitates me until the afternoon. Unlike when climbing a mountain, at the Pole there is no way to get down quickly to a lower altitude, a fact which doesn't please me greatly.
Meanwhile John is running around with no altitude symptoms, taking lots of video and still shots of the base. Every now and again he appears in the galley area, covered in ice where his breath has frozen on his balaclava, clutching the camera which has stopped working due to icing up of its window. John finds that the rubber eye-cap of the camera freezes to his eyebrows in a few minutes of filming, and his moustache and beard freeze to his balaclava so that he can't open his mouth without difficulty. Also, the rubber camera strap freezes so hard that you can't put it around your neck, and the sunlight is so bright outside that it is very difficult to see the viewfinder. A final problem is that when ice crystals form on the inside of the camera window, the auto-focus suddenly locks onto them, and you get great footage of ice crystals instead of scenery. We are appreciating Michael Burton's pioneering efforts with his video camera last year.
We have a special bright yellow Sony ``Sports Pak'' for the camera to protect it from icing up when we bring it back inside. The Sports Pak looks pretty impressive, and people take John seriously when he starts filming. When he gets out our 10kg Manfrotto professional-series tripod with fluid head, people *really* take John seriously.
In addition to the video recording, we have already taken five rolls of film between us. So if you get an invitation to an Antarctic slide night, maybe think up an excuse.
After lunch we head out to the Pomerantz Building (alias ``Blue Building'', ``the CARA building'', ``the lab'', ``UNSW Astrophysics Field Station #1''), which is where IRPS is situated. It is a 1km walk across the skiway - we're interrupted by an LC-130 landing, so we spend some time filming the unloading and refuelling process. By the time we get to the Pomerantz Building we have been outside in the -37C conditions for 52 minutes, but the protective gear is more than adequate to keep us warm (although you can get frostbite in a few minutes if you leave your nose exposed).
The Pomerantz Building is spectacular. It is an elevated structure with two floors, lots of lab space, great windows for lighting and a view of the outside, and is crammed with state-of-the-art electronics and computers. We can not yet start work on IRPS due to lack of bench-space, but we should be able to get going tomorrow when GRIM is moved onto the SPIREX telescope. We spend the afternoon measuring our cable lengths and determining where we can place IRPS on the roof.
Another LC-130 comes in to land - this one carries the AGO crew: four heroes who have spent the last 10 days living from a 16'x8' box (the `AGO' - Automated Geophysical Observatory) on the high plateau at the AGO #3 site. During that time they were working hard at installing geophysical instrumentation around the AGO; one riometer aerial takes four people 2 days to set up. There were no other human beings within 500 km of the AGO. The AGO is in the middle of an absolutely flat (+/- 3m) and absolutely white plane.
On the last day the conditions worsened, the wind reached 30 knots (one 't' not two as in my previous message!) and the visibility dropped to 1/8 mile. In these conditions an LC-130 could not get in to pick them up. Luckily the weather improved enough for the aircraft to land, and a relieved AGO crew arrived at the safety of the South Pole dome.
We have a particular interest in AGOs since we have funding from UNSW and ANU (in collaboration with Mt Stromlo) to buy one this year for astrophysical purposes. Jack Doolittle is one of the AGO #3 heroes, and will be visiting Australia in March to finalise the contract. AGOs are made by Lockheed Missiles and Space (you don't mess with these guys) for the NSF.
Talking about heroes, I forgot to mention the Norwegian ski team that skied into the Pole from the coast (over 1100 km away) a few weeks ago. This doesn't sound as impressive as the Norwegian woman who did it solo at about the same time, until you discover that one of the team had no arms. Its incredible what people get up to.
On the topic of skiing, there is a tee-shirt you can buy here which says ``Ski South Pole - 2 miles of base, 2 inches of powder''. The ``2 miles of base'' refers to the 2 miles of snow and ice before you hit solid rock.
One thing I haven't mentioned is the disorientation of having the sun up all day at the same altitude. We still expect to go outside after dinner and find it dark - I found myself checking the positions of the toilets near the Jamesways so that I could find them in the middle of the night! The fact is that the temperature hasn't varied by more than 1 degree C since we got here. The only thing that changes is the azimuth of the sun, which is great for photography: you can take positions of anything you want with whatever sun angle you want by waiting to the appropriate moment.
Dinner at 5:30pm is superb: New Zealand lamb chops, potatoes with rosemary, fresh salad and vegetables, home-made bread, with peach crumble and real whipped cream for desert. They go to a lot of effort with the food here, and they succeed.
At 7pm a queue forms to sign up for Marisat satellite time for phone calls back home. John and I sign up for ten minutes each beginning at 12:20pm Sydney time on Sunday. This satellite is the same one that John used for his Andrew Olle interview. It is full duplex, and the quality is so good it is hard to believe that we are at the Pole.
At 7:30pm its time for the CARA meeting, where all the CARA people at Pole (some 23 of them) attend and report on what they have been up to. The meeting commences with Tony Stark giving a rousing rendition of the CARA song - John has it on video tape, and will return it to Tony for a price.
OK, that's all for now. Jamie has organised a plumber to install some vacuum tubing for IRPS tomorrow morning, so John and I are off to get some sleep.
Michael Ashley (with contributions, from John Storey)
You are allowed two 2-minute showers each week, and I took my first one this morning in the ``Inferno'' - the toilet/shower block near the Jamesways. The name is a perfect description of what it feels like when you go in there with your Antarctic gear on. The other shower blocks have similar names, e.g., ``Hades''. In fact, there are lots of humourous names on things down here, particularly on the vehicles (you will have to take my word for it, since I can't think of any of them at the moment).
Hopefully John will decide to have a shower sometime soon.
He spent part of the previous evening, while waiting for sleep to come, composing the JACARA song. We propose to sing this to the tune of Waltzing Matilda at the CARA meeting on Monday - in retaliation for Tony Stark's rendition of the CARA song on Friday. Where is Mike Dopita when you need him?! (Aside: for those who don't know, Mike is capable of, and indeed difficult to restrain from, singing intricate multi-verse ballads as part of conference after-dinner speeches).
Today is our first day of real work on the IRPS. At 9am we head out to the Pomerantz Building and meet the plumbers who are going to install the vacuum and exhaust lines between the pump (in the warm building) and the roof (where the IRPS dewar is located). It takes them most of the day to put the lines in, and they do a magnificent job. The vacuum solenoid is installed with an adjustable bypass - this will be necessary to automate the LN2 filling of the inner can. John puts together the LN2 solenoid system and the Taylor-Wharton 50 litre dewar (I forgot to mention earlier that some of the parts for this system were couriered to John's home the evening before the flight to Christchurch), and we both work on wiring up the cables between the solenoids, the solenoid control unit, and the computer. We are unable to start work on disassembling the IRPS dewar, or on putting the computer back together, since there is still no spare bench-space - this should be rectified tonight when GRIM is scheduled to be put on the SPIREX telescope.
This is our first opportunity to have a good look at IRPS and the ``dog-jacket'' and o-ring heater that John Briggs made for it during last winter. We are very impressed with John's handiwork, and are also beginning to better appreciate the huge amount of effort that John put in during the year to keep IRPS going. Even a simple task such as filling the dewar with LN2 is difficult enough at -37C, but John had to contend with ambient temperatures down to -73C, not including perhaps an additional 20 degrees of windchill, and with complete darkness. All the while he kept a precise, voluminous logbook of his activities, which is an invaluable aid to us. If you are reading this John, thanks again.
The community spirit down here is great. Everyone gets on really well, people are always willing to help, and humour is never far from the surface. John has a theory about this: there was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald not long ago about research which showed that most disagreements between neighbours are about dogs or trees; since there are neither dogs or trees at the South Pole, there are few disagreements.
At lunch we chat some more with Jack Doolittle about AGOs. The LC-130s have trouble working at the AGO sites due to the high altitude and unprepared runways. They sometimes take multiple attempts (up to 20) before they can take off, and final success is often because they have burnt so much fuel in the previous attempts that the plane is lighter. The powder snow is a real problem - Jack measured the depth of the ski tracks from a departing LC-130 at 20 inches, the length of the tracks was 5.5 km. It is amazing that they can take off at all. The pilots are naturally very concerned about the snow conditions since it would be easy to put a plane down in an area from which it couldn't take off. On the other hand, if the engines are pushed really hard the LC-130 can take off with maximum payload from the South Pole skiway on only two engines - but this is the military envelope and would only be used in emergencies.
The LC-130 payload can be dramatically increased by the use of JATOs - these are small solid-rocket boosters (as used in the space shuttle) that are strapped to the sides of the fuselage. However, JATOs have not been used in Antarctica since the 70's after several nasty accidents. The basic problem is that in cold conditions the solid fuel tends to develop cracks, and so when ignited, rather than burning from a central hole outwards, the fuel burns along all the crack surfaces as well. The greatly increased surface area of combustion results in a huge increase in thrust, the JATO breaks free and drills a hole through the wing and propellers. Despite these problems, JATOs (presumably modified ones, without engineering advice from Morton-Thiokol) are being reconsidered for use in Antarctica.
We learn from Jack that there are two AGOs at Willy Field (near McMurdo) awaiting deployment. He invites us to have a look at them when we fly out of the Pole, so we'll try to do that and get some video footage.
Today we travelled to the Pomerantz Building from the SPART station outside the dome. SPART stands for South Pole Area Rapid Transit - a pun on BART (San Fransisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit). The transit is hardly rapid, but comfortable in a 6-cylinder Caterpillar vehicle with custom built treads. Unfortunately, the treads mess up the snow on Bob Loewenstein's ski route, and he finds the ski trip back slow. People use all modes of transport here: one person has a bicycle with snow tyres, another guy has a unicycle (he is also living in an igloo about 1.5 km from the dome).
After dinner we buy some US stamps from the South Pole post office, and write postcards to send back home to loved ones and influential people. It can take a few months for these to get to their destinations, so if you don't get one by May, either it was lost in the mail or you aren't loved or are not perceived to have any influence.
At breakfast we meet Jack Doolittle and have a long chat about AGOs and designing instruments for use with an AGO.
We spend the morning wiring up the LN2 sensor on the outer-can filling wand, and in removing IRPS from its ``dog-jacket'' to get it ready for disassembly. Still no bench-space available. Hopefully GRIM will be moved this afternoon - if not we will have some difficulty completing our tasks before station close. Our time window to cope with unexpected problems is closing rapidly.
At 2pm we head back to the Communications Building inside the dome for our scheduled 10-minute satellite telephone calls to Australia. All you have to do is pick up the phone and dial 7118006822878 and you are speaking to a Telecom operator and can make a reverse-charges call. There are only 6, 10-minute slots available on the Marisat satellite each week, so we are fortunate to get two of them. The quality of the link is almost as good as internal Australian calls.
Incidentally, it is not possible to see most geostationary satellites from the Pole since they are below the horizon. Luckily, some of the older satellites have run low on fuel and have drifted away from a zero-latitude orbit. By negotiating with the owners of these satellites, the South Pole base has been able to secure a few hours of data and voice access each day. The frustrating thing is that there are many unused hours of satellite time available, but the owners are asking too high a price for the US Antarctic Program to afford it. Despite what you might think, the USAP is running on a shoestring budget in comparison with space missions.
After the telephone link-up John used his amateur radio licence to operate the South Pole rig, and listened-in to conversations from Pitcairn Island, the Falklands, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Brisbane. Unfortunately, the main antennas are directed towards the US, and Australia falls neatly in the worst spot on the radiation pattern. However, some contacts with Australia have been logged early in the morning, so John plans to try again then.
In the afternoon, GRIM is finally moved, and we have some space available to work in. We open our packing boxes, and the contents expand adiabatically to fill the available space. We then spend 6 hours or so getting IRPS back together for testing prior to the dewar being disassembled tomorrow. Everything works pretty well - we fix some of the problems that John Briggs had encountered last year (the aperture wheel now calibrates itself faultlessly), and encounter a few additional minor problems that we will fix in the next few days.
Stay tuned for the next exciting installment. Will we be able to open the dewar without problems? Will the solenoid control unit work under computer control? Will the JACARA song receive critical acclaim? Will John have a shower? These questions and more will be answered in the next installment...
Michael Ashley (with contributions, from John Storey)
Today's diary contains a fair bit of technical details about IRPS, for the benefit of our collaborators who need to know this information.
John was up early and headed straight out to the Pomerantz Building to start taking the IRPS dewar apart. I joined him later and we successfully installed a short-pass filter in one of the aperture wheels by glueing it in with Stycast (a cryogenic epoxy; here is a useful hint c/- Bob Pernic: if you don't want your epoxy to set immediately, just put it outside in the -37C conditions, and it will stay soft for 3 days). John had to grind the edges of the filter on a grinding stone to allow it to fit in the available space. We then replaced the L filter with our new K' filter, and started baking the molecular sieve (8 hours at 450F, or until golden brown). I designed a safety plug to stop the Taylor-Wharton dewar from going soft when left outside (the problem is that its vacuum jacket has a nitrile o-ring, which is only good to -40C).
Aside: the reason for installing a short-pass filter is to act as an additional blocking-filter for the CVF. This should give us a factor of 1000 times reduction in any residual long-wavelength radiation that makes it through the CVF, and will allow us to have more confidence in our measurements of the extremely low flux at 2.35 microns from the Antarctic sky.
John has an annoying habit of popping bubble-wrap bubbles at random times. He claims it is important work, and that someone has to do it. The big bubbles make a sound a bit like an exploding capacitor. There is a moratorium on doing this during particularly delicate dewar operations, or when poised with a multimeter lead just about to make contact with a component. While waiting for the Stycast to set we investigated a problem that we
found yesterday with the stepper motor controller: it mysteriously re-enables the power to the motors when it shouldn't. John poured over the schematics and compared them with the controller hardware - everything looked OK, and then he discovered that by touching a probe to one of the 74LS244 outputs, he could re-enable a stepper motor, and yet the 74LS244 could source/sink 15mA without problems. Something strange is going on, we will have to investigate further with an oscilloscope after dinner.
At 2pm John takes the first exposure of his planned 8-part series, showing how the sun moves around the sky at the South Pole. He gets in another exposure at 5pm, but then it starts snowing.
Tonight's desert was a nice cake decorated with Oreos. Oreos are a simple biscuit (two brown disks separated by a white disk), and are something of an American institution. Non-American's are mystified by the popularity of Oreos since they are only marginally edible, and quite inferior to TimTams, Montes, Gaitys, or in fact any Australian biscuit. Jamie is convinced that several tonnes of Oreos were delivered to the South Pole in the 1970s, and we are still getting though them. The winterovers had a raging discussion the other night about whether there are 45 or 46 Oreos in a packet (apparently both numbers have been measured). As far as I'm concerned one Oreo is one too many.
Incidentally, John wants to pass on his discovery that low-fat UHT milk tastes infinitely better than full-cream UHT milk, though neither approximates real milk any better than does heatsink compound.
We learn tonight that the weather here at Pole has been the coldest ever recorded (on these days of the year). Today is a bit warmer (-35C) due to fairly thick cirrus.
John is putting the finishing touches to the lyrics of the JACARA song when an argument between ``emacs'' and his terminal results in all the text being lost (i.e., ``emacs'' won). He resorts to pen and paper and finishes the lyrics with 15 minutes to spare. The only quiet place we can find to practise is outside in the snow, so we shiver through the three verses (to the tune of Waltzing Matilda):
The JACARA song --------------- Once were some astronomers camped in a Jamesway, Under the clear blue South Pole skies, And they sang as they watched as they waited for the Herc. to come: ``We reckon that these CARA folk are pretty nice guys''. Refrain: We are JACARA, we're a little bit like CARA, Who'll come observing down on the ice? We think Antarctica's the place to do astronomy, Who'll come observing here down on the ice? So we sent down the IRPS, and we put it on the ASTRO block, We sent down Jamie Lloyd, who really made his mark. Now you've got Jamie - but we think it's really close to quits, because We've got Michael Dopita, but you've got Tony Stark. We tried Kitt Peak and Chile and we found they weren't quite up to scratch, We went to Siding Spring, but the skies were even greyer. But when we look up from the ice, we find the air is clear and dry, And the food is so much better that you get at Mauna Kea.
At the CARA meeting at 7:30pm, Tony Stark sings the CARA song, and then we sing the JACARA song. The CARA folk were very polite about our efforts.
After the meeting, we head back to the Pomerantz Building, and work some more on IRPS. John is very pleased with his efforts, and comments that we ``performed six impossible tasks before breakfast'', and ``completely rebuilt the IRPS through the entrance window''. John is modest as always. Meanwhile, I am finally getting acclimatised to the low oxygen at the Pole, and the full power of my brain is coming on-line, enabling me to do a few man-days of computer programming before retiring at 3am.
When I reach the Jamesway (it seems like home now) I am amazed to discover the air full of twinkling bright dots slowly moving around. This is the phenomenon of ``diamond dust'': micron-sized cylinders of ice which catch the rays of the sun and reflect it without any colour. It is quite unlike snow, and a fascinating thing to see.
John started bright and early working on a mounting bracket for the ion pump (which arrived in the cargo flight yesterday, together with some crucial fluorosilicone o-rings). John chose to use some 1.4mm sheet material that looked like aluminium. Tin-snips wouldn't cut it, so John got out a power jig-saw. Within a few seconds the jig-saw blade was red hot and the teeth had been ground off - it turned out that the material was Conetic, a magnetic shielding material that is only slightly softer than diamond. John comments that one of the advantages of working at this altitude is that it provides you with a ready-made excuse for doing perfectly idiotic things that you probably would have done at sea-level anyway.
The remainder of the day was spent working hard on IRPS. We tracked down the source of the stepper motor controller problem: it's simply noise on the mains - we measure bursts of 5 volt 500 ns pulses on the 5 volt computer power supply. Hopefully this can be fixed with a few strategically placed ceramic capacitors and a line-filter. We leak-tested the dewar and found a problem with the sapphire entrance-window, so we pulled it apart, cleaned it thoroughly, and reinstalled it. The dewar now appears to be OK, and we will leave it on the pump for at least 2 days. I worked some more on the IRPS software, and John made up some cables to connect the ion pump controller and the LN2 solenoid controller to the computer. We should now be able to measure the vacuum pressure in IRPS from the computer.
We are now sweltering under a heatwave (-29C), due to the presence of thin cloud. It is noticeably more comfortable walking around outside.
Michael Ashley (with contributions and bubble-wrap accompaniment, from John `Banjo' Storey)
We continue to pump on IRPS, which is being heated to +35C to accelerate the outgassing. By noon we have the liquid nitrogen solenoid system working nicely under computer control, and can cause LN2 to squirt out of either of two nozzles with a simple keystroke. We point the nozzles towards the entrance-way of the room that we are in, and give some SPIREX people a shock when they come looking for tools.
The LN2 control system has to be fairly clever since we don't want it to accidently open a solenoid and let out 50 litres of precious LN2 onto the floor. It has to be able to cope with every imaginable error condition (e.g., the computer crashes after it gives the instruction to open the solenoid). To do this, we are using a ``heartbeat'' circuit in the control box that requires a special sequence of logic pulses on five TTL lines (two highs, one low, one negative going pulse, and a positive going pulse within 1 second of the negative going pulse - hopefully this sequence can not occur by accident!) from the computer before it enables control of the solenoids (and if the pulses aren't re-issued within 100 seconds, it defaults to a safe state). This all seems to work, which is pleasing.
Incidentally, the LN2 we are using is shipped in from the States, but this winter CARA hopes to have a liquid nitrogen manufacturing plant operating just outside the Pomerantz Building. The plant works by liquefying air, and then using some sort of membrane to separate the liquid oxygen and nitrogen. LN2 is colder than liquid oxygen so is better for our purposes - it is also much less dangerous.
By the afternoon we can read the ion pump current with the computer, and can use this information to calculate the vacuum pressure in IRPS. Our goal of a completely automated instrument is getting closer.
After dinner we go outside to take some publicity shots of us, with various items of UNSW memorabilia, at the ceremonial South Pole. We would have taken a picture with the UNSW official flag, except that the Vice-Chancellor lost it the week before we left, so we had to make do with a UNSW tea towel that John bought at the Logo Shop. The weather was particularly cold (-38C, or -53C if you include windchill), and after factorial-n combinations of flags, towels, pennants, camera lenses, video gear, etc, my fingers were practically frozen off. Luckily the batteries in both the camera and the video recorder stopped working in the cold (which is the only way to stop John from filming something - even ice on the lens is no obstacle), and a hasty retreat to the warmth of the galley in the dome restored sensation to my digits.
Jamie Lloyd left today for some ``R & R'' at McMurdo. In a week he will be back at the Pole, and will stay here all year. McMurdo is not the ideal site for ``R & R'', but from experience the USAP has found that if people go back to Christchurch, they tend not to come back. McMurdo is sufficiently different from the Pole to be a nice break (e.g., it's got dirt), but sufficiently unpleasant to make you want to come back (e.g., the food is not as good as that at Pole).
Before Jamie flew out, John took the opportunity of interviewing him on camera, and getting Jamie to do a guided tour of the station for the folks back home. John used the radio microphone for this work - the wind was so strong outside that Jamie had to shout to make himself heard. When using the radio mike it is necessary to have the camera outside its protective Sports Pack, so John had to periodically warm it up inside his parka, giving him a becoming pregnant appearance.
At 5:05pm, an LC-130 flies in, and John is ready with his camera and shoots off 27 pictures of the landing/taxing/unloading process. John is already planning a series of slide nights when he gets back to Australia, and hopes to have enough material to devote two nights to LC-130s.
Jean Vernin's balloon cargo finally arrived (it was sent on Dec 1, and spent a few weeks here and there in various customs halls). Jean excitedly opened the boxes and began preparations for a balloon launch. (Aside: I may not have mentioned that John and I are also involved with a collaboration with Jean (and Rodney Marks) to measure the microthermal variations in the atmosphere over Antarctica).
At the CARA meeting tonight, the usual pre-meeting song was dispensed with. Jeff Peterson complained that the haunting melody of the JACARA song had been going around and around in his head for the last two days.
Every evening at about 8pm the satellite peeps above the horizon for four hours, and we have Internet access. It is fairly slow (perhaps 32K baud for the entire station), but adequate for sending mail. Unfortunately, it is hard to get access to a PC since many of them are used by people playing mindlessly violent games. Having left much of the ugliness of modern society behind us since arriving in Antarctica, these games seem strangely out of place.
On a sombre note, a person was killed today in McMurdo while climbing Castle Rock, a spectacular outcrop about 5 km from the town. The flag at the South Pole station was flying at half mast.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)
John tried an experiment today: he took two packets of biscuits (``cookies'' for our American readers) out to the Blue Building, one packet contained healthy recognisable natural ingredients, the other contained Oreos. By lunchtime all but two of the 45/46 Oreos were gone, and the other packet had not been touched.
Today is -39C, with bright blue sunny skies.
I should have mentioned that John got up at 5am and again at 8am to take the remaining two shots of our video sequence of sun shadows. Since we started trying to get these 3-hourly shots, the shadows have noticeably lengthened as the sun slowly sets.
Today was hugely successful with respect to IRPS. We cooled it down with LN2 using the automatic filling system, and it worked beautifully. The outer can filled in 15 minutes, and the inner can in 7 minutes, with hardly any loss of LN2. This is a huge improvement over filling it manually (which may take 45 minutes or so, and is quite tedious). Thanks must go to Peter Conroy of Mt. Stromlo who helped with the design of the filling wands.
Every time we turned on the ion pump, the current jumps to over 10mA, indicating a pressure worse than 10-4 torr. We attribute this to the molecular sieve still outgassing, and sure enough, after the inner can gets cold the ion pump suddenly starts to work properly and the pressure drops to 2x10-6 torr over the next few hours. It is very convenient to be able to read the dewar pressure from the computer - it will provide a good indication of the health of the dewar and allow us to diagnose problems. Writing the software to properly utilise all this information, and to take appropriate action if sensors fail, is quite a challenge. In total we have 18 sensors of various kinds (temperature, pressure, position) on IRPS.
John tries riding a bicycle to/from the Pomerantz Building, and finds that it is very strenuous work. When his cadence drops below about 65 the bike stops dead in its tracks, which is about the only way to stop since the bike doesn't have brakes. Changing gears is difficult since the gear-change cable sheath has fractured in the cold.
At 3pm all the CARA folk get together for a clean-up of the areas around the Pomerantz and Astro Buildings. Over the last couple of months there has been a steadily mounting collection of packing crates and assorted junk. All waste in Antarctica has to be carefully sorted into a multitude of categories, for example: plastic, white paper, burnables, wood, light metal, heavy metal, food waste, food contaminated materials, biological materials, aluminium cans, copper, and ``construction debris''. After an hour or so outside, we are all rather cold, but we have returned the environment back to pristine snow.
Jeff Peterson uses a metal detector to locate buried metallic objects. Unfortunately, the batteries die from the cold before he has gone 10 metres from the building. He retires inside to make an extension lead for the batteries so that he can keep them warm inside his parka.
We learn that there is only one aircraft on the continent that is capable of landing at the South Pole (the rest of them have various maintenance problems).
As of this morning there are no aircraft on the continent capable of landing at the South Pole (the last one succumbed to a mechanical problem during the night). Luckily we have four years supply of food available at the South Pole station, although I suspect that after three years there would be a certain lack of variety.
The carpenters have completed the mounting box for IRPS, and Bob Pernic and John transported it out to the Pomerantz Building in a Spryte (a vehicle with tractor treads). We then spent 30 minutes winching it onto the roof, and positioning it ready to take IRPS.
Bob Pernic is using a lathe to make a dewar safety plug for us, and we contemplated swapping the drawing of the safety plug for engineering drawings of an LC-130 so that we can fly out of here. If anyone could make an LC-130 out of spare parts, Bob could. This is not too far from the truth - Bob's hobby is building small airplanes.
The mains power in the Pomerantz Building is very noisy - we have seen some incredible spikes. A small computer line-filter helps somewhat, but we are still getting spikes that are capable of interfering with our motor drivers. I track down a small (30 kg) unused UPS (Uninteruptable Power Supply) in the nearby Astro Building, and with the owner's permission, transport it by sled back to the Pomerantz Building.
The inner can of IRPS is now on the pump, and the detector temperature and vacuum pressure drop nicely. After flashing the detector, John and I begin a long series of calibration experiments to measure the performance of IRPS, and ensure that everything is working. Our homemade black-body source works just fine - by filling it with outside snow we get a temperature of -14C, with an ice slurry we get exactly 0C, and with the hottest water that the coffee machine can muster we get 67C (John tried every imaginable heating device in the building, ranging from hair driers and power resistors, to soldering irons, but could only manage an extra 2 degrees C). By 5am we have all the data we think we could possibly need. I try to send the data back to Michael Burton at UNSW, but the satellite has dipped below the horizon, so it will have to wait until tomorrow.
Incidentally, Michael Burton has been performing an invaluable role back in Sydney giving us advice on calibration measurements and feeding us reduced data from IRPS. John refers to Michael as ``our sea level brain'', a comment on the deleterious effect of altitude on mental agility.
By 7pm two of the LC-130s in Antarctica have been repaired, just in time for one of them to cause John and I to wait 20 minutes on the edge of the skiway (which bisects the line between the Pomerantz Building and the dome) while it landed. The other one comes in just as Jean Vernin is about to launch his balloon at 10:30pm, forcing Jean to stand out in the cold holding his 3-m diameter balloon and payload for 10 minutes. The air is thick with LC-130s.
Jean's balloon launch is very successful. He is getting temperature, pressure, humidity, and CT (a measurement of microthermal temperature fluctuations) up to 20km or so. This is the first time that microthermal measurements have been made in Antarctica over the full path-length through the atmosphere. Jean's initial impression of the data is that the atmosphere is remarkably free of turbulence, and even the inversion layer at 200m appears to be relatively non-turbulent. By the end of the winter we should have data from 25 of these balloon launches, and Jean should be able to make some very interesting quantitative comparisons between the South Pole and sites such as Mauna Kea and Chile.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)
Dear Patient Reader,
You are probably wondering by now if we had fallen into a crevasse, or been blown off the roof of the Pomerantz Building, or accidentally walked into the propellor of an LC-130, or suffered terminal frostbite, or simply walked off into a blizzard saying ``I may be some time''.
Rest assured that none of these things have happened, its just that we have been busy working on IRPS, and I've been too busy to get to a keyboard.
The story continues ...
Today we make an all-out effort to get IRPS out onto the roof of the Pomerantz Building. This involves more work than one would expect. There are about a dozen cables to thread through holes in the roof, vacuum connections to make, and so on. We happen to pick the coldest day of year, -44C (windchill to -66C) with a stiff breeze blowing. It is extremely difficult to work in these conditions when you have to manipulate small bolts and assemble connectors and vacuum flanges. Ten minutes is about all we can stand at a time before we have to come inside to warm up.
All except one of our cables is teflon insulated, which means that they remain flexible at these temperatures. The exception is the ion pump high voltage lead - it becomes absolutely rigid within a minute of being outside, and we have to use a heat gun to persuade it to bend sufficiently to get it down the cable holes.
There is some insulating material covering IRPS, and this has to be stuck on with a special reflective sticky tape. Unfortunately, the adhesive on sticky tape becomes rock hard at these temperatures - the solution is to put the tape in place and then heat it with a heat gun until the adhesive becomes soft, at which point the tape will stick. It is extraordinarily difficult to do this - you have to wear thin polypropylene gloves so that you can manipulate the tape, and this gives you little protection from the cold. The heat gun provides some warmth, but in an attempt to restore sensation to cold fingers it is easy to melt the polypropylene. After several trips outside we succeed in getting IRPS fairly well covered, and in melting my gloves.
A quick check of the computer shows everything working well. The filter and aperture motors are sitting at about 20C, the preamp is at 0C, the dewar is at -10C, and the ambient temperature is -43C. The vacuum is looking good at 2.5x10-6 torr, and the detector is at -198C (due to the liquid nitrogen). We run off a quick HK and L CVF scan, and there is much rejoicing when the familiar daytime spectrum of the sky appears on the computer monitor.
The next task was to install the LN2 dewar and solenoids on the roof, and start pumping on the inner can. Lifting the 50l dewar onto the roof took some effort, and connecting all the fiddly cables and fittings was again a difficult task. When we started the pump we noticed that it seemed to be having a lot of trouble pulling down the vacuum. After an hour of trying, and several trips up to the roof to see if there were any leaks, John suddenly realised that it was possible that the exhaust and vacuum fittings to the pump were interchanged. This turned out to be the case - the plumber had mis-identified the two copper pipes where they crossed over and went through the roof. So instead of evacuating our dewar and expelling the waste air into the Antarctic air, we were trying to evacuate Antarctica and stuff it into our dewar! There was much rejoicing when we realised that a fix would be fairly easy.
I should have mentioned that at 5:30pm we took some more ``Hero photos'' of Jean Vernin, John, and myself in various poses with various items of memorabilia around the Ceremonial Pole. With the colder weather, and the wind, it wasn't long before my hands were feeling very cold. Rushing inside I realised that I had come within about a minute of getting frostbite, as it was I had a small painful area on the tip of my thumb. John had a previous small patch of frostbite on his cheek from the tidy-up on Wednesday.
At dinner a fruit drink is available. It cycles between orange juice, apple juice, Five-Alive (some combination of leftover fruits), and ``toxic purple''. The latter is an interesting purple-coloured foaming concoction with a strong chemical taste, and no recognisably natural properties. Only the new arrivals try it.
After dinner John grabs the video camera and lurks around the Post Office / Store waiting for closing time (8pm). At this time each day the storekeeper, Eileen Serdrup, resumes her usual role as the Station Physician. We follow her to the Biomedical Building (the one with the two intertwined snakes on the door) where she gives us a guided tour of the facility. The medical rooms are remarkably well equipped for x-rays, surgery, dentistry, and pathology. Members of the winterover crew have received sufficient training to be able to assist with x-rays and anaesthetics. The 2-bed hospital is used as an emergency TV lounge when the main TV area is playing Murphy Brown repeats.
Eileen shows us her collection of medical implements used over the years at the South Pole, which includes a small box labelled ``Embalming Kit''. John asks whether it would be possible to get someone out of the Pole in a serious medical emergency over winter, and the answer is no - people could be flown in to assist, but the aircraft would be unable to take off again.
During our filming in Biomed, several real patients turn up to add authenticity. John is slipping further into the role of movie director, and insists that the filming must go on despite medical (non-emergency) cases accumulating in the waiting room.
Heading off to bed at 2am, John will be up at 8am to help make brunch for the station (Sunday is traditionally the cooks' day off, so other people are expected to volunteer). I continue working on software till the early hours, and am rewarded with a fine sunny morning and some spectacular ``diamond dust'', including the characteristic rainbow segments and inverted parabola towards the direction of the sun.
The morning begins with ``Aussie burgers'' thanks to John, Bob Pernic and Nancy Odalen. John assures me that they met with critical acclaim, although by the time I get to them a few hours later they are a bit on the tough side.
The plumber has a look at our vacuum line, and agrees that he made a mistake with the connections, and will fix it tomorrow morning. He is a bit hung-over from a party the previous night, so we're happy to let him recover before taking a blowtorch to our experiment.
In the afternoon we make an effort to determine the alignment of IRPS with respect to Greenwich and the local horizontal. To zero the mirror rotator we decide to use a long tube filled with water to find the direction perpendicular to up. Unfortunately, the water freezes within about 90 seconds of being outside, requiring two attempts for us to make the measurement. If we had used ``toxic purple'' from the galley we would have had no problems.
John gets the azimuth zero by timing the instant at which the sun is aligned with the dewar. After some astrometry we are fairly confident that we know where IRPS is pointing. Normal astrometry concepts such as local sidereal time become meaningless, or at least difficult to apply, at the South Pole. The latitude of IRPS is -89:59:30, and the dewar itself subtends about 1 arc-minute of longitude - moving it to the other side of building would change its longitude by about a degree.
In our attempt to make an artificial source for IRPS to look at we try a torch (``flashlight'' for our US readers) - but the batteries give out after a few minutes in the cold, and a mains-powered (``line-powered'' for our US readers) lamp - the cord of which becomes as stiff as a didgereedoo (``long wooden musical instrument played by Aboriginal Australians'' for our US readers).
By the end of the day, IRPS is looking in good shape, we have had no new disasters or unexplained problems, and Jean Vernin has successfully launched another balloon. The balloon reaches an altitude of 30km before exploding (as it is supposed to do), and data is recorded during both the ascent and decent phases. Jean decides that a celebration is in order and so produces a bottle of fine champagne that he hand-carried from France. The champagne provides an interesting culinary counterpoint to the Aussie burgers of earlier in the day.
It is now 5 days from station close, and the population is starting to decline (although it is still in the 80's). The weather has warmed up a bit due to clouds, to -29C, and it is much easier to work outside, although there is now almost no contrast between the snow and the sky.
Bob Loewenstein comments that the South Pole is probably the only place on Earth where people are still speculating about the results of the Superbowl a week after it has taken place.
Some problems appear with IRPS today. The stepper motor problem, where the motor drivers spontaneously provide power to the motors after being disabled, has recurred. There is still a lot of work to be done on the hibernating software, to ensure that IRPS can fill itself with LN2 and manage the ion pump in all foreseeable circumstances. IRPS is now on the Internet, and we verify communication with the outside world.
All of the problems appear straightforward to fix, and we feel confident that our work is almost done and that tomorrow will be a quiet day.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)
Just when we thought everything was working smoothly, the IRPS mirror rotator begins to act strangely. When driving it from zenith to nadir it vibrates alarmingly and skips steps. Thinking the problem could be a missing phase, John spends some hours checking for broken cables and electrical problems (it is not easy removing the backshell from a connector on the roof). This time is considerably extended due to John's need to persuade the LeCroy 300 MHz Digital Sampling Oscilloscope that all he requires is a simple trace of voltage versus time rather than a fourier transform or cross-correlation with something it has previously measured. The LeCroy has a brain the size of a small planet, and is reluctant to do something as basic as displaying a simple waveform, without first providing the operator with every opportunity to sample its prodigious capabilities. Only after John's threat to unplug it does the LeCroy agree to masquerade as a dual-beam oscilloscope.
All connections to the motor check out OK, and the drive electronics is also fine. We then begin to suspect a resonance between the rate at which we are driving the motor, and its natural torsional period. By trying various inter-pulse delays, we find that at practically any rate other than the one we were using (30 milliseconds between pulses) the motor behaves perfectly. It appears that a slight change in the calibration of the software timing loop, and a small change in the motor driving voltage (due to using a UPS), conspired to bring the rotator into resonance. Resolving this problem consumed almost all of the day, and left us somewhat concerned about what new surprises IRPS had in store for us with only 24 hours left before we had to leave the Pole.
Dinner was superb: lobster tails and steak and no ``toxic purple'' in evidence. Coincidentally, three senior NSF representatives were visiting for the day.
Jean is analysing the data from his first two balloon launches, and is getting ``seeing'' figures of around 1 arcsecond. Jean is also excited to discover that he has won a lottery to travel back to Christchurch aboard the vessel Greenwave. The trip will take 6 days.
John is pursuing his goal of videotaping the remaining women on the base, and manages an extended session with Emily, the cook. (John says it is important that our video properly acknowledges the vital role played by women in the running of the South Pole base. Next time, he can write the software and I'll video the women.)
Erik completes his goal of being the fastest person to unicycle around the globe, completing all 360 degrees of longitude in about 10 seconds.
While using the computer to fill the inner can of IRPS, John notices that when the can is full a great spray of LN2 comes gushing out of the pressure relief valve. I decide to use this as an indication of fullness, and install a silicon diode in a suitable place to be hit by the LN2. An intermittent solder joint in the control box thwarts by first attempts, but in the early hours of Wednesday the system is working smoothly. We can now sense when the inner can needs filling (by monitoring the detector temperature) and when the can is overfull (using the newly installed diode). The IRPS computer now keeps track of the time at which each fill occurred, and for how long the LN2 solenoids were open. With experience we should be able to use this information to decide how full the Taylor-Wharton dewar is, and to alert Jamie to the need to refill it.
Today is our last day at the South Pole. John is waxing lyrical about the place, and is even beginning to understand the attraction of wintering over. Our aircraft is due to leave at 1pm, so there is only enough time for one last look at IRPS, to tidy up our work areas, and to prepare our luggage for palettising.
John's early morning check of IRPS is proceeding nominally when suddenly the vacuum pump emitted a horrible grinding shattering death rattle. His first thought was that the pump had swallowed a tool or pipe fitting that the plumber had inadvertently left in the vacuum line. This could delay our departure by days. Moments later his horror turned to relief when he discovered that Bob Pernic was on the roof cutting holes in the vacuum feed-through box, and the sound of the electric jig-saw had simply reverberated down the copper tubes to the pump (attentive readers will recognise this jig-saw as the same one that John used earlier in an abortive attempt to cut through a sheet of Conetic, one of the hardest materials know to man).
Jamie is on the incoming flight, returning from a week's R & R at McMurdo. It sounds as though he has had more fun there than most people, having been ice fishing and snow-mobiling. In the tradition of the IRPS experiment we only have about 20 minutes to explain to Jamie the important new additions (this short overlap has occurred before on three occasions: between Jamie and Michael Burton, Michael and John Briggs, and John and Rodney Marks).
The LC-130 is ready for boarding at 4pm. There are only five of us heading out, and the Herc is empty except for us and our luggage. By this time I have had my fill of South Pole life, and am quite happy to be heading home. John, however, could easily stay longer, and it is only thoughts of his family that persuade him to join the flight.
By now, we're old hands at flying in LC-130s. I find a nice quiet spot between the Emergency Hydraulic Landing Gear System and the 35,000 lb Tie-Down Stanchion, and brace myself for a boring 3 hour flight to McMurdo. After an hour one of the flight crew comes across and shouts in our ears (the only way to be heard in an LC-130) ``we're going to fly down the glacier, have a look out the window.'' Upon doing so we are met by an unimaginably beautiful Antarctic vista. The Herc was flying at a height of only 160 metres above the Beardmore Glacier, at a speed of 400 kph. The glacier is some 250 km long, giving us almost an hour of breathtaking views. On either side of the glacier are towering icy cliffs, the glacier itself is tens of km wide and changes surface characteristics every few minutes of flying time. At first the surface consists of rocky moraine reminiscent of the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand. Then there are vast stretches of smooth snow-covered ice with obvious straight lines marking the direction of flow of the glacier, then the ice breaks up into huge chunks with alarming crevasses between them. Altogether there are over a dozen distinct variations in texture over the length of the glacier. At one point we are flying low over huge canyons in the ice, perhaps 50 metres deep, and easily large enough to swallow a Herc. The pilot is obviously enjoying himself as the plane weaves down the glacier taking short detours to get closer views of interesting spots. John is up in the cockpit, and records some video through a window at the pilot's feet.
At the end of the glacier the LC-130 banks at 45 degrees and does a full 360 degree circle before continuing on to McMurdo. We count ourselves as very fortunate to have been on this flight on such a clear day - most of the flights are dead boring. After the tedious flatness of the South Pole, and the mining-town atmosphere of McMurdo, it is great to have experienced some of the grandeur of Antarctica.
Touchdown at Willy Field, and back to the Hotel California. After a barely edible meal of beef chow mein and shrimp cordon blech, washed down with entirely undrinkable ``coffee'', John finds that he is sharing a room with three other people, one of whom is a chain smoker. This person alternates between snoring, smoking, and coughing, with an e-folding time of 2 hours, all to the beat of his 1950's technology bedside clock with real mechanical one-second 100 decibel tick.
The morning finds John a nervous wreck, having only managed 3 hours of intermittent sleep. During the times when sleep eluded him, John had mentally explored various strategies for disposing of bodies, and decided that the 300hp Caterpillar diesel powered wood chipper, followed by a trip to the aquarium, would be the most efficient.
As the new day dawns (an expression somewhat out of place in Antarctica) we wonder how long we will have to stay in McMurdo before we can get on a flight out. The people who left the South Pole on Monday are still here. The prospects of having a cup of real coffee and a baklava with whipped cream before the end of the week are looking grim indeed.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)
Three syllables that are synonymous with the worst food that is available anywhere in the inner solar system. The ``coffee'' tastes as though it was strained through the socks of a Tibetan yak herder. And the ``grey casserole'' ... politeness to our American hosts forbids me to go into more details, but suffice it to say that the McMurdo canteen is as much an impediment to the modern Antarctic explorer as any natural hazard on the continent.
With another day to kill in McMurdo, John sought out the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) centre, situated in a building so drab and dreary as to immediately induce suicidal depression in anyone not already on a flight manifest to Christchurch. His mission was to hire (``rent'' for our US readers) a pair of bicycles to use on a pre-breakfast cycle ride to Scott Base (a New Zealand base about 5km from McMurdo). Why he needed a pair of bicycles is beyond me. Perhaps he was going to use the other bicycle as a bribe to get into the base. Whatever the reason, MWR refused to rent out the bikes, on the grounds that no sane person would attempt to ride in the windy conditions.
During our time at the Pole, Jack Doolittle of Lockheed told us of the existence of two AGOs at Williams Field, and encouraged us to visit them - even giving us the combination lock number to the door. A short trip in the Willy Field shuttle brought us face-to-face for the first time with these little orange sheds which we hope will form an essential component of our Antarctic research program for the next few years. Beseeching photos of John and me standing at the entrance of an AGO will now accompany our next ARC application.
After lunch and dinner we consider the possibility of borrowing a GPS navigation system and returning to the site of Scott's last food cache, hoping to find something that is still edible. Instead we hop on the half-hourly shuttle ride out to Scott Base and inspect the store. I buy a 150g block of Cadbury's chocolate and savour it. For some reason the Kiwis are only charging US$3 for the chocolate - they could charge US$30 and still have a ready market.
Near Scott Base are 20 or so huge seals, each perhaps 4 or 5 metre long. Most of them sit motionless on the sea ice like giant brown slugs, but one flops into the water and swims towards us, making a variety of interesting noises. The scenery here is quite magnificent, with blue skies, and Mt Erebus towering in the distance. There are mountains all around, some of them are well over 100 km away, and yet they all appear very close thanks to the crystal clear Antarctic air.
While walking around the edge of the Ross Sea looking at the seals, one fairly large (0.5m by 1.5m) piece of ice gives way under my weight, with a frightening dull crack. Luckily the piece only drops about 2 cm before coming to rest.
At the end of the day we learn that we are manifested on the next flight out, with 52 other people. We are required to present ourselves and our luggage for weighing tomorrow at 9am for ``bag-drag''.
This morning we find that our priority numbers for the flight out have increased (i.e., have become less favourable) by one overnight. Apparently someone has broken their leg, and as a ``medivac'' case they automatically receive top priority. We fear a rash of leg breakings when the news gets around.
At ``bag-drag'' it appears as though the next flight is about 30 hours away, not 3 as we had hoped. It is very hard to get concrete information about flights - there are a lot of rumours floating around about planes having to return to Christchurch with radar problems, the wind being too high to land, the squadron ``re-deploying'' (whatever that means) and so on.
In the morning we visit the Greenwave, a medium-sized container ship originally built by the Germans for plying the Great Lakes, but now used to ship cargo between California and McMurdo. John pushes me through the door which says ``Absolutely no visitors at any time'', and I ask the Chief Engineer to give us a tour of the engine room - he obliges. The engine is a 10,000 hp, 8 cylinder, 3-1 reduction, reversible diesel with fixed pitch propellor.
Later in the afternoon, back in the town, John discovers the Aerobics Room (Building 78), where the latest in high-tech exercise equipment is provided. His first stop was the ``Lifestyle'' exercise bicycle, a machine with so many flashing lights and and so much built-in intelligence that it makes the 300 Mhz LeCroy Digital Sampling Oscilloscope look like the earlier 200 Mhz model (the one without auto-correlation). Measuring John's heart-rate via the grip handles, the machine led him through an individually tailored exercise regime. John was terrified to let go of the handles lest the machine conclude that he was clinically dead, and automatically commence CPR on him. At the end of the regime, the bicycle informed John that his fitness rating was ``36'', and considerately didn't provide any clue as to how this compared with the rest of humanity.
John and I have both now taken advantage of the free McMurdo barber's shop to get our navy-style haircuts. John now looks more like a Hercules pilot and less like a poodle.
Tomorrow our schedule is an 8:30am, 70 minute, trip in the Terra Bus (a giant vehicle with seats for 50 or so people; it has six tyres, each 2m high and 1m wide) out to the Pegasus ice runway. Then an indeterminate wait for a aircraft, and then an 8 hour flight to Christchurch.
Incidentally, we learnt a bit about ice runways from a ``fuelly'' that we spoke to the day before: the runways have to be carefully groomed to ensure that they have a uniform covering of 10cm of snow. If the ice itself is exposed, patches can melt in the sun, causing depressions that are dangerous to the aircraft. Extended periods of grooming lead to accumulations of snow on the edges of the runway, the weight of which eventually cause the runway to bulge upwards in the middle. The advantage of ice runways over deep snow runways is that wheeled aircraft can land, thereby greatly increasing the available payload.
OK, that's all for now. With luck you will receive the final instalment from Christchurch.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)
This is the last installment of the ``South Pole Diary''. My apologies for the delay in getting it to you.
As you will remember, the previous entry left John and Michael still at McMurdo, using their remaining US dollars to buy Cadbury's chocolate from the Kiwis in a struggle for survival...
The last plane flew out of the South Pole this morning. The remaining 28 people (hi Jamie!) will stay until at least November. The only physical contact with the winter-overs is via an airdrop (by its very nature a one-way thing) scheduled for mid-year. Last year's airdrop was only partially successful: one pallet was lost about 10km from the dome, and a search this summer was not fruitful.
Breakfast at McMurdo is served from 5:30 to 7:30am. The pre-moulded buckwheat pancakes (where each hole and irregularity matches the template pancake in the factory back in Detroit) tasted like dust. The frozen yoghurt machine disgorged a luke-warm runny liquid into my waiting ice-cream cone. Not an auspicious start to the day.
We gathered with the other 48 passengers (reduced from 52 due to the fact that the person with the broken leg needed more space) at 8:30am, for the Terra bus trip to Pegasus. ``Ivan'' the Terra bus is not lightning quick (one passenger with a handheld GPS system measured its speed at 4 knots going up a slight incline), but has the advantage of being warm, comfortable, and able to cover almost any terrain.
Upon arrival at Pegasus we received a safety speech from the co-pilot. In the event of depressurisation of the aircraft you need to locate an oxygen hood (they don't drop from the ceiling, and they aren't under the seats, apparently they are in a green bag somewhere ...) which you put over your head - oxygen is emitted by an exothermic chemical reaction, you have to be careful not to burn yourself. If you need first aid, there is a comprehensive kit in a green bag. In the event that the aircraft makes a crash landing on the ice somewhere, the crew will throw each pair of passengers a green bag containing sufficient food and materials to keep two people alive for 5 days in Antarctica. In the event of a sea landing, there is a green bag containing a dry-suit. These green bags are very reassuring things to have around. There are apparently several escape hatches in the top of the airframe, but I couldn't see any amongst the maze of hydraulics, electrical wiring, and green bags.
By 10am, after the usual jokes about in-flight movies and cabin service, we were loaded into the Hercules, and the engines (well, three of them...) were sequentially started up. After 40 minutes the three engines were stopped and we were sent back to the Terra bus - it turned out that the 4th engine's starter motor wasn't working, and a 2 hour delay was forecast. Three hours later we return, and this time were successful in taking off. The 7.5 hour flight was very crowded, people were lying all over the cargo and wherever they could find a space. Going to the ``bathroom'' involved clambering over a sea of legs and bodies, until you reach a funnel at the back of the aircraft. (Aside: the funnel is known as a `U'-tube. I would like to stress that when I spoke earlier of John and me using a `U'-tube to find the local horizontal for aligning the dewar, I was using the word in its scientific sense). There is some provision for women, but the facilities would certainly not meet with EEO approval.
The aircraft was freezing - we needed our Antarctic gear to keep warm - but even the special ``bunny boots'' were unable to keep our feet from becoming painfully cold by the end of the trip. Lunch/dinner consisted of a sandwich, a biscuit, and a drink. Unfortunately, I had left mine on the Terra bus. John thoughtfully donated his Oreos to me.
Landing in Christchurch shortly after 9pm, we were whisked through customs, and then out to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Centre) where we returned our Antarctic gear. The CDC people gave us a US Antarctic Program patch (this policy has cut down on the number of patches souveniered from the parkas) and we got to keep our dog-tags. By 10:30pm we were at the Windsor Private Hotel (recommended - very friendly and very reasonably priced), and ready to go in search of some food. The Dux de Lux was our choice, and we arrive to find many familiar faces from the South Pole base.
We later learn that the weather in McMurdo had deteriorated to ``Condition 1'' - the worst category, at which point you have to stay in whatever building you are currently in. The people who missed the three scheduled flights today will be staying for an indeterminate time.
Christchurch is a very pleasant city in the summer time. One wouldn't want to winter-over here though. By chance we had arrived in the middle of the Festival Of Romance and the annual Food and Wine show in beautiful Hagley Park. We took the opportunity to try out the new Christchurch tram system, which had only begun operation 8 days previously and uses original trams from the early part of the century. After an enjoyable morning we head out to the airport and catch a Boeing 747 to Sydney. Most of our US colleagues are spending at least a few days exploring New Zealand before returning home.
Back in Australia we are reunited with our families. John hears of his daughter Miranda's first weeks at School: the first week she told the class of her imaginary magic cat, the next week she told them that her Daddy was at the South Pole. Hmm...
We are eager to login to a South Pole computer (aspen.spole.gov) and check on the operation of IRPS. Strangely, aspen is not responding properly, and I can't get through. An e-mail from Jamie confirms that aspen is sick, and he instructs the IRPS communication software to talk to another computer. The next day I am able to make contact, and it is with great anticipation that I retrieve the log file recording the operation of the liquid nitrogen filling system - it has filled the outer can four times and the inner can twice. There is much rejoicing. The dewar vacuum is holding well, and the various temperature sensors report that IRPS is looking after itself as expected. The next task is to download a set of macros that IRPS will run hourly to report on its health and status. As sunset approaches over the next few weeks we will command IRPS to take a series of spectral scans to record the changing flux from the sky. By April it will be dark, and we will verify and extend the observations that we made last year.
All in all, our South Pole excursion has been very successful on many fronts: our scientific goals were met, we cemented relationships with CARA colleagues, and on a personal level we had the adventure of a lifetime. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about it, if you missed an installment you can peruse the diary (and Michael Burton's diary of last year) on the World Wide Webb at http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au (and then look for the JACARA home page). I will send out a few messages during the year to inform you of significant events (e.g., IRPS gets good data, IRPS explodes, the video is available, and so on).
Finally, we would like to thank the US Antarctic Program for its generous support (the cost of maintaining one person at the South Pole base is estimated at US\$3,000 per day), and our CARA colleagues Bob Loewenstein, Jeff Peterson, Mark Hereld, Jamie Lloyd, Tony Stark, Adair Lane, Bernie Rauscher, Tom Bania and Nancy Lars-Odalen for their friendship and assistance. John Briggs' efforts at the Pole last year paved the way for our present successful venture. Elizabeth Moy, back in Yerkes, was very helpful in assisting us with last minute equipment purchases. We would particularly like to say a special thank you to Bob Pernic who provided invaluable help to us and whose boundless energy and enthusiasm keeps the whole CARA presence at the South Pole running smoothly.
We left the ice with the strong feeling that the future of astrophysics in Antarctica looks bright indeed.
Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)