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This is year 3 now of our South Pole reports, with this years players being myself (Michael Burton) and Craig Smith, but I'm sure by the end of this diary many others will have made guest appearances. The JACARA South Pole site testing campaign is still growing, and this year our plan is for a refurbishment to the faithful IRPS so it can survive a third year wintering on the Ice. Michael Ashley's enhancements should now allow the IRPS to now dance a jig (or at least continually replenish the liquid nitrogen supply without external assistance (it can now monitor the amount of LN2 in the storage dewar, and pressurise the dewar if necessary)).
Craig Smith (from the ADFA) is also taking his pet mid-infrared spectrometer (MIRAS) down to measure the day time mid-IR sky, and help us quantify how much better this form of astronomy will be from Antarctica than elsewhere.
As usual, our expeditions South seem to start in chaos. First over uncertainty as to when and who might actually be able to go, with ever changing population caps at the Pole flowing back to alter travel dates and the number of us who might go. Craig ended up leaving Sydney on Jan 8, with myself following on Jan 14. As I write this I am in McMurdo a few hours away from catching my flight to the Pole, where Craig has been for two days now.
Such travails are a part of polar life, with detailed planning next to impossible as schedules are reorganised to cope with changing weather conditions and other logistic constraints. For instance, on arrival in Christchurch on Sunday I was told I might get off on Wed, but most likely Thursday. Then by Monday morning it had become Tuesday night and by that afternoon it was 5am Tuesday morning! Eventually, after being woken up at 2am to be informed there would be a delay, we left CHC at 1pm, to touch down on the Pegasus ice runway 7.5 hours later (a `quick' flight we were told due to tailwind). The flight down is the worst part of Antarctica - Hercules aircraft do a great job, but they are noisy and vibrate terribly.
We arrived to a heat wave, about 3 degrees above zero. I saw Mt. Erebus (the 3700-m local volcano) for the first time as it was beautifully clear on landing, with the 40km hike to it looking like an afternoon stroll. Many of the locals were strolling around in T-shirts, and we felt definitely over-dressed in all our cold weather gear (which you need to wear in flight for safety reasons). I even saw a couple of streams flowing! (But no penguins I'm afraid.)
McMurdo Sound, the southern most point you can reach by boat in the entire world, is still covered in ice, but any decent ice breaker can pierce it, as evidence by a US Coast Guard vessel off shore, and the Nathaniel B. Palmer, the US NSF's luxury ocean studies vessel docked at the port.
By early afternoon I learnt that I was to be off tomorrow morn, so my time for sight seeing was limited. I tried to check out the souvenir shop (`ships stores') but, of course, it closes all day Wednesdays. The shop at NZ's Scott Base (`best souvenir shop in Antarctica' it proudly advertises) was only open when I had to `bag drop', and the barber was fully booked out! So much for my attempt to go on a shopping spree. The Pole shop better have a few trinkets left when I get there!
One interesting piece of trivia. I checked out Hillary's hut at Scott Base, which is now a museum to NZ's first Antarctic outpost, and one end of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition of Hillary and Fuchs in the IGY of 1957. (My father actually went down to Antarctica along with that expedition, though he stayed at Halley Bay to do science as opposed to the adventure to cross the continent!) From the visitor book I discovered that Edmund Hillary himself, as well as several of the Fuchs clan, had visited the hut just 4 days after my visit in Feb 94! And that someone has obviously dropped the book in a puddle of water since then!
Following John Storey's experiences I found the exercise room, and checked out the Marvin-like (as in hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy) exercise machines. Having managed to program the machine to test the fitness test of a 10 year old child, it complained mine was immeasurable! So I went of for a run, my first in Antarctica (those who know my habits in this regard and might wonder why I didn't manage any on my last visit - well I was fighting against the flu that time). Actually I must have seen at least a dozen runners around McMurdo, which surprised me somewhat, until I saw the signs up for the `Scott's Hut Footrace', which turns out to be next Sunday! I tried to buy the race T-Shirt from the organiser, but they wouldn't accept my pleading I'd be stranded at the Pole by then. There are only 2 foot races in Antarctica, the South Pole Round the World Race, and this one, and so far I have managed to miss both. I will have to talk to my sponsors before my next visit and see if I can manage one some day!
Craig has reached the Pole, though we have had little communication as yet, other than to discover that apparently the crew weren't expecting the 300kg of gear he was carrying with him for his experiment!! A great start that, and I wonder what I will find waiting there for me when I arrive about lunch time tomorrow.........
Well I've been at the Pole for a day and a half and its time to report in. Actually I first have more to report from McMurdo following my last report. Rather than to attempt to get any sleep before my 5am assembly time, I decided to chance my luck and see if I could get a tour of the Nathaniel B Palmer, the cruise ship the NSF runs for ocean scientists (this is at midnight, but I'm not going to let that put me off!). The crew member on duty lets me on, and I had free rein to tour a deserted ship. Its certainly an impressive facility; internet connections to all cabins, well-equipped labs and computing systems, games rooms and even a sauna. Makes you think about taking up oceanography instead of astronomy!
I got back to my room to find I now had a room mate, except he wasn't there. However the baggage labels revealed him to be none other than Jack Doolittle, AGO-builder extraordinaire, whom I'd heard was out on the Plateau installing the 5th of the Automated Geophysical Observatories. About an hour later Jack appeared, and I had a briefing, in the wee small hours, on the latest in AGOs. Jack in fact is due to head out again in a few days to install the 6th and last of the AGO's, before installing a couple of experiments in the CARA complex! Apparently AGO6 was waiting at the end of the loading line at the airfield, so Jack gave me the code number to get in and wished me luck to find a spare minute to visit before heading off to the Pole. And that was just about all the time I got, between being dropped off at the airfield and being taken to the plane! But I made the most use I could and clicked away furiously with my camera.
Handy Hint to all Antarctic Explorers: if you just happen to be lost on the Antarctic Plateau and stumble across an AGO they all have the same pass code, which telephone callers and colleagues of Jack Doolittle will be familiar with!
Our Pole flight carried two DV's (distinguished visitors), one being none other than Neil Sullivan, director of NSF's Polar Programs section, and the other Joe Kull, the chief financial officer of NSF. I took advantage later on at the Pole to acquaint them with all we in Oz want to do in Antarctica! Having 2 DV's on board we had a spectacular arrival at Pole, doing 2 loops of the station at low altitude.
My first impression on disembarking was how much things have grown. There were several new buildings in evidence compared to my visit two years ago - the CARA site had grown, a new Clean Building was present and even the Met Tower (scene of our original microthermal experiments) had been moved. I had a new luxury accommodation module - a `hypertat' - with windows in it! The trouble with this is, however, that you cant get the place dark enough when you want to sleep!
Tourism to the South Pole seems to be hitting the big time. Several parties have skied in, and for a mere US$26,000 you can hire the `Adventure Network', a Canadian outfit to fly you to the Pole. They seem to be making regular flights too! Rules are that all visitors are allowed one meal in the Galley.
Handy tip to anyone who just happens to find themselves skiing to the South Pole: if you offer to give a talk you can have multiple meals in the Galley!
I've taken my first day here fairly easily, giving myself time to acclimatise, but the IRPS is now unpacked and on the vacuum, and I am puzzling over the tasks in front of me. Craig has efficiently put MIRAS, his mid-IR spectrometer, together and is now taking data! First impressions are that the sky is very stable!!
So its now time for me to get down to some serious work at the Pole.....
Time marches on and begins to have no meaning as I enter my 4th day here. Progress has been made on the IRPS, and problems uncovered, which may, or may not, be resolved. Craig has MIRAS running smoothly and taking beautiful data. Its been virtually cloudless since I arrived, and a few degrees below -30. I expect the temperature to start dropping soon!
Actually there was some very unusual weather at McMurdo the other day - it rained! Only for 3 minutes, mind you, but rain hasn't been reported there for over 20 years - only snow. It is a mild summer we're having in Antarctica.
The day started in unusual fashion. For some reason, as the season nears close, it was decided to upgrade the furniture in the luxury `hypertats' where I'm staying. I'd no problem with that - our filing cabinet was to be replaced by wooden cabinets! However the time assigned for the job was 7:30am, which I thought a little uncivilised given that I'm sinking into my night schedule.
No tourists today, but more DV's arrived for a quick tour. Several heavies from Washington have been here now - and the reason has to do with the imminent plans to rebuild the Pole station for a cost of some hundreds of millions of dollars. Interested parties to the budget process in Washington are in need of fact finding missions! There is no doubt that if we astronomers are going to continue our work here we need improved facilities. They are being stretched to the limit right now. Every conceivable corner in the MAPO building is filled with equipment and people, and every other science activity here is growing. The CARA contingent only make up half of the astronomical crowd anyway, the rest being particle physicists. Just behind our laboratory the PICO ice drillers are boring 2km holes into the ice to contain the Amanda neutrino project. Boring continuously with compressed steam, there is a cloud above the site!
I tried skiing today, for the first time here. Having lugged my skis out I discovered that NSF had decided to provide skis this year for recreational use! Skiing is indeed the most sensible way to get around if you're on foot, though the little extra windchill from moving faster is quite noticeable. It makes one appreciate how remarkable are the adventurers who now ski into Pole from the coast these days. A ski trail has apparently been laid to a disused site a few miles away, so maybe if I finish my job here early I'll get to try it. My technique is certainly rusty. I haven't managed to ski into the Dome yet, which has a steep slope leading down to it, without falling over!
Chris Bero, the winter-overer for the ATP (the part of CARA we are working in) and the person responsible for looking after IRPS over the winter took off today for McMurdo and R&R. Its questionable whether spending a week at McMurdo is a holiday, but perhaps its good for making you want to come back to the Pole! Anyway Chris has orders to visit Scott Base and stock up on Kiwi Beer. Its generally acknowledged that its the best on offer around these parts, and indeed its speculated that Scott Base actually fund themselves by keeping the Yanks supplied with the stuff! Chris is due back in a week when, hopefully, we will have the IRPS ready to show him.
Its a few days since my last report, though its with the greatest difficulty that I remember its 3 days ago, and that I've been here 5. The `days' have merged into a blur. However progress has been made!
I tried calling my parents on Sunday night - there are 4 hours each week when we are allowed to use the satellite to make private calls. However the satellite refused to cooperate with me, and though I once managed to reach the operator in Florida I never got any further. In fact communication seems to have been harder this time than 2 years ago - I have also been having trouble getting email out for a variety of unrelated reasons which seem to indicate that gremlins may indeed inhabit the Pole!
Craig must have set new records in Polar efficiency. His experiment was up and running within a day of my getting here, and is getting glorious data. The mid-IR sky is simply fantastic when its clear - and certainly far more stable than we were anticipating. Craig, of course, will be patient while he analyses the results before reporting them, but my gut feeling is that mid-IR work in the summer months is a real possibility for future science experiments.
The IRPS, on the other hand, has been causing us no end of trouble. Fixing it is a job well beyond my meagre electronic capabilities, but fortunately both Craig and Jamie (last year's SPIREX winterover, and of course our IRPS honours student of 93!) were up to the task. Having untangled the seemingly countless cables connecting the multitudinous parts of the experiment that Michael Ashley has now created and fitting them all together, I managed to cool the dewar down and start testing it out. First the motors worked, but no signal could be seen. After tracing this to a blown fuse, we then found we could see signal but no longer move the motors. Another blown fuse! Then the motors worked but the signal failed, and back and forth a couple more times. The trouble was that various connectors at the back of the computer had suffered in transporting the computer to Australia and back after the last season, and every time one was fixed another would be knocked out of place. The final fix came after use of the infamous LeCroy 9314L oscilloscope, star of an entire issue of Michael Ashley's diary of last year. Howling, the IRPS finally revealed all of its hidden secrets - I think we had been measuring the signal from the slow discharge of a capacitor!!
However the IRPS appears to be working now, as long as we all try not to breath on it, and I have pumped it down to its operating temperature and am getting ready for some calibration measurements, before trying out the Mark II automatic liquid nitrogen filling system, which Jack Cochrane laboured so tremendously over Christmas to have ready for me. But first I have had to clear up my 2 square metres of space as the adjoining 1.5 square metres are due to be occupied tomorrow by another experimenter!
After 4 days of pure sunshine the weather changed, and the past 24 hours we have been covered in low cloud, with limited visibility. Craig didn't think too much of my suggestion that this would make for perfect calibration by just assuming an optically thick black body at the ambient temperature! Actually attentitive readers may have noticed that I've failed to inform of the local temperatures. The main reason is because the base computer, which is supposed to continually log such information for public dissemination, seems to think every weather statistic is zero this year! However its been pretty warm so far, with the temperature hovering around the -30 mark. We really need it a little colder for Craig's experiment to reach its best!
My skiing has picked up, and I only fell over once yesterday entering the dome down the ice-covered ramp to its entrance. However I've also chickened out a couple of times and taken SPART, the South Pole Area Rapid Transport (a name not too dissimilar to the public transportation system in the Bay Area of California, and probably just as rapid!), to the CARA site instead.
And finally I think I am becoming accustomed to the altitude as I slept for 10 hours last night and woke up feeling great. However the end result is that I am now well and truly on a night schedule, and will be heading over to breakfast soon before retiring to bed!
Its now Australia Day, and Craig and I were probably the first Australians to celebrate it. At midnight (of the 25th) we both headed over to the flags around the Pole and started a picture session with all our cameras, posing in front of the various tourist sites - the ceremonial pole with all the flags of the original Antarctic treaty nations, the signpost indicating the way to various locations around the globe (though none in Oz I'm afraid) and the Pole itself. We probably committed a federal felony by removing the US flag from the Pole and replacing it with the Oz flag for the photo session! And we remembered our masters back home by taking a few pics with the UNSW banner prominently displayed. Actually I'm hoping to get to see our AASTO at McMurdo on the way back and have come armed with both UNSW and ANU banners for a suitable photo op! Sigh, how image drives science these days!
Its started to get cooler - the temp gauge dropped to -35 today, but the wind seems to have stopped making it actually feel quite warm out here! We've been having a mix of bright blue sky, to be rapidly followed by extensive cloud cover, and reverting back to clear skies. Craig keeps oscillating between thinking this is a good site for 10 micron work and a lousy one, with each weather change! Just like any mainland observatory!
While we've at last seen the temperature drop as we head towards the end of the summer season, on the other hand the temperature in the MAPO building is heading towards the roof! We must have close on 50 terminals in operation and my thermometer is reading 27 deg. Given that we all have our thermals on it can get a little uncomfortable at times. Not to mention the 60 degree temperature difference when you head outside! The temperature has had an unexpected affect on the experiment. I've been trying to do a number of calibrations before taking the IRPS onto the roof, and have been thrashing the filter and aperture wheels around. Until I discovered that the filter wheel wasn't behaving properly and not ending up in the right place. I noticed its temperature was over 50 degrees, and have directed a fan onto it, whereby it nows works perfectly. I guess Michael Ashley just neglected to design the experiment for both equatorial and Antarctic conditions - though I'm sure he'll come up with a modification for next time!
A major discussion point of late has been toilets! Or `Heads' as they are called around here (a US navy term, for some reason). Out in the astro sector we've been blessed with a solar toilet, a wooden building just heated by the warmth of the Sun. Actually it quite pleasant inside, though I'll spare you the graphic details of how the plumbing works. However in winter this naturally cant be used (no Sun!) and the administrative services around here seem somewhat reluctant to provide anything more than a barrel for the winter-overers to use. (its a kilometre back to the main base - not a journey you can do in two minutes when the temperature is 60 degrees below!). Meetings have been arranged between the astronomers and admin (ASA - Antarctic Support Associates) - to which all that has been achieved so far is to arrange additional meetings. Yes, bureaucracy strikes at the South Pole too! If you ever chance on Jamie in a quite moment and ask him about the situation you will hear a few choice expletives! Jamie is not proving to be a good committee man in this instance!!
My experiment has improved no end since my last report and indeed I am close to taking the IRPS up on to the roof and installing the wonderous automatic liquid nitrogen system. I've been puzzling over all the bits I've been given for it over the last week - its a bit like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle - and I think I have it sorted out now. Though heaven knows how it will actually work when its all assembled - that's another piece of Michael A's magic software I have to see in action!
Jack Doolittle, Mr. AGO, arrived at Pole last night. We've only had a brief chat so far, but Jack never expected to be at Pole right now - rather he thought he'd be in the field installing AGO number 6 (the last one). However it turns out that the pilot of the LC130 seemed to get cold feet about landing at the site, and aborted the mission after having made an initial drop off of advance equipment. A couple of guys who had been sent in to clear a runway with bulldozers had to spend 10 days waiting for someone to pull them out!
Well the past who knows how many hours have been dominated for me by calibration measurements. The IRPS is sitting out on the bench in the lab, just longing to be placed outside in the pristine air, yet there are all these boring calibrations measurements to make. To find what position corresponds to what wavelength, how much signal at each wavelength and aperture corresponds to how much flux, how linear is the detector, etc etc. Not exciting stuff, but essential to doing good science. I devised a substantial series of tests to do, and then Michael Ashley came up with a whole lot more! The jobs taking much longer than I would like but I hope to be finishing in the near future! The most important thing to do is find a tub of water and keep it at a constant temperature while the IRPS does its stuff and measures the IR flux coming from it. I tried to make the process more interesting by specifying the need for 12 year old malt whisky for the job, being particularly suitable as the calibrating agent on account of its constitution, but somehow I couldn't persuade the station staff to make such a source available!
My body clock is really working strangely now; I seem to be getting about 3 hours later each day as far as my body rhythms go. For instance I got up at 6pm yesterday, had breakfast at dinner, lunch at `midrats' and dinner at brekky! Since it was Australia day, Craig and I paid a visit to the South Pole store to collect a few crates of beer to share around. Shopping at the store is like going back in a time warp, or visiting a shop in India. The store only opens for an hour 3 times a week. Four people are there to serve you, but they can only deal with one person at a time. You have to place your order with one, have it written on a chitty by another, who gives it to a third to use a PC to enter it into an inventory catalogue, scanning each postcard and stamp individually! If you are purchasing beverages the chitty comes back, and you wait around for the `all clear' announcement when you then can visit the `fridge' where the alcohol is stored and pick up you order. With waiting in line, the whole process can take an hour!
So the evening was passed guzzling cans, and telling all who passed about Governor Philip and the convicts, but at midnight I had to stop to head out to work, where I now am some 10 hours later. I have just completed another major accomplishment, photographing a `shadow circle', showing the circle a shadow makes over the 24 hours of daylight at the Pole. The whole process has taken several days to complete, with my having to contend with weather and unsocial hours. My last picture, of a series of 8 taken at 3 hour intervals, was for 9am in the morning, a difficult time for me as I always seem to find myself in bed then!
Craig continues to gather data at a great rate with MIRAS. In fact a group of three scientists from NASA Goddard contemplated defecting to Craig's experiment today! They have been charged with the task of getting both a mid-infrared telescope and camera ready for wintering over (which they call SPIRAC, not to be confused with SPIREX, the near-infrared telescope that's here), and are still waiting for some of their team to arrive with vital bits (such as the mid-IR camera!). Since they have just got their telescope working, and Craig has a working mid-infrared camera, there are some interesting possibilities.....
My skiing continues to improve - I didn't fall over at all going down the ramp to the dome yesterday, and I even managed to skate out to the MAPO building to go to work. Give me a few months here and I might make the Oz cross-country ski team!
Finally I have learnt that Jack Doolittle is expecting to share the same desk that I have all the parts of the IRPS covering...........
We've been through a bit of a blow during the night, nothing normally to write home about, but about as windy as I've felt it at South Pole - around 15 knots (though Jamie keeps on insisting that it reaches about 40 knots in winter, despite Met data to the contrary!) - and at these temps (-35 now) that makes it feel cold! Actually the weather has been much more changeable than my previous trip; while it has been mostly beautiful sunshine, low cloud can suddenly shoot in and the scene changes completely inside an hour. Then an hour later we are back to sunshine. The other day there were some spectacular visual affects with sun dogs, and a light beam which circled all the way around the the from the Sun - some kind of bizarre refraction affect. However I missed it, alas, as I was sleeping - the penalty of working nights!
The IRPS is now on the roof and still appears to be working! I spent several hours re-cabling to do the job, clambering over all sorts of obstacles in the lab, trying to make our cables relatively neat - it would be a real knot otherwise. I also wanted to make sure I could get my cables out on the roof before the access hole got clogged up with someone elses experiment - a case of first in, best dressed! Now all that remains is to get the nitrogen filling system up and going and I'm done. Though I'm not sure whether I will now get to see Chris Bero, our winter-over scientist. While on R&R in McMurdo he had to visit the Navy dentist for the pre-winter check out - and the dentist decided he should have his wisdom teeth out! This means a trip back to Christchurch to visit a real dentist (who almost certainly will think the teeth are OK!). I guess this is one of the penalties of have the military runs operations - everything goes by the book. Though NSF are trying to cut back on their Navy reliance - next year the McMurdo helicopter fleet will be run by a private contractor, for instance.
Craig has been messed up today - the SPIRAC boys (his competitors!) have decided they need to run all their cables up where Craig is, resulting in his having to dismantle his experiment for their convenience. Then the tower that MIRAS is sitting on rattles and shakes rather a lot as people run up and down the stairs - in fact Craig has now posted some data on the outside door showing what can happen to his readings when someone slams the door too hard! I guess this is the penalty for working in a lab where there about about 7 experiments in progress.
I gave the weekly science lecture tonight - held every Sunday night. I decided to try and explain why all these crazy astronomers keep coming to the Pole and what we really want to do. I had lined up a nice collection of slides to accompany the talk, to be told, 10 minutes before I was due to begin, that `technical difficulties' would prevent me from showing any slides!
Jack Doolittle, Mr. AGO, has been giving me all kinds of wise advice about running AGOs (our AASTOs in our instance). Our AASTO is indeed due to arrive in McMurdo any instance now, and I am trying to make arrangements to get to see it. Jack tells me they very carefully wrapped the AASTO in plastic to protect it during its journey, and in particular to prevent the shipping company from defacing it by putting their logos all over it. Since AGO6 is still in Mactown (having not been deployed) I will thus have two to see. And they both have the same access code number!
Its getting towards end of season now at Pole, and people are starting to pull out. Not that it hasn't stopped some more astronomers arriving to finish setting up SPIRAC, but slowly, gradually, there seems to be more space in the MAPO building. Though no word from our winter-overer, Chris Bero, in CHC to see the dentist. This is starting to become a real worry because a lot of us need to see him before we depart to tell him how to run our experiments!
I'm nearly done, and only really have a few small things to do, as well as watching the experiment run itself for a few days and see it can do so without intervention. This means I cant really head out today, and the downside of this is it looks like I'll be stranded in MacTown for about a week!
I'm not looking forward to that, but it has to do with the boat coming in, and all other work stopping. Not that I really understand why - there is none of this manual unloading anymore, just a few navy guys running around in trucks and forklifts. I guess its another of these Antarctic `traditions' which the navy brought in. In fact I'll probably hang around Pole an extra couple of days as that is preferable to enduring McMurdo food.
I managed my radio interview with ABC Canberra yesterday. After numerous email correspondence with Jeremy Lee, the programme producer, regarding possible times and dates, we finally managed the link up. To my surprise the reception was pretty good - when I called my parents in the UK a few days ago I could barely hear them. I expect the reception sounded suitably distant, hopefully reflecting where I was for the listeners!
I'm now back on a day schedule! Just like that. I was getting so tired that I didn't manage to keep awake all last night yesterday, but just had to go to bed. Only got about 4 hours sleep, but it put me on a day schedule. Maybe I'll try and stick to it now - it felt rather unusual having brekky at breakfast time!
I took yesterday morning off and went skiing. I did a grand tour of the runway, which must be about 10 km in total. When you reach the end of the runway, and the base is a small blur seen through the murk of the surface inversion layer, and you realise there is no sign of human presence for over 1000 km in front of you, you start to feel something of the immensity of Antarctica. While it was pleasant skiing out with the breeze at my back, coming back I started to get cold, and it certainly makes you appreciate what the adventurers who ski here have to endure when warmth isn't just a half hour ski ride away. It also drives home the importance of wearing exactly the right gear for the occasion - I was only slightly inadequately dressed yet, and the cold inexorably crept up on me! For reasons I couldn't fathom I'd run into odd flags and markers at various places on my tour. Presumably the remains of some scientific experiment in years past, but now just presenting an archaeological mystery to the modern explorer!
I now have the IRPS up on the roof and running apparently quite happily. I constructed a giant container, which I call the `Biggest Blue Board Box' (BBBB) to house the storage dewar for the liquid nitrogen. The dewar doesn't like getting too cold on the outside (despite holding liquid that is -200 on the inside!) and likes to be pampered and kept warm. So we have wrapped heating tape around it, and I constructed a box our of blue Styrofoam (`blue-board' - hence the name), which is nearly as tall as me. The BBBB is very much a heath-robinson-ish kind of construction - all these pieces of Styrofoam glued to together with silicon paste and bound with aluminium tape and holes cut out for cable to pass through. I'm thinking of offering it to the winter- overs as a `head' - certainly better than the toilet facilities that ASA are deigning to supply them!
I managed to break the very last of the cables I had to connect up to IRPS in the installation process! I guess I got pretty cold on the roof yesterday - I had to spend a fair amount of time up there dragging things around and connecting things together, much of it in only light gloves, and needed to run indoors frequently to thaw out. The IRPS is now rather a confusing looking beast sitting on top of the MAPO building, and cables hanging out of every orifice you can see. It had better work, as there is no way Chris Bero is going to be able to work out what's wrong if anything breaks!
Craig has now taken his experiment down. Just 10 minutes after doing so we had some `diamond dust', a phenomenon whereby tiny ice crystals fill the air, reflecting sunlight off them as they spin. Craig actually very much wanted to measure this phenomenon as it's one of the negatives that hearsay says will affect mid-infrared astronomy, but which no-one really knows for sure. Unfortunately we missed it! Craig takes off on todays flight and has been promised fast passage through McMurdo! Me, I'm marooned for another week or so.
Well Craig has now departed leaving me on my own to fend with the IRPS. Craig's departure was in fact a long drawn out affair. We had a spell of bad weather; the winds changed (a rare event) and brought in `warm' moist coastal air from the west (that's grid west!), raising the temperature to a toasty -25 degrees and bringing in thick, low lying cloud. All flights were cancelled for 36 hours, and Craig's departure was put off twice, much to his frustration. The question he now faces is how many days does he have to spend at McMurdo? Already he has logged into the Pole once from McMurdo....
As soon as Craig departed I started having some troubles with the IRPS. I thought all was in hand until I started assembling the parts for the automatic nitrogen filling system on the roof, when nothing seemed to work. A string of faults have been diagnosed, nothing actually to do with the IRPS itself, but all to do with the bits that are supposed to make things easier for the winter-overer! At the moment I can't really say whether they all can be fixed up before I go. My main nitrogen storage dewar got rather severely damaged when I left some heaters on inside it while getting it ready for filling, and now reeks of a foul odour of melted plastic and other noxious substances! Panic and misery set in - the experiment was over, we were finished etc etc. But I forgot we are working with the Americans, who never come down with one of anything when you could have six! And indeed there are spare storage dewars of the right size around. So I have been spending the night wiring up a new dewar to fit our needs. Saved! Though that being said there are still a couple of other problems which I'm waiting for Michael Ashley to send me solutions to......
However right now Michael and all the UNSW crew are observing on the AAT, commissioning UNSWIRF, are new imaging Fabry-Perot for the IRIS infrared camera. And the weather is clear!! Michael's already sent me the first image obtained, the molecular hydrogen in Orion - and its great. I've been sending helpful hints on how to observe at Siding Spring while Michael A has been sending helpful hints on how to fix dewars at the South Pole! Tomorrow I'm going to try sending commands to the AAT to run the FP - its essentially the same software that runs the IRPS (and even has the name IRPS in it because Michael hasn't yet got around to changing all the names in the program!).
Actually I've been observing quite a bit at Siding Spring while at the South Pole; this is the third AAT run I've been involved with since arriving! And I was on the 2.3m the other night too - I believe there have been some complaints about my observing on two telescopes simultaneously whilst being at the South Pole! Of course, I have some good collaborators who are doing the work for me!
The barber visited town and I got myself a haircut! There are two hairdressers stationed at MacTown, and I tried to visit them on my way through, but they were all booked up (Navy personnel need lots of haircuts!). But it turns out that one of the hairdressers is an enterprising sort and has managed to persuade the NSF that personnel at Pole could do with haircuts too. So she's been posted here for a week, and has had a full queue of long-haired scruffies to deal with! Next year she's working on persuading the NSF that personnel in field camps need hair cuts too - a good way of getting to see Antarctica!
I also checked out the exercise facilities at Pole. There's a tiny room under the main dome full of assorted exercise machines and weights. Not quite up to the standard of the MacTown machines, but still pretty sophisticated. I climbed up stairs for a mile (very exciting!), cycled an obstacle course and ran in circles round a track which kept going up and down and changing the speed it came past me. I was in full sweat by the end. I need to time my next session to coincide with my biweekly shower ration!
Some big news in astronomy today, SOFIA and SIRTF, the two big infrared astronomy projects (one airborne, the other space) that have been the top-rated projects in the US astronomy priorities have been given a `new start' by congress. That means they have finally been funded, after decades of lobbying. Quite amazing considering the budget crisis the US has been going through. Harvey Mosely, the chief investigator of SPIRAC has been going around wearing T-shirts of several ex-observatories, including the KAO (the predecessor to SOFIA). We've decided not to give him a CARA T-shirt in case that means we get shut down to fund these new observatories!
Fog, that's the story of today! Its the worst I've ever seen here. Another weather change and the wind, instead of blowing down from Dome Argus, is now coming from the South (grid South!) - probably from Oz for all I know. Anyway its brought more moist, warm air with it and thick fog. It reached -20 at one point! Visibility is down to about 50m - and I certainly cant see the dome from the astronomy sector. Its bringing a frosting to everything too - being laden with moisture (or relatively so) water seems to be condensing out of the air onto every object it can find. I've had to make heavy use of a heat gun to clean away the snow and frost from anything I'm working on, otherwise all my connections would have become embedded in ice!
Indeed the weather was sufficiently poor that one plane aborted its journey having reached Pole and headed back to Mactown! I was skiing to work at about 8pm yesterday, a route which crosses the ice runway, barely able to see the next flag pole in front of me. Then I noticed the warning lights come on warning that a plane was approaching. After waiting around a bit I heard a dull roar, which got closer and closer until I thought something was going to land right on top of me! However the noise passed overhead, or at least I presume it did, because I never saw anything, even though the plane was probably no more than 50 m above my head. I could hear the plane turn around, and 10 minutes later the same performance happened - a near landing but nothing seen! The pilot gave up at that point and headed back to McMurdo, and I was finally able to cross the runway and head to shelter!
A couple of hours later another plane arrived (its a busy time at Pole right now - we expect 5 flights tomorrow!). The visibility had cleared to 100m and it managed to land. When it took off an hour and a half later I could barely see it, though the runway is only 100m from our building, and it was going in the wrong direction! I have never seen a plane take off to the south here - the wind's is always blowing from the other direction!
Its been a tiring last couple of days, but finally I see the end in sight. When I last wrote I could see disaster ahead - there were half a dozen problems to hand to which I couldn't see the solution. Thankfully they are now past, though another potential disaster came and went in the last few hours.
It all started when I managed to destroy that storage dewar, though fortunately another was found (and even the spare from McMurdo has now arrived). In fact I underestimated when I said the Americans always had six of everything, they have sixty-six of them! Apparently at McMurdo they have scores of these dewars and are looking for an excuse to get rid of them, because there is some newer, fancier better dewar now available! My second set of problems came when I installed the automatic nitrogen filling system, and found that only gaseous nitrogen would come out the end, no liquid! After taking everything apart it turned out that a new component we'd added this year, a sieve to keep our tubes clean, was reducing the pressure sufficiently that the nitrogen was all evaporating before it could reach the end of my fill tube! But in the process of doing this I must have climbed the stairs to the roof of the MAPO building 100 times. I had to set commands running on the computer, then run outside to see what they were doing, then disassemble bits and repeat the process, and finally put everything together. There is only so long you can work outside with fiddly bits before you need to run into the warm to recover, and add about 10 trips to fill my dewar with nitrogen, plus all those times I forgot some vital tool, I think I got my exercise in, as well as seeming to have spent half the day outside!
To more mundane matters. The weekend has just past and we had that good old American favourite, pizza, for Saturday dinner. Apparently a South Pole tradition. My skiing advanced to the point where I braved the super-direct descent down the mogul-covered ice ramp into the dome (ie skis straight ahead, no turning or braking), and survived! And I discovered a problem with the high-tech running machine in the exercise room - you cant set it to go faster than 10mph!
Rumour has it that the AASTO is due to arrive tomorrow, if the fog clears up.....
I thought my last couple of days would be relatively light, but in fact I've only had 6 hours sleep in the last 48, and really just want to get out of here now! Various minor teething problems, and just packing up simply take much longer than you anticipate. That's really a rule of Polar life - every task takes that much longer than back in the real world - as simply living is that much more of an effort.
Even now I am not leaving a trouble free instrument. I am having an irritating problem with a loose valve. Something which in the lab would be a slight inconvenience but here in the middle of the winter might mean the difference between an experiment and none at all. Still, I think I have hit upon a solution (replace the valve - simple!), and given the flight cancellations I might even have time to carry out the task. Of course then I expect to find another problem to worry about.....
I did take some time out to visit the AST/RO telescope, one of the other CARA projects that actually occupies its own building (smart people!). AST/RO is a submillimetre telescope, taking advantage of the new windows that open up for observation into space at these wavelengths. AST/RO has just completed its first winter - and come out with some very impressive results. 80,000 spectra of which about 20,000 are actually good! In fact the whole telescope is a lesson in how to deal with Antarctica, a project designed for the Pole in the first place, rather than retro-fitting an existing experiment. As a result the winter-over is actually able to concentrate on the science rather than just getting things to work. The entire instrument is inside, making working on it very easy and just the telescope is outside. Richard Chamberlain, last year's winterover even managed to write a couple of papers while he was down here!
AST/RO seems to be making a habit of employing foreigners, and at times there have been no Americans working at Pole on the project! Currently a German and a Brit are in charge, with the Brit wintering over. Actually of the 5 winter over astronomers this year, Americans are in a minority. There are only 2 of them, with 2 Brits and 1 Oz (Jamie once more).
Well the weather is finally turning away from the heatwave conditions we've been experiencing, and dropped below -30 at last. Still some way to go to reach -40, but we're moving there. Its been a much harder spell at Pole for me than I anticipated before arrival - I thought I only had to shake down an existing experiment and that would be that, but all kinds of unexpected difficulties have arisen. Its symptomatic of the environment, and all the people in the MAPO building have been working absolutely flat out. Amazingly it does look as though most experiments are actually going to work, though SPIRAC looks in trouble right now as their detector wont actually record data at the moment! But it would be nice to have a few more resources in order to get the job done - the Pole is a challenging place to work!
Well I'm finally out of Pole, and on my way home. With luck, this will be the last report from Antarctica that you, the patient reader, will have to endure! After 5 flights in a row being cancelled on the Wednesday (for reasons that were never explained to us, but certainly wasn't to do with the weather), the first "off-deck" from McMurdo actually did take off at 7am on Thur, and we knew there would finally be a flight for the Pole. There were 17 "pax" on the flight; most of the remaining science contingent at Pole, apart from the 10 or so staying on till "reverse winfly" (or station close, to use English, as opposed to navy-speak) in about 10 days time (who happen mainly to be AMANDA guys desperately trying to calibrate their instrument before winter by firing flashes of radiation into the ice and seeing what they can detect from these "false" neutrino signatures).
Unfortunately I didn't leave the IRPS in the best of states. In the past 24 hours, since the time I was originally due to depart, the instrument has been displaying some strange characteristics. These may just be due to one of the temperature sensors deciding to be temperamental, or it may be a more serious affliction, and its not something I was able to readily diagnose in the time I had available. So I left Chris Bero, our winter-overer, with some emergency instructions to keep the IRPS alive and hang on until Jamie arrives back and can check it out properly. At least the instrument can still take data!
So we arrived in MacTown in mid-afternoon of the Thursday into unbearable heat - it must be 3 or 4 below zero with just a light breeze! On our shuttle ride back to the base from the ice runway at Williams Field I spotted a small green and gold building waiting on the skiway ready for loading onto an aircraft - it was our AASTO! After being checked in I rapidly made some enquiries to learn the AASTO was ready to be loaded into a Hercules in the very near future ready for transport to Pole tomorrow! So I rapidly gathered up my camera gear and the University banners I had been lugging around Antarctica and found the first shuttle bus I could back to Willy Field (incidentally it had NT plates - "Outback Australia" - though heaven knows why?!).
So a few minutes later I was standing outside this green and yellow building out on the Ross Ice Shelf again. I had the combination for the lock (Jack Doolittle's office phone number!) - but in fact it was emblazoned in large numbers on it anyway. Actually I was a little disappointed to find the AASTO looked somewhat shop-worn. Despite Jack's careful attempts to keep it clean by wrapping it in plastic, it had obviously been torn off on arrival and various packing and freighting labels had been adorned over it! It needs a fresh coat of paint, and subsequent enquiries extracted the promise that we will be able to use one of the heavy vehicle maintenance sheds at Pole in mid-Dec (the hot season) to do the job!
The AASTO wasn't quite an empty shell; it was equipped with some furniture and even a ladder (to get on to the roof). I adorned it with ANU and UNSW banners and started shooting away. Only just in time. A large fork-lift soon arrived, driven by a kamikaze navy cadet, to whisk the thing away. He didn't even want to wait for me to get out and lock things away before lifting up the AASTO. Within a few minutes it was shoved onto a transportation platform and whisked into the back of a nearby Herc by a whole gang of these cadets, with my both trying to capture the whole incident on film with out being impaled by a high-speed fork lift and my praying they weren't going to impale the AASTO into the side of the Herc!
Standing by all this time were 2 members of the AGO field service maintenance team. These are the people who are now contracted to go out into the field, recover the data from the AGO's, and service the modules for another winter seasons work on the Ice. They had been there to test whether a new fuel delivery system for the AGO could actually be made to fit into the Herc! None of this get a tape measure and design it to fit - it seems the best way is to build it first and then see if you can get it in the back of the plane! Apparently the AGO's have been encountering some difficulties with their fuel lines, with leakages, and here was a new compact package designed to alleviate some of the problems. It might well be that our AASTO will be the first module to benefit from the new system! Anyway the service crew were keen to press upon me their services when we need a field crew to go and maintain our AASTO!
That was about it for me for the day; after dinner I was exhausted and went to bed and slept for 11 hours. The next day I found we had a "bag drag" scheduled for the evening (when we check our luggage in), for a probable departure the following day. So it was then a matter of packing in as much sight-seeing as possible in the day.
There is a hike to a prominent rock outcrop, Castle Rock, a few miles off base that is a popular day trip, but you not only have to go in pairs, but need to see a safety video and be checked out. So the morning was spent sorting these details out - enjoying a video telling you about all the people who have died out on the route you are about to take, and how you must follow the right flags (the red and green ones, not the black ones which lead into crevasses, or the yellow ones, which are to be used for peeing around (yes, seriously!)). Bob Loeweinstein, one of CARA's stalwarts (and leading cross-country skier) and myself then finally set out on the trail to Castle Rock. The first section is in fact dreary, winding up the back of McMurdo past the station rubbish dump, and the "Arrival Heights" area (scene of one of the most protracted disputes ever under the Antarctic Treaty system between NZ and the USA about trespass over a site of special scientific interest, that got so complicated that only the lawyers in the end knew what people were arguing over!). But then the route reaches a ridge, and the view becomes spectacular as you head towards Castle Rock. Erebus, the mighty volcano is directly behind Castle Rock (and another 40 km away!), McMurdo Sound is behind you with the Transantarctic Mountains 100 km away across them, the open Ross Sea to your left, free of ice, and the Ross Ice Shelf to your left! We were lucky that the day was beautifully clear and the wind virtually absent, and got to see the most spectacular views of Antarctica, once we were out of sight of the ugly mess that is McMurdo.
On returning we bumped into a colleague who had just obtained the keys to Scott's Hut, so we went and had a quick tour of that historic monument too, past the remains of food, clothing and equipment used by the early explorers in that part of the world. Despite all the "specials" they had delivered from London in graphically labelled food boxes, it certainly was a tough existence for them.
That evening, after a climb up the local hill, "Observation Hill", I was just snooping around the Crary Laboratory (the delux science labs they have here) when I was caught by the director of the Lab, and given a personally guided tour of the whole establishment! You might wonder why a director has the time for such personal service - well he had been due to travel out the same flight as me, but had been "bumped" off it at bag drag earlier that evening and now had an extra day to kill in Antarctica! The Crary lab is certainly an impressive place, stocked with the latest equipment serving a wide range of sciences. Though concentrating on the biological sciences, there are facilities for ice core analysis, balloon launches, electronic mapping, geological analysis, electronics labs etc. etc. And all apparently vastly under-utilised! In fact the place is a zoo in the early part of summer, but in late summer, when it no longer becomes safe to venture to the ice edge to collect your samples, most of the visiting scientists head home, leaving a vast expanse of free space. As the director impressed upon me, anyone wanting to work here from late January on has virtually unlimited call on the labs resources. Maybe this is the solution to our space crisis in Astro back at UNSW?!
After this I crashed again, and now, all being well I simply have to wait around till 4pm for check in for todays flight out. All being well, it'll leave at approx 7pm, to get into CHC around 3am, to end another expedition to the great white continent. But these could be famous last words.........
And I'm finally back in Sydney, where the weather seems almost as cold as Antarctica! That just about wraps it up for another year of the South Pole Diary. Here's to the AASTO adventure for 1997.......