South Pole Diary - Jan/Feb 2004 - Michael Ashley

Now with illustrations and video clips

18th of January 2004 - Introduction

This is my fourth trip to the South Pole, and three years since my most recent one, so I am looking forward to returning and seeing what has changed. The University of New South Wales (UNSW) long-running and highly successful AASTO experiment was completed at the end of last year, and we are now embarking on a new experiment in collaboration with Doug Caldwell, Kevin Martin and their colleagues at NASA's SETI Institute. Here is Doug's on-line diary, for a different viewpoint of the events in this diary. The purpose of the experiment is to search for extra-solar planets, i.e., planets around stars other than the sun. We are doing this using a new telescope that is able to simultaneously observe thousands of stars and monitor them for the small changes in brightness that occur when a planet, by chance, happens to pass in front of the star. This has been likened in difficulty to trying to detect an insect flying across the headlights of a car 5km away.

It turns out that the South Pole has a number of advantages for this sort of experiment, not least of which is that the stars never set, so that you can monitor the same stars continuously. This is very desirable, since a planetary transit may only last for a few hours, which may be during daytime at a normal observatory. At the South Pole the nighttime lasts six months.

I am traveling with Mark Jarnyk from Mount Stromlo Observatory. Mark is a software expert who will be recommissioning the Gmount - a precision, low-power, telescope mounting platform built at Mount Stromlo. In preparation for our visit, Jessica Dempsey, a UNSW PhD student, is just completing a two-week visit to the Pole during which she successfully supervised the move of the AASTO to a new location about a kilometre away from its previous location, but still just a few hundred metres from the actual South Pole (we're talking -90S here).

In order to get to the South Pole I must first fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, where I was met by a very helpful representative of Raytheon Polar Services, the company that has been contracted by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide logistical support in Antarctica. Within minutes of arrival I was whisked away on a shuttle bus to the Windsor Private Hotel, an excellent little bed-and-breakfast establishment in the heart of Christchurch, and a favourite amongst modern Antarctic explorers.

It turns out that Christchurch is in the midst of holding the World Busking Championships, and there are numerous jugglers, unicycle riders, stand-up comedians, etc, around the city.

19th of January 2004 - Extreme Cold Weather clothing fit-out

At 1 p.m. we turned up at the Clothing Distribution Centre (CDC), near Christchurch airport, to be fitted out with our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) clothing for the trip south. ECW consists of an amazing assortment of gloves, balaclavas, parkas, goggles, rubber-insulated boots ("bunny boots"), and intriguing items such as "expedition underdrawers" (suffice to say that if you wore these in Sydney you would probably spontaneously combust). Issuing of ECW is an extremely efficient process, and within an hour we had tried on all the clothing and repacked it into the flight bags for the flight to Antarctica.

We learn that we are scheduled to be at the airport tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. to check in for our 8 a.m. flight south to McMurdo. There are only 16 passengers on the flight, so we can expect to be jammed in with lots of cargo.

We retire early to get some sleep before the flight. For some reason, scores of late-night revelers seem to pass the time shouting to each other for hours on the street outside my bedroom window. Christchurch on a Monday night?  All I can think of is that the buskers are having a night on the town after performing all weekend.

20th of January 2004 - arrival at McMurdo, Antarctica

We awake at 4:30 a.m. to catch the shuttle to the airport at 5. Once at the Clothing Distribution Centre we clamber into our ECW gear and prepare for the briefing at 6:15. A customs official and his dog make several passes over all of our luggage to make sure that we aren't taking any drugs or other prohibited substances.

The safety briefing from the Loadmaster is somewhat more involved than the usual airline version. For example, the oxygen masks don't just drop from the ceiling, they require you to pull on a tab to break a seal that releases them. You do this when you notice the airplane suddenly fills with condensation and your colleagues pass out. There are also emergency oxygen hoods which you pull over your head, and it is important to have the chemical canister pointing in the right direction before you activate it by pulling on various coloured tabs. The emergency exit doors are also rather complicated, involving turning handles, lifting levers, and pulling hatches aside, and if we need to exit via the roof there are rope ladders to deploy, life vests to put on, and rubber rafts to get into by climbing up a series of webbing ladders. The roof exit appears to be about 0.5m on a side (far too small for our bulky jackets),  and is buried amidst an array of hydraulic pipes and wires. We also receive instruction on how to prepare for being winched out of the ocean by a helicopter. Let's hope that none of this will be necessary. The Loadmaster was sounding very earnest though...

Spot the emegency exit in this photo... (actually there isn't one in this particular picture, but it is typical of the inside of a C141).

I have interspersed this diary with movies (WMV format, which is readily playable using Microsoft Media Player) and still images. The movies are highly compressed, in order to be playable over a dial-up connect. Here is the first movie, it shows part of the briefing at Christchurch before boarding the airplane.

At the briefing I was surprised to find Jules Harnett, an Australian astronomer, who is going to winterover at South Pole to help run the AST/RO sub-millimetre telescope. Jules joins a long list of Australians who have wintered at the Pole in various capacities.

We hear that our flight-time is 5 hours 15 minutes, which means that we will be traveling in a C141 Starlifter, which is faster, quieter, but not necessarily more comfortable than the usual LC130 Hercules. It's a quick bus trip to the C141, where we grab in-flight lunches, and are bundled into our spartan webbing seats.

The only windows in the C141 are towards the rear of the aircraft, and we were strictly prohibited by the Loadmaster from clambering over the cargo to take a look. Similarly, we were not allowed in the cockpit. These were disappointments, since on previous trips I have been able to observe the steadily increasing number of icebergs as we approach the great frozen continent of Antarctica.

One of the passengers does try to sneak a look, but the Loadmaster sees him and shouts "hoy!!" - it must have taken enormous lung-power for him to be heard above the deafening noise of the engines, and through our earplugs.

About an hour into the trip I notice that my feet were feeling a bit numb, and then remembered that I had forgotten to depressurize my boots before takeoff (the "bunny boots" are air-insulated, and they have a value on the side which is supposed to be opened during flight, else the boot expands and compresses your feet).

If the plane did have to ditch in the Southern Ocean, then you would probably float suspended upside down from your bunny boots, until they filled with water, at which point you would sink.

But let's not dwell on these topics.

A little over 5 hours later we touch down on the Pegagus blue-ice runway, perhaps 20km from McMurdo itself, and built on the permanent ice-sheet covering the Ross Sea. Here we are preparing to disembark from the C141, and here are our first steps off the aircraft on to Antarctica.

A large vehicle takes us the 20km into the town of McMurdo, or Mactown as it is known by its inhabitants. It is the main American logistic hub for Antarctica with a summer population of over 1000 people, and just 6km or so from Scott Base, the New Zealand station. First stop in McMurdo is the NSF building, or "Chalet", where we receive a briefing. We discover that we have the option of going to the Pole a day early, i.e., tomorrow, so we take it. After the briefing, we are given our room assignments, collect our checked baggage from the MCC (Movement Control Center), have dinner, and then at 7pm lug our bags back to the MCC for another weigh-in. This process is called "bag-drag", which is an apt description. The MCC is perched on the top of a hill, so it can be quite a struggle to get to it, with bags, while wearing full ECW gear.

After this process is over, I visited the Crary Lab and used the telescope they have in the library to search for penguins. There were lots of Weddell seals lying around doing nothing, but no penguins. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a plume of water in the distance. Sure enough, there was a pod of perhaps 20-30 orcas (whale-like creatures with a fin like a dolphin) frolicking in the open sea where the icebreaker had recently made a cutting. I watched for half-an-hour while the orcas leapt out of the sea, spouted, and generally had a good time. No penguins though.

Meanwhile, Mark had acquired the key to Scott Hut, so we traipsed down there and had a good look around.

Scott's Hut was built in 1902, and was used by several expeditions up until 1913. It is in excellent condition, and provided a welcome respite from the wind outside.

There is still perhaps 50kg of original seal meat from 1913 remaining in the hut. Here is an example of some on the veranda.

And there were lots of cases of "Special Dog Biscuits" and "Special Sledging Rations". When I first visited McMurdo in 1995, the food was so appalling that John Storey and I contemplated raiding Scott's Hut, or perhaps using a GPS to locate Scott's last food cache. Fortunately, the food at McMurdo is now excellent, and I hear that during wintertime it is even better.

Walking back to McMurdo from Scott's Hut, I took a photo of the coast guard icebreaker.

21st of January 2004 - the South Pole

At 6am, its rise and shine for breakfast and the trip to South Pole. No hitches, and we are in the air in a LC130 Hercules aircraft by 8:30am. the "L" in "LC130" means that this is a specially modified aircraft that can land on either skis or wheels.

This time our Loadmaster was much more relaxed, and we were allowed all over the aircraft and cockpit.

There were some spectacular views as we passed over the Trans-antarctic Mountain range. The snow terrain was constantly changing: from crevasse fields, to bare rock mountains, to smooth snow, pressure ridges, the variety was amazing.

2h 45m after leaving McMurdo we arrived at the South Pole (coincidentally, a British woman, Fiona Thornewill, had just covered roughly the same distance by skis to the South Pole, in 42 days). It was moderately warm for the Pole, -23C. The combination of the temperature, the altitude (almost 3km), and the roar from the Hercules engines, all make the experience of stepping onto the ice an unusual one. We were whisked away in a van to the new South Pole Station a few hundred metres away, where we discovered an extraordinarily well-constructed modern building with superb facilities. This is a huge improvement over the old South Pole Dome, where the Galley was inside a small dark windowless room. In the new station the Galley (or "Dining Facility" as it is now known) is some 15m off the ice, and has panoramic views over the Antarctic plateau.

Not all functions have been transferred to the new building, so it is still necessary to walk back and forth to the Dome - which entails climbing 93 steps, which is no mean feat at the altitude of the Pole.

Speaking of altitude, I succumb to a moderately bad case of altitude sickness, which starts with a severe headache after a few hours, then vomiting. Fortunately I was able to get to the medical centre (in the Dome) and the wonderful staff of dedicated people there took care of me - oxygen, 2litres of IV solution,  anti-nausea drugs, and pain relief. Within a couple of hours I was feeling much better, and am 100% as I write this 30 hours later. The doctor also provided me with an oxygen concentrator machine for the night - this works by filtering out the nitrogen in the air by some cunning process, leaving an enriched supply of oxygen. The extra oxygen also help give you a good night's sleep - whereas normally at this altitude I feel like I have been awake all night (even though I must have dozed off).

Mark and I discover that we are sharing room A1-201, which is one of the nicest on the station, being in the new building, within 30m of the Dining Facility, and with two external windows looking down on the Dome. Our beds have buttons on them to "Call nurse", and I later discover that the room is used for overflow patients from the medical center - let's hope that few people get sick. We also have individual desks, cupboards, internet access, its a huge improvement from the canvas Jamesways that I have previous been allocated.

22nd of January - first day of work

By lunchtime I had recovered enough to begin helping Mark, and Doug and Kevin (who both arrived a few days earlier) out at our Weatherhaven tent in the Dark Sector. The Dark Sector is the region of the Pole devoted to astronomy, and is about a 1km walk from the new building. We are assembling the telescope, mount, and control electronics, in the Weatherhaven for final testing and balancing before moving everything to its new location on top of the Gtower.

We have a productive day, and at 8pm hear a talk by Fiona Thornewill (the woman I mentioned earlier who skied to the Pole in 42 days, which shaved two days off the previous record). She did the trip by herself, unsupported (i.e., no food drops or caches). She trained for 6 months by pulling a truck tire for 2-3 hours a day, 6 days a week. Her problems along the way included the failure of her Iridium phone (so no contact with the outside world), failure of her main GPS (fortunately she had a backup, but it used different batteries, which she didn't have an abundance of), and intermittent failure of her fuel stoves. Her sledge weighed 150kg when she started the trip. She is currently camped in a small tent about 200m away from my luxury accommodation.

23rd of January - cable laying, Gmount problems

Doug and Kevin were eager to begin installing their equipment on the Gtower today, which necessitates the laying of 10 bundles of cables from the AASTO to the Gtower. This is no mean feat - their cables are about 30m long and are quite heavy, and have to be threaded through a conduit in a trench in the snow.

The outside temperature is -26C (relatively warm for the Pole at this time of year), but a brisk wind puts the windchill temperature (i.e., the equivalent temperature with no wind) at -48C. We work most of the day at this problem, but don't complete it.

Here is an image of the Gtower, with the Dome visible underneath it, and the new station building to the right. The silver cylinder in front of the new building is the "Beer Can", and contains the infamous 93 steps you have to climb. People who have been here for a couple of weeks can leap up the stairs two at a time, but newcomers find it quite exhausting. It takes two weeks for the body to adapt to the altitude and produce enough red blood cells to carry the needed oxygen.

In other news, Mark has discovered a potentially serious problem with the Gmount - it appears as though both axis servo cards are non-functional. While we have spares, we would like to understand what caused the failure before trying them.

I installed a data processing computer in the ARO building (150m from the AASTO) - this computer has 1.6TB of disk space (a lot!) and will be used to analyse the images from the planet search experiment during the year. The computer was put together by Melinda Taylor at UNSW, who did an excellent job.

At lunch time I met two highly animated geologists who thrust a plastic bag containing a 1kg rock into my hand and told me it was a meteorite they had just collected at the LaPaz ice field some 300km from the Pole. The two men were in a party of 8 who have returned to Pole after 40 days in the field collecting meteorites. Of the couple of hundred they found, they suspect one or two may be martian or lunar in origin. The particular rock they let me hold was formed 4.5 billion years old, and had probably struck the ice sometime in the last 100,000 years. The rocks are naturally swept to the surface at LaPaz, due to the nature of the ice movements and underlying rocks. The geologists just have to ski-doo around and pick them up (I'm sure there is more to it than that...).

24th of January 2004 - ski-doo ride from hell, more cable laying

After breakfast I trudged the 1km or so out to the Weatherhaven tent to inspect the Gmount schematics to see if I could shed any light on the servo problem. I then trudged another 1km over to the AASTO to help with operations there. At this altitude, and with a stiff wind, it is quite energetic just walking around - it puts into perspective the 30km or so per day that Fiona Thornewill managed with a 150kg sled.

We discover that one of our two Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) has failed, fortunately there is a spare back at the MAPO building (near the Weatherhaven), so I volunteer to help Kevin with moving it over. Kevin has been checked-out to use the ski-doo, and is an experienced driver with 2km under his belt (heavy irony here). We call past COMS in the Dome to pick up the key, and then walk through the fuel arches to find the ski-doo. After a few attempts it starts, but refuses to travel up the slight incline on which it was parked at more than a few cm a second. Then Kevin guns it, and we're off like a rocket. Fortunately, I had my boots wedged underneath a rail in the preferred manner, so I wasn't left behind on the snow, but it was a close call.

The trip back was mercifully slower since we were towing a sled with 100kg of UPS and batteries on it.

Today's major task was to complete laying some cables from the AASTO to the top of the Gtower. This is a major job, considering we have 10 reels of multi-conductor cables, each about 30m long, with bulky mil-spec connectors on each end. Even though we had a comfortably-wide 100-mm diameter conduit, it took several hours, and a half-dozen attempts before we found the right combination of cable attachments that would allow us to pull all the cables without snagging. Kevin came up with the winning combination of wrapping metal tape around the connector bundle.

Here is the trench with three conduits layed. The AASTO is the green and gold building, and you can see the nice staircase that the carpenters made for us.

Some of the cables were wound in a roll, and some looped (the difference is crucial if you want to avoid twists). Here is Kevin inside the AASTO paying out all the various reels. I consolidated the cables into a bundle before it left the AASTO.

Mark was immediately outside feeding the bundle into the conduit, and Doug was up the tower pulling the cables through.

The stiff winds outside made it very difficult to do all the fiddly jobs like tie knots in pieces of string. It wasn't until after dinner that the job was complete.

On the way back from the AASTO, I recorded some video showing how one enters the new station by going down into the Dome and then along various tunnels. This clip shows about half the journey - the second half involves some more tunnels and then climbing up inside the "Beer Can" (visible in the first few frames).

While I'm here at South Pole, my colleagues Jon Lawrence, Tony Travouillon and Colin Bonner are hard at work at Dome C, at a latitude of -75 degrees south on the Antarctic plateau. They are installing a number of experiments, the most ambitious of which is the Multi-Aperture Scintillation Sensor (MASS). I'm needed to answer questions on the computer control system, and the delays in getting e-mails delivered between Dome C and South Pole are quite frustrating (Dome C e-mails are queued for daily transmission via Marisat; South Pole has intermittent internet access, for about 12 hours a day).

25th of January 2004 - Gmount now working

There had been a couple of mysterious cylinders lying in the corridor at the back of the kitchen, labeled "NASA/JPL Autonomous Vehicles Group" (or similar). As I was walking past this morning, a "beaker" (scientist) was trying to lug one of the cylinders down the stairs, so I gave him a hand. It turns out that the tubes contained some sort of instrumented balloon, that, I believe, is blown across the surface of the ice and gathers data. I could be wrong about this, so don't quote me. Apparently the experiment is called Tumbleweed.

Incidentally, as aluded to above, scientists in Antarctica are called "beakers", and construction workers "gumbies".

Today the wind dropped to just a few knotts, which dramatically improved the ease of working outside. Even though the temperature was -27C, I had to take my jacket off to avoid overheating on the walk to the Weatherhaven, where I met Mark, who was working hard on debugging the Gmount. By chance I walked behind the instrument rack and noticed a switch that appeared to be in the incorrect position. Mark confirmed this, he then flicked the switch, and the Gmount came to life! We felt greatly relieved, but a bit foolish. The altitude provides a good excuse, the affect on slowing brain function is strongly noticeable.

At lunch I sat next to Scott, the station physician. Scott has just wintered at Palmer Station (a remote US base on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, with a population of around 18). He is now wintering at South Pole, which will be an amazing experience. Given the recent problems with the health of the station doctors (one had breast cancer, one had gall bladder problems and a heart attack), Scott joked that almost all of his internal organs were removed by Raytheon before he was allowed down here.

After lunch, Mark and I helped out for a while in the kitchen cleaning plates. This is an expected part of being down here, and with a station population at close to an all-time record of 244 people, essential to keep the kitchen staff sane.

A colleague of mine from UNSW, Paolo Calisse, wintered at the Pole during 2003. It turns out that he inhabited room A1-204, which is right next door to the one I am in now, so to bring back memories for him, I've put together a short video clip to show what it is like to walk from my room to the Dining Facility. The clip starts with a view of the Dome from my window, and has lots of shots of the Antarctic plateau taken through the panoramic windows of the Dining Facility.

26th of January 2004 - Australia Day - lots of progress

Today was filled with all sorts of important jobs being completed. We did a preliminary balance of the telescope and asked Bob Spotz to make us a mounting bracket for the 20kg of lead weight that we needed. Mark and I worked on an intermittent inductosyn problem with the Gmount, and managed to see the fault on an oscilloscope. We swapped out a suspect preamplifier module, but only time will tell if this was the problem. Doug and Kevin routed the cables from their telescope through the Gmount, and then worked with the Raytheon support folks to move a 70kg control box to the top of the Gtower. The box was then powered up and its temperature control system ensured that it maintained a safe environment for the various computers inside. We booked the crane for the telescope move on Wednesday afternoon.

Over dinner we had an interesting chat with Jon Emanuel, or "Cookie Jon" as he is known. Jon is the Head Chef here at South Pole, and he is responsible for all sorts of things, including ordering the year's supply of food for the winter. It is truly amazing the quality of the food that comes out of the kitchen here - a couple of nights ago we had lobster, tonight we had blackened catfish. This last week we have been particularly lucky with 3 incoming flights bringing "freshies", i.e., fresh perishable fruit and vegetables. We have had the most superb quality avocados and tomatoes. These are amongst the things that the winteroverers crave after a few months.

Here is Cookie Jon:

I also learned about Snickerdoodles (sp?) and gumbo. Snickerdoodles are what Australian's would call a "biscuit". Their defining characteristic is that they contain more sugar per unit volume than is theoretically possible. "Gumbo" is something eaten in the deep south of the US; it looks vaguely like a stew with offcuts of sausage and gristly bits. I wasn't brave enough to try it, but many people did and they are still alive.

Today was my shower day - we are allowed two 2-minute showers per week (the rationing is due to the cost of melting the snow to make water). Ahhh...feels good.

27th of January - the Gmount is moved to the tower

This morning we hear that the telescope move has been brought forward a day, which suits us. It takes just half-an-hour to finalise the telescope balance using the nifty bracket that Bob Spotz made. We then wrap the 60m of Gmount cables, and prepare to leave the Weatherhaven.

Here is what it looks like inside the Weatherhaven tent where we have been doing most of our work so far. Mark is in the background, Doug in the foreground, and the Gmount is the blue thing in the middle with two telescopes hanging off it.

At 11am a forklift turned up to move the Gmount out of the Weatherhaven. The forks on the forklift can extend right into the tent. It is a good day for the move, -28C and very low wind.

Here we are with the Gmount partially out of the tent.

And the Gmount was then transfered to a sled for its 1.5km journey to the AASTO and Gtower.

An LC130 started its final approach just as we got to the skiway, so we had to wait 10 minutes or so to cross.

Here is the the Gmount on the sled, being pulled by a tractor.

Over lunch I chatted with the scientist deploying the Tumbleweed experiment - a 2m diameter ball that gets blown across the ice by the wind. It was launched yesterday, and is already 50km away. It has a tiny on-board computer which logs temperature, humidity, altitude, latitude, longitude, and a few other things, and sends the results back via an Iridium modem. The whole experiment is powered by lithium batteries. A similar concept might be used one day to explore the surface of Mars.

Also at lunch time, a fifth member of our team, Jason, arrived. Jason will be working on software.

At 2:30pm a mobile crane inched its way out from the station, and with the expert work of the crane driver, and Dave and Sarah, the final lift was completed in just 3 minutes.

Here is a video of the Gmount lift.

In the hour before dinner we wrestled with trying to assign IP numbers to two APC MasterSwitches.  Amundsen and Scott may have faced numerous perils, but at least they didn't have to deal with recalcitrant computers.

Fiona Thornewill's husband is also skiing to the Pole. He is taking a slightly shorter route than she did, but left later in the season when the temperature is colder, so he probably has a tougher job. Although, then again, he is traveling with a group of skiers, whereas Fiona was by herself. He is expected to arrive at South Pole within the next 24 hours.

28th of January 2004 - EES mounted, Gmount operational

Sleeping at the South Pole is quite difficult, for three reasons: the sun doesn't set until March, the altitude makes for restless sleep until you get acclimatised (which takes two weeks or so), and the extremely low humidity plays havoc with your nose - making it difficult to breathe easily, bloody-noses are common.

However, what really makes for difficult sleep is when the fire alarm goes off at 2am. This is no ordinary fire alarm. Each room has a strobe lamp and a loudspeaker. The lamp flashes so brightly that you are forced to leave the room. The speaker is also very insistent. Fire is the greatest danger we face here - in the dry conditions the station would burn very quickly. And there isn't an abundance of water to help put fires out.

Unfortunately, the new fire alarm system has teething problems and is subject to numerous false alarms. So much so that it is basically ignored by everyone except the fire teams, which is not a good thing.

After a satisfying breakfast of one egg over-easy on French toast, I joined the rest of the team out at the AASTO. The carpenters arrived at 10am to construct a support for the External Equipment Shelter (EES) on the Gtower. The EES is a heated enclosure containing CCD cameras and computers that form the heart of the planet search experiment. The carpenters have an amazing collection of DeWalt battery-powered tools. Would you believe a battery powered circular saw? That actually works at -30C? It's true.

At lunch time I finally met the elusive Jason, our fifth team member, responsible for much of the instrument control software. Jason skied between the new building and the AASTO.

After lunch, with the EES powered up, we attempted to communicate with the computer in there. I wont bore you with the technical details, but this took a couple of hours of concerted hacking. If we hadn't made contact, we would have had to climb the tower and remove the computer from the EES - a time-consuming and difficult job.

Fiona Thorewill's husband and a few others skied into South Pole after lunch. They are currently camped about 50m from the Ceremonial Pole (the barber pole with a sphere on top, surrounded by the flags of all the Antarctic Treaty nations - it is about 100m from the actual South Pole),

and here is a close up of their tents. The black dots in the background are skiway markers.

After dinner we complete the laying of the Gmount cables, and Kevin hooked-up all 10 mil-spec connectors to the Gmount. Mark fired up the software, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when the Gmount swung into action.

29th of January 2004 - webcams; computer problems

Kevin flew back to McMurdo this morning. We will certainly miss his enthusiasm, energy, and many skills. He is working on this project pro-bono in his vacation time.

A twin-otter aircraft flew in, scooped up all the British skiers, and flew off again. The actual -90S point about which the earth spins is between the US flag and the sign on the right of the photo. I have been told that in mid-winter the winteroverers occasionally go outside and lie down near the pole and look up at the stars without goggles (if there is no wind, this is possible for a short time even at temperatures as low as -70C).

No sooner had the British skiers departed than another skier arrived - a 64 year old gentleman, who, rumour has it, is the oldest person to have skied from the coast to the Pole.

This morning I worked on upgrading our web camera, so you will soon be able to see almost live pictures of the AASTO. In the afternoon we were still having intermittent problems communicating with the computer in the EES, so we decided to take a flat-screen monitor, keyboard, and mouse up the tower and plug it in to the computer to diagnose it. This was an interesting exercise at an ambient temperature of -31C. The computer is randomly crashing, so we resigned ourselves to removing it from the EES and working on it in the AASTO. We suspect a faulty memory chip, but won't know until we conduct more tests.

Mark and Jason spent much of the day working on software.

Returning to my room just before dinner, I discovered that my "nurse call" button was emitting a penetrating "BEEP" sound every 12 seconds. Fortunately, a quick discussion with Scott, the physician, isolated the problem to a new paging system in the Biomed area, and the beeping stopped.

Today was the day that Biomed moved from its old quarters under the dome to its final location in new building. The new facilities are nothing short of amazing. There is  a nicely equipped operating theatre, prompting a joke with Molly, the summer physician, about conducting alien autopsies...

Speaking of aliens, here is a picture taken (not by me) in one of the numerous underground tunnels at South Pole:

The temperature in these tunnels is about -57C, which is the average annual temperature at the South Pole.

At 8:30pm the cooks held a thank-you supper for the people who had helped out in the kitchen over summer. There were some excellent cheeses, salmon, three bottles of very nice red wine, and a spectacular almond/coffee ice cream desert. It was a very pleasant way to end the day.

30th of January 2004 - more computer problems

With the computer removed from the EES, we were able to run some extensive memory diagnostics, and the machine passed with flying colours. We began to suspect the solid-state hard disk, and, sure enough, after leaving the disk outside for 20 minutes at -30C, it showed intermittent operation until it warmed up to closer to 0C. This disk has an operating temperature range of -40 to +85C, so it is clearly out of specification - fortunately we can control the temperature of the EES, so if we set it to +10C we should have a reasonable margin of safety. We also have a backup disk (of the spinning variety, not solid state). We normally try to avoid spinning disks since the altitude of the Pole causes them to fail at a higher rate than at sea level.

It took some hours for us to repair damaged files on the solid-state disk, and to have the computer working again.

Both Jason and Doug are now skiing between the station and the AASTO. It is only marginally faster than walking, but it looks like good fun.

An LC-130 did five passes of the station taking aerial photos. Here is a view of the entire station:

Here is another view showing the AASTO, with  the new elevated station in the bottom left, and the dome in the middle right.

And here are some of the telescopes in the Dark Sector (where most of the astronomy is done).
The dish-shaped object on the left is Viper, and the one on the right is DASI. The Weatherhaven is the blue building on the far right.

In the afternoon Mark organised some "retro" cargo to send back to Australia, and worked on the Gmount software.

The highlight of the day was that I got to have a shower, my first one in 6 days. The showers have been off-line this week due to water restrictions after some sort of problem with the power plant. We get our water from a Rodriguez well (or "Rod well"), which is a underground "bulb" of water formed in the ice by dumping excess heat from the diesel engines in the power plant. The heat is sufficient to cause a roughly spherical volume of water to remain liquid, even though the edges are in contact with the ice. An interesting side effect of this is that micrometeorites that have been suspended in the ice for perhaps thousands of years fall to the bottom of the well, where a research team uses a robotic "vacuum cleaner" device to scoop them up for study.

30th of January 2004 - telescope calibration

I completed the installation of the web camera that views the AASTO and the tower, but the image is upside down! This is kind-of appropriate for the South Pole... it is also a good illustration of how effective gravity is! That's me in black on the AASTO stairs.

A good fraction of the day was taken up installing electrical switches on the computer that lives in the EES. The switches allow us to easily swap between using a normal spinning hard-disk, and the solid-state flash disk. Without the switches it would be a multi-hour operation for the winteroverer scientist to make the swap (which may become necessary due to the failure of one or other drive). We also attached a carry handle to the computer to enable it to be quickly and safely lowered from the tower with a rope. We need to think about these ease-of-maintenance issues, since climbing the tower in winter, in the dark, at a temperature as low as -70C, would be a formidable challenge.

Incidentally, our winteroverer is Dana Hrubes, and our experiment is one of 11 that he is looking after this year. Dana has an interesting history - his background is aerospace engineering and rocket motors, including working on the Galileo probe for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also takes superb photographs.

In the afternoon I spent some time on the tower leveling the Gmount, which needs to be done to a precision of about 1 arcminute (1/30th the diameter of the Sun). Mark then performed an initial calibration of the mount by pointing at the Sun (with appropriate covers over both our telescopes!). Since it was fairly overcast, we then pointed at the nearby ARO building and attempted to take an image of it with the planet-search telescope. We soon discovered that the focus motor wasn't working, which was easily fixed by moving a cable in the EES. But then the shutter refused to which point is was 10pm and we were all too tired to continue. The multiple journeys up and down the tower had taken their toll on my energy. The windchill temperature was -53C, and three layers of clothing were necessary.

Here is an example image from the pan-tilt-zoom web camera on the tower, it shows the new elevated station at quite high magnification:

and here is a wide-angle black-and-white camera that looks up at the telescopes. This is useful for debugging purposes during the winter. It has an infrared illuminator so that we can see the telescopes in the dark.

1st of February 2004 - telescope focused

A reboot of the computer resolved the shutter problem from last night. We were then able to focus the telescope on the ARO building. Here is our best image, with Mark Jarnyk visible walking to the AASTO. The vignetting at the edges of the image is due to the shutter transit time during the 20ms exposure.

We then tried to take an image of a bright star, but this was unsuccessful, due to thin cloud.

We have some concerns about the temperature of the solid-state disk in the EES, and we need to explore the option of adding some additional heaters.

For fun, I took a video of myself climbing the Gtower. The background noise that you hear is the wind, which was about 15 knotts at the time. When one of us is climbing the tower, we always have at least one person in the AASTO occasionally checking on us. Once after coming down from the tower I lay face-down spread-eagled in the snow for a joke, but when no one noticed after five minutes I brushed myself off and came back inside.

In the evening Doug gave an excellent talk about the planet search experiment as part of the weekly Science Talk session. About 40 people turned up, which is about 1/5 of the station's current population.

2nd of February 2004 - frustrating wait for clear weather

This morning we decided to "bite the bullet" and bring the computer down from the EES yet again, this time to install an additional heater near the solid-state disk. When we opened up the EES we noticed that a considerable quantity of snow had managed to sneak in - this is a characteristic of "diamond dust", the tiny particles of ice that fall out of the sky and are blown by the wind. Diamond dust can penetrate the tiniest crack in your equipment. We did our best to seal up an area near some cables where the ice had probably found its way in.

Here is a video that shows a particularly strong display of diamond dust in the air. The particles look quite large in the video, which is simply a result of most of them being out of focus. To the eye they appear as microscopic glints of light. This is how snow falls at the Pole - we never see any snowflakes (although see the entry for 6 February).

The sky, while mostly clear, had sufficient thin cloud to prevent us from seeing stars today. So I spent the afternoon working on software. My colleagues at Dome C tell me that it is clear there.

At 8:30pm we were treated to the showing of a documentary made by Tom Pi, one of the carpenters. Tom has a good eye for a camera angle, and has produced an excellent hour-long video covering many aspects of station life over the 2003-4 summer, including interviews with a number of people.

3rd of February 2004 - set the controls for the heart of the sun

Today was mainly spent doing a few odd jobs: tiding up the AASTO, turning the web camera the right way up, and securing cables to the web camera and on the Gtower.

Once again, light cloud prevented us from finding a star.

However, not to be deterred, we decided to observe the Sun instead. A quick calculation showed that we needed to reduce the aperture of our telescope from 200mm to less than 1mm. So, we drilled a tiny hole in a sheet of aluminium and placed it in front of the telescope with a whole bunch of filters for good measure. Mark instructed the Gmount to point at the Sun (normally it objects strenuously to this, and goes out of its way to avoid getting close to the Sun even when moving between other objects). Jason then took an exposure, and there was the Sun, within 0.5 degree of where we had guessed. So at least this confirmed that our preliminary alignment of the Gmount was correct. Mark updated the parameter files to centre the Sun, and after dinner checked that the Sun was still centred. This verified the level of the mount, so that we are now close to being set for a winter of observations.

At 8pm most of the males at the station (we're about 50-50 males/females) assembled in the dining facility to watch the 38th Superbowl. The game was actually played in the US on Sunday, but the video tape only made it to the Pole today. It is a long tradition at the Pole to deliberately shut-out all news of which team won the game so that the video doesn't loose its excitement. American football is a decidedly unusual game - I didn't see the ball once during the first quarter, there were just a bunch of huge guys in tight trousers running in random directions and crashing into each other.  And lots of shots of various coaches chewing gum/tobacco and speaking into Motorola headsets. The highlight of the game seemed to be during the half-time entertainment when Janet Jackson's right breast was exposed for 2 seconds at the end of a song - apparently this has resulted in a $20 million lawsuit and MTV loosing the rights to host the entertainment.

The kitchen staff came to the party with appetizers and Jon produced a whole smoked pig.

STOP PRESS: Towards the end of the Superbowl, the sky cleared perfectly and we saw the bright stars Canopus and Alpha Centauri through the telescope in broad daylight.

Here are Doug, Mark and I in the AASTO looking pleased with ourselves a few minutes after the first detection. I won't show you an image of the star, since it is blurry (due to the 3 filters we have in front of the telescope to reduce the sky brightness) and almost undetectable unless you blink rapidly between two image taken at slightly different telescope positions.

4th of February 2004 - software and more software; Dome C panic

After the excitement of seeing stars last night, we awoke this morning to strong winds (21 knotts), but relatively warm temperatures (-28C) for this time of year. The wind really makes it unpleasant outside - the windchill temperature was below -60C. The wind also creates some interesting effects as it blows the particles of "diamond dust" across the surface. It looks rather like smoke flowing across the landscape, just millimetres above the surface. I took a video to show the effect, and another looking at snow blowing past one of my boots (you need to be hard-core snow enthusiasts to find these videos interesting). The snow at the Pole move somewhat like very fine grains of sand. If you pick it up in your gloves it just trickles over the edges. You can't make a snowball by clumping it together with your hands, since there is no liquid water to help the snow stick.

We have acquired a US and Australian flag for the AASTO from Paul Sullivan, the Science Support Manager here at South Pole. Doug and I spend half-an-hour installing the flags on the AASTO. We do this every year, primarily for the web camera, and the flags mysteriously vanish before next summer. I understand there is a brisk trade in flags that have been flown at the South Pole.

Mark is leaving for McMurdo tomorrow, so he spent a couple of hours instructing Doug and Dana on the intricacies of the Gmount software.

I should mention that Jason has been working long hours on the Vulcan-S software. He was in the dining facility working on his laptop when I went to bed last night, and he was still there when I woke up the next morning. He is happy with his progress. The entire experiment, like all of the AASTO and AASTINO experiments, is automated and can be controlled remotely.

At 9:30pm there was an all-call: "Michael Ashley please phone COMMS on 282".  It was a message from Jon Lawrence at Dome C to call him back.  So I used the Iridium satellite phone in COMMS to call Jon. It turned out that while he was originally scheduled to fly out on Feb 8, he had just been informed that he had to leave tomorrow morning at 6am! Jon still had a long list of jobs to work through to ensure the AASTINO was ready for the winter, so he was in a state of mild panic. I also panicked when I realised that one crucial piece of the software, the piece that allows us to control the AASTINO from the Internet, had not been fully installed. Without this software the AASTINO would sit there doing nothing all year. Fortunately, the internet connection to South Pole was up, and with some rapid e-mailing, downloading, and three 15-minute Iridium phone calls, we had the software in place and tested by 1am.

That's me on the left in COMMS (in the Dome) talking to Jon on the Iridium phone; a COMMS operator is on the right. COMMS is open 24 hours-a-day and handles all the radio traffic, aircraft movements, emergency coordination, and just about anything else you can think of.

and here is a distant view of the Marisat antenna which is the main source of Internet connectivity at the Pole. Note that the antenna is pointed just above the horizon, this is because it is tracking a satellite that has been boosted slightly out of geostationary orbit (a truly geostationary orbit is below the horizon from the Pole).

Some hours later, Jon was able to convince the station manager to give him 2 more days, so our state of panic has been alleviated. Dome C closes completely on Feb 9 (unlike South Pole which is occupied all year), leaving our AASTINO to fend for itself until next summer. You can track its progress at Colin will still be flying out early, to join Tony who is already on the coast surrounded by penguins waiting for the l'Astrolabe ship to take him back to Hobart.

Incidentally, you can read Tony's excellent and amusing diary entries from Dome C by following the links at Diaries from John Storey, and Jessica Dempsey from this season are there too, plus historical diaries going back a decade.

5th of February 2004 - final jobs

This is my last full day at the Pole. Mark left this morning. Doug and Jason are staying over the weekend to finalise their software and to perform last-minute tests.

Out near the AASTO there are all sorts of underground vaults where various seismic and other experiments take place. I heard the story today that Dana visited one of the vaults that hadn't been used for 15 years. He went down the ladder into the dark tunnel under the ice, and found a door. On the other side of the door was a small office with a desk, the light was on and the room was heated! It must have been this way for 15 years. Fortunately there wasn't a skeleton sitting on the chair with a note: "door jammed Feb 5, 1989, giving up hope of rescue".

Here is an example of an entrance to an underground vault. It is about 100m from the AASTO, and apparently contains a magnetometer.

Doug and I ski-dooed out to the AASTO with a sled to bring back the trash (cardboard boxes, etc) for sorting into various categories. The ski-doo was a sleek new version with electric starter motor and other comforts - Kevin would be green with envy. The maximum speed on the dial was 130 mph. This time I took a video of the ride. The 3m 48s of nail-biting, adrenalin-pumping, action comes in two formats, a low resolution 1.5MB version suitable for a modem, or an 11MB version if you have plenty of bandwidth. My apologies in advance for all the "yee-hahs"...

After "bag drag" at 7pm, I hiked the kilometre out to the Antanov, a single engine aircraft that a group of Russians flew to the Pole three years ago. When they arrived, their fuel turned to gel due to the cold, and they had to leave the aircraft behind. Rumour has it that they will attempt to fly it out one day.

Here is the view from the ARO building looking away from the station. Not much there.

At 9pm I checked in with Jon at Dome C via Iridium phone. Everything is now on-track - the AASTINO is controllable from UNSW, and Jon has another two days to finish his remaining tasks.  Jon is one of only 12 people now left at Dome C.

6th of February 2004 - leaving for home

After some last minute e-mails and software jobs, at 11:10am it was time to board the LC130 for the trip to McMurdo.  I said my goodbyes to Doug and Jason, who will be staying another few days, largely to wrap up software control issues.

While we waited for the LC130 to be refueled, it actually started to snow! This is a rare occurence at the Pole, where most "precipitation" is in the form of wind-blown ice-crystals ("diamond dust"). The snow only lasted for 10 minutes or so.

We had a "straight-through" flight, which meant we had a brief stop at Williams Field (near McMurdo, on the Ross Sea ice shelf) to change planes before heading to Christchurch.

The photo shows us about halfway between the Pole and the coast. Our carry-on bags are stored in the middle, making a comfortable spot to rest our boots on. After takeoff the aircraft is pressurised to an altitude lower than the Pole (you can tell, because water bottles with air in them become compressed).

After about an hour after leaving the Pole we flew over the spectacular Transantarctic mountains and the Beardsmore Glacier. The scenery is absolutely awe-inspiring. The photos below do not to justice to the spectacular views that changed every few minutes. On a previous trip to Antarctica we flew just 100m above the Beardsmore for its entire (200km?) length. That was truly an experience of a lifetime.

Here you can see a glacier (the Beardsmore?) turning a corner around a mountain range.

Here is a typical view of snow-draped mountains. This vast wilderness is completely untracked by humans. There is evidence of crevasses.

A small glacier pouring over a pass between mountains. This is how the high Antarctic plateau gradually makes the transition to sea level.

Upon arrival at McMurdo we were hearded into the passenger compartment of a "Delta" for the 30-minute ride to the Pegasus ice runway. The Delta was capably driven by Heather in the cab up front, who thoughtfully gave us a  UHF radio so that we could communicate with her if we needed to. Heather explained that the journey could be a bit rough, and that if she hit a bump we could find ourselves hitting the roof. There were supposed to be seatbelts somewhere, but they were too difficult to find. It would have been a good lark at the end of the trip for us all to assume upside down and skew positions on the floor so that when Heather opened the back she would get a surprise. I wasn't sure how the 15 construction workers on the Delta with me would like this idea, so I kept quiet.

We then spent a hour being loaded like sardines into a C141, and after interminable delays, finally took off for Christchurch at 5pm.

The trip north was absolutely miserable. 132 "PAX" with no room to move, squashed together as close as possible on webbing seats in four rows of 33 people, with knees touching the adjacent row. The temperature hit over 30C two hours into the flight. With thermal underwear, ECW, and bunny boots, it was a nightmare. This is really the only negative part of the Antarctic experience - it is particularly irritating since it is so unnecessary. Simply turning down the temperature to 10C would have made the trip bearable, but for some unfathomable reason the aircrews rarely do this. The Airbus 320 that took me from Sydney to Christchurch could hold 180 passengers, and was smaller, faster, more fuel-efficient, far less noisy, and much more comfortable.

The blue curtain in the photo below surrounded the men's toilet (a drum with a funnel). To clamber to it from half-way down an aisle was quite a challenge. Some people waded through the sea of legs, others balanced precariously on a metal bar about 1.5m off the floor (obscured by the curtain in the photo) that separated the two sets of aisles.

At 10:15pm we arrived in Christchurch, and after a mercifully quick trip through customs we returned our ECW and dispersed to various hotels throughout the city. Christchurch was warm, humid, and at sea level. Bliss. The next day it rained lightly, which is something that the winteroverers really miss during the year at Pole.

A quick e-mail check showed that Doug and Jason were making rapid progress on the remaining software issues. Hopefully we will have some planet discoveries to tell you about during the year!

Until next time,