UNSW’s robotic observatory in Antarctica

 
John, Tony and Jon at Dumont d’Urville

Dome C, Antarctica, is potentially the best astronomical site on earth for a wide variety of astronomical programs. It is drier, colder, has lower wind speed and is some 400 meters higher than South Pole—a site already considered to be outstanding.

However, no-one is going to commit to building a major observatory there until accurate, year-round measurements of the site conditions have been made. But how can you make these measurements when the Dome C station is open for only three months each summer?
The answer: build a small, autonomous observatory that can operate without needing external power, heating, or human presence. Thus was born the AASTINO, a green and gold fibreglass shelter roughly the size of a shipping container. Power for the AASTINO comes from two Stirling engines running on Jet-A1 fuel, plus two 150-watt solar panels. The engine coolant provides all the heat needed to keep the AASTINO at a comfortable inside temperature throughout the year.

On December 28, Jon Lawrence, John Storey and Tony Travouillon set out from Hobart on the little French icebreaker l’Astrolabe. At just 1700 tonnes, l’Astrolabe is the smallest supply ship to regularly challenge the Southern Ocean — the roughest stretch of water in the world. Fortunately, this was to be one of the smoothest crossings ever, highlighted by on-board New Year’s Eve party to the accompaniment of a spectacular aurora. After spending a couple of days walking amongst the penguins at the coastal station of Dumont d’Urville, the UNSW team were whisked by helicopter to Prud’homme, then flown 1200 km inland by Twin Otter to their final destination — Dome C.

The AASTINO is towed to its new location at Dome C


On arrival at Dome C the team first assembled the AASTINO on top of a 6-metre long sled. Once completed, the AASTINO was towed by bulldozer to the top of a newly created 2-metre high snow-hill. The engines were then started, providing heat and power for the facility. The two solar panels were installed, along with the two science instruments—an acoustic radar (SODAR) and a sub-millimetre tipper (SUMMIT). A Linux computer provides command and control, data acquisition and storage, and communication with the University of NSW via the Iridium satellite network. The computer can also run a series of pre-programmed scripts that allow the entire facility to run autonomously in the event of a communications failure.

When the station closed for the winter, the AASTINO was left to operate on its own, sending back science data and a web camera image once per day. These results can be seen at The Astino Project Website.

Michael Ashley, Michael Burton and John Storey

 

 

 

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