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.
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.
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.
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