Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Thursday, December 05, 2002

6. At South Pole

6 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse

The LC-130 took off at 8:30 from Willy Field, the airport on the pack near McMurdo Station, and landed at the South Pole skyway about 3 hours later. There is nothing particularly peculiar about the flight, this time. I spent all the time sleeping or reading a book on the flat top of a pallet, in the narrow space between the the box and the ceiling of the aircraft, covered by a spaghetti-like mess of hoses, wires, and assorted things.

The crew was very nice. As soon as I stand up after take off the loadmaster read in my mind and told me it was ok if I climb up to the cargo and relax. So I did. The pilot turned a little bit when we were flying over some remarkable features of the Transantarctic Mountain, just to let us enjoy the view from the window.

At the arrival, after some greetings, Alex Brown, the "Station Support Supervisor", introduce the station with a nice tape on safety etc., a new movie I've never been up to now, after arrival in the station. After a little launch in the galley, I went to sleep again in my room. This time it is the "Fred" hypertat, a sort of metallic tent close to the summer camp. I don't know if this will be my nest for the next 11 months, but in this case, it's ok...

The doctor at McMurdo given us some diamox, a drug against the altitude sickness disease, but I don't like drugs and in previous experiences I found the best approach is to drink lots of water and sleep as much as possible for the first few days.

As a consequence, tonight I'm still able to write this with not too many mistakes more than my average English... (I mean, I hope so).

After dinner I've been introduced to all the people involved in CARA (Center for Astrophysics Researches in Antarctica) and so I met the people I will share my next winter with.

Too tired to continue...

5. McMurdo

5 Dec 2002 - Paolo G. Calisse, McMurdo, Antarctica

McMurdo is a sort of "mining city" on the coast of Antarctica. Watching to Antarctica on a map, it looks like a cake, with a long peninsula and two "missing bites".

One of them, the Ross Sea, lies just in front of New Zealand. Most of it is covered by a permanent thick layer of ice, the Ross Ice Shelf, or "The Barrier", as it was called in the past. This large sheet of ice ends abruptly. Right on the end of the shelf, at about 74 S latitude, there is a vulcanic island, Ross Island (I bet you guessed the name...), that for his position, it is one of the place most south reachable by boat, and for its accessibility, covered a leading role in both antarctic exploration and these days logistic support.

Historically speaking, it has been the preferred site for most of the expedition lead by Scott and Shakleton on the way to the South Pole, and is at present the site of McMurdo Station, the largest station on the continent - accomodating more than 1000 people in summer and hundreds in winter - and Scott Base, about 3 miles away, the nice, green, New Zealand permanent station.

The station is the main gateway for the activities of the US Antarctic Project in the continent and the largest settlement in the continent. If you want to get to South Pole, you have to get here.

It looks as a set of building of different sites, construction materials and styles, arranged on a kind of black beach. Could you add trees and grass, it would be just a pretty ugly industrial area, with large materials depots spread out everywhere, plenty of trucks and strange movable things, and really bad tanks of gasoline in the background. But it is on the ice, and at the end also this place looks as fashionable.

You arrive on a sort of airport installed on the pack, about 10 miles from the station, that has the strange characteristic to be moved from one position to another depending on the season and, in turn, on the tickness of the ice pack. All around, the branch of "sea" (actually only ice is visible in December) is surrounded by a wonderful arch of mountains on the Antarctic coast, assuming a blue colour depending on their distance, as only the oxygen seems to reduce the visibility in Antarctica, and not the dust as at other latitudes.

The flight has been described several time in former diary entries, and I will not talk anymore about it today, except to say that I will never be something routinary for me. And after the aircraft switchs of its 4 huge propellers, you gain the hatch with all your hand baggages, some orange, worn but resistant bags supplied to anyone in Christchurch by the CDC (Clothing Distribution Center), the only permitted on the aircraft, excess baggage apart.

So, you get out of the aircraft, right on the ice, receiving a sort of smash on your face by the cold, dry and clean air of the Antarctica, that is an experience I always wait with anxiety. That's the way the continent introduces himself.

And then, a short ride on the pack on board of the Terrabus, a strange tall bus with tyres unusually large and big, that looks a remnants of one of those cheap scifi movies made in the fifthies.

Once in McMurdo, at the Chalet, where people is drop off on arrival to follow the introductory meeting, I find Jeff Peterson, a scientist involved in the field of antarctic astronomy and site testing, waiting for me. It's really a pleasure to see him, and we chat a little about the present status of the VIPER telescope, that I'm going to look after at the Pole. Than, a little briefing with some key persons of the stations.

The organization of the station is almost spectacular. Any details of your stay, any single request, is addressed asap, without any problem and a smile. As always, each of us receive a key, a card to access the Crary lab (a science building) and your bags are moved directly to destination from the airport.

It's up to the visitor just to find out the galley building on the map supplied, the building where you will spend the night, and to enjoy the incredible view available from any spot.

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