Friday, December 06, 2002
7. An old friend
7 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse
Today, my first day at the pole, I awaken up a bit late, with a strong pain to the neck and an headache. All let suppose that I should cope with the pain all day, typical effect of altitude sickness, but fortunately, after getting out of "Fred" (see previous diary entry), the pain disappeared and since than I felt very well all day.
For some reasons I usually do not experience very much altitude sickness. This is not to tell you "how strong/healthy/heroic I am". Altitude sickness does not depend from your fitness, it's like the probability to be hit by a meteorite on the way home, so far as I understand. Maybe even Arnold Schwarzenegger could feel it, who knows.
However, this morning I started to work. After a light breakfast, I went to the AASTO (the old friend in the title), the Automated Astrophysics Site Testing Observatory, to have a look and start with my duties. The AASTO is a sort of shipping container in fiberglass, pretty close to all the astrophysics here in South Pole, that is the AST/RO (the submillimter telescope) and the MAPO building, where most of the main telescope are located. It is about 1 miles away from the station, and the walk is very relaxing.
For some reasons I remembered it much smaller. I was surprised to see that actually the room inside is not so sparing in space.
I started working on the Whispergen. The Whispergen is a Stirling engine producing enough power to run all the instrument and have something in advance, about 750 W. The Stirling engine works continuously heating a little quantity of a gas, in this case, N2, and cooling it (you always need 2 different temperature to have some work done, remember!), and using the consequent expansion of the gas to move a piston almost like in a standard engine, than transforming the movement in electricity or work. As the heating is continuous, there are no abrupt explosions or vibrations, like in a car engine, and everything go ahead pretty smoothly, allowing to run the instrumetnation, for all the winter, with just one - well, or two - engine. If you consider that in an year there are about 9000 hours, and that a car engine spent a rough 2-3000 hours switched on to run 100,000 km (with so many "visit" to the mechanic shop, you know), you can easily understand why reliability is so important when you have to run "continuously" some instrumentation for an year in a place where a visit from your mechanic shop could be even more expensive than at your door...
Anyway. We have used this engine as a workbench to see which kind of problems we could get after an year of continuous operation, and the engine is just going back to the factory for a revision. Anyway, apart some little problem, we have to say that the system performed very well.
Meanwhile, two similar engines have been customized at UNSW, and are now on a French boat, the Astrolabe, heading to Dome C to run the real, automated, remotely controlled system. In fact, Dome C is still a summer only station, and there is no personnell, like at South Pole, to have even a look to the instrumentation, and "hit any key" in case something goes wrong with the software.
We'll see what happen, stay tuned. John Storey, Tony Travouillon, and Jon Lawrence will inform you from Dome C, where they are going to install the final system, the AASTInO.
The other relevant thing is that today, at 11 am, Michael Burton has arrived. Michael has been one of the person that started the site testing program at UNSW, but actually he was missing from South Pole since a lot of time. He is a "true" astronomer, even if not involved very much in the laboratory, but in observation, data analysis and theory, but I guess he was missing this place, and will enjoy again the cold.