Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Saturday, December 07, 2002

From Eclipse to Pole

Paolo has been regaling you of his adventures getting down here, and now it is my turn to share the experiences. I've been here a little over a day now, and am recovering from the initial attack of altitude sickness I always get, and feeling cheery enough to talk again!

My Polar venture started in an unusual way, experiencing a total eclipse of the Sun in the middle of the South Australian desert.

While I have talked often about eclipses in my undergraduate classes, I've never actually experience the sensation of seeing one. I had planned on going to the Hawaiian eclipse in 1991 (fortuitously having an observing run on Mauna Kea just beforehand!) but fell ill and couldn't go. So I didn't want to miss this one, the first in Australia for 26 years, even if it was only going to last 30s. 6 hours drive out from Adelaide, camped out by a railway halt on the Alice Springs railway, in the desolation nearby to Woomera, the eclipse came right on schedule. It is indeed one of those experiences that can only be seen, not described. The approaching shadow of the Moon, clearly visible rushing towards you. The intense blackness of the Moon, right where the Sun should be. The eerie light - not dark, but not light either. Mercury visible above the Sun. The solar corona visible,

seen for the very first time. The diamond ring, lasting longer than I expected, at the last moment of eclipse. Then the receding

Moon's shadow heading off in the opposite direction. Finally the Sun setting an hour latter while still eclipsed, the bight

taken out by the Moon clearly visible (and now quite safe to watch). An amazing experience, even if the next 3 days were all

travel!

For then it was drive through the night to Adelaide, catch the first flight out in the morning, spend 9 hours in Sydney airport because my flight was cancelled due to engine problem (we actually got up to take off speed on the runway before a ping was heard, the aircraft quickly came to a halt, turning off the runway just in time to allow the next aircraft to land!). Arrive in Christchurch at 1am, to have to leave for the Antarctic Centre at 5am. Get myself kitted out and straight to briefing and on the flight. A tedious 7 hour flight, but no boomerangs, just the crush of 50+ people in the tiny looking Kiwi-bird. The Kiwi's fly the Christchurch - McMurdo route in December, landing with a wheeled Hercules on the sea-ice outside the station. I'd never been down to Antarctica this "early" in the season before, and it was nice not to have to make the long trek back to the station

that the later-summer airfield has (after the sea-ice has melted!). A few hours in McMurdo, enough to check out Scott's Hut and not to see any penguins (again), for it was bag drag at 7am next morning for an 8:30am flight. I ended up at Pole 34 hours after landing at Christchurch - is this a record?

Paolo, having started a week before me had only arrived a few hours before! Still, it was enough time for him to get acclimatised, check the AASTO was still there, and get down to the business of dismantling the Whispergen - as his diary entry has described.

Today being Sunday its a rest day at the Pole, and though we were working, it wasn't at great pace. For one thing there is no-one around to call upon for help - so we've made a list of questions with which to pester people tomorrow about. Not being able to find the boxes for the Whispergen on the cargo berms it seems we'll have to persuade one of the carpenters to make one up for us. Clambering around the cargo berms is almost like taking a trip back in Antarctic history - well Antarctic astronomy history. There are packing cases and frames for every telescope that's been down here. I even found a large box labelled AASTO which had a few poles and what must have been the original roof port covers in it. But no Whispergen boxes, alas.

Tonight finished with the weekly science talk - by Tony Stark of AST/RO fame. He was talking about the "next big thing" which will hit Pole (after the present construction is finished) - the South Pole Telescope - an 8m mm-wave telescope to answer all the questions you ever wanted to know about the SZ-effect, clusters of galaxies, dark energy and its equation of state (i.e. how "negative" a pressure is it?). All this can be done by mapping the distributions of galaxy clusters in the sky due to the up-scattering of the cosmic background radiation by their halos containing 30 million degree X-ray emitting gas!

Only question left to asked being, might it be done better at Dome C?! We may know after the end of this season, but you will have to follow the diary entries of those to follow me to hear how the adventure of getting Summit to Dome C and up and running goes......

Michael

PS The weather report, almost forgot! Beautiful clear skies, 35 below, and a light breeze. Perfect South Pole summer day, and quite a contrast to those bush fires all around Sydney I suspect!

8. A great place

8 Dec 2002 - by Paolo G. Calisse

Today Michael and me went to search for some boxes - one painted in orange - used last summer to bring here one instrument and the sterling engine (see previous entries). We will need them to forward the two items respectively to Dome C, another Station on the Plateau, and back to the factory for maintanance.

There are two class of things down here: "do not freeze" and "ok to freeze". All the
ones of the second type are aligned in row about 100 meters long lying about half a Kilomoeter away from the station, exposed year round to the harsh weather.

We got there, as suggested us from Cargo, to look for our boxes, that was expected to stay at "Berm A", as indicated in a wonderful spreadsheet they printed for me.

We walked for about an hour, checking all the things lying, in good order, in the snow. It was like to run in minutes all the history of Astronomy in Antarctica, or maybe what lies behind it. There were boxes of any size and shape, material became obsolete or just faulty, part resulted just not apt to the situation, including a large platform that maybe host some of the first telescopes installed here, and metal structures of very unlikely shape.

Any object was identified by a label in the typical "cold" shipping style. Under the name of the Station, various triumphant claims like "Property Of The US Government" there were pretty often the name of the PI (Principal Investigator, the boss, the leader, the God of the instrument) of the project as the final address at South Pole. We found the boxes of the SPIREX, a former infrared telescop ran by UNSW in collaboration with CARA, of the AST/RO, a 1.7 meter submillimeter telescope, of DASI, SPRESO, all acronyms that do not represent very much for a reader far from here, but that are a little or big milestone in the history of the science and in particular of astronomy.

After completing examining Berm A, Michael and me started walking in different directions, giving a glance to the other rows of material, spares, boxes, equipment. And it was always an amazing experience. We could find found everything, wooden buildings with ugly shapes semi-disassembled, a russian biplane seriously damaged by the wind last summer, huge amount of insulating panel and constructions material of any size, kilometers of pipes, armies of obsolete skidoos, snowcat, tents, flags, spare parts, dismounted and just waiting for removal. You could see in those objects both tragedies, happines, fighting, of people working under that and deciding, after, maybe bitter discussions, their disposal.

There was really anything. Except our two, little boxes, of course.

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