Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Friday, December 27, 2002

The adventure begins

Saturday, 28 December, 2002.

This is the first of what we hope will be daily messages describing our adventures at Dome C. At least to begin with, the messages which be sent via Iridium satellite phone - more about this amazing technology later.

We're currently in Hobart, on the start of our journey South. "We" in this context means Tony Travouillon, French-born UNSW PhD student; Jon
Lawrence, UNSW astrophysics postdoc extraordinaire; and John Storey.

This is our first trip to Antarctica by ship. In previous years we have flown from Christchurch to McMurdo and on to the South Pole in the US NSF's Hercules transport planes. However, as our goal this time is to construct our new observatory - the AASTINO - at the French/Italian Dome C station, we'll be taking a different route. After six days on the little icebreaker "l'Astrolabe" we'll arrive at the Antartcic coastal station of Dumont d'Urville. From there we'll fly in a Twin Otter to Dome C, with any reasonable luck being reunited there with the 4 tonnes of equipment we dispatched from UNSW at the end of November. That gear
will have reached Antarctica on the previous l'Astrolabe voyage, then been dragged across the ice for 11 days as part of an overland tractor-traverse to Dome C.

At lunch time yesterday Tony and Jon went to their appointment at the Australian Antarctic Division to receive ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothing. We were met by Don Reid, the man in charge of clothing, and within seconds we all had the familiar 7 pairs of gloves, socks and underwear laid out in front of us. Don has a very scientific way to determine your clothing size. He asks you to stand 10 feet from him and he comes back two minutes later with pants no more than two sizes out.

We all left the building with two bags of gear including a "great" bright yellow parkas and a tie that will probably make the penguins more impressed by our presence.

l'AstrolabeThe l'Astrolabe arrived in Hobart a day early, on the morning of the 25th. Tony was able to catch up with Eric Aristidi, a fellow astronomer from Nice who was on his way back from a month at Dome C. The University of Nice is also working on some aspects of site testing, and two people of their team have spent the first part of the season launching weather balloons and preparing a tower for their telescopes.

Eric gave us a good status report of the station and of the work they have done. Five days through the worst seas in the world still had some effects on his balance. This is commonly called "earth sickness" when your body still tries to compensate for the motion of the boat even though you have been on land for quite some time. Could this be why penguins have such a funny way of walking?

The French icebreaker, l'Astrolabe, will be our home for the next six days. Barely 65 metres long and displacing just 1700 tonnes, l'Astrolabe is not what you'd call "big". Frankly, I've seen bigger boats cruising the Hawkesbury - and they had keels.

The point about keels is that icebreakers don't have them - otherwise they'd get stuck in the ice. Without a keel the boat has very little roll stability. In addition, at only 65 metres long, l'Astrolabe will soon be pitching up and down enthusiastically in the Southern Ocean swell. We're all rather looking forward to this, albeit with some terror and armed with a formidable array of industrial strength anti-nausea pharmaceuticals.

We stayed last night in Hadley's Hotel, the same hotel that Amundsen stayed in on his triumphant return from the South Pole. Hadleys acquired even more fame in 2001, when it bacame the site of UNSW's conference on "Astronomy at Dome C". That meeting is still talked about by astronomers around the world as "one of the best ever". Jon Everett - the fourth member of our team, who will travel to the South Pole in late January - arranged for John to have the "Amundsen Suite". This was an extraordinary luxury to enjoy before the cramped quarters of the l'Astrolabe. Tonight we sleep on the ship.

At 5:30 this afternoon the passengers assembled on the helicopter deck at the back of the ship for a safety briefing - first in French and then in English. This was interrupted by the arrival of "Alfa Romeo", taking line honours in the Sydney - Hobart yacht race. From the helicopter deck we had the best seat in the house to watch the arrival, and with the accompanying flotilla of yachts, cruisers and helicopters it was a fabulous sight.

Without doubt the highlight of the safety briefing was trying on the "immersion suits". These are like a cross between a skin-diver's wet suit and one of those oversize sumo-wrestler suits that people put at places of entertainment frequented by the less discriminating amongst us. Floating in Antarctic waters one has as life expectancy of only a few minutes unless extremely well insulated. In an emergency we are togather in the lounge, put our suits on and then climb into the enclosed orange life-boats, each of which looks it might have featured in an early James Bond film. Whether the immersion suits are of any practical value remains to be seen. However, if the practice session is anything to go by, we'll all die laughing.

After the safety briefing we enjoyed our first meal on the ship, then headed ashore to join in the festivities associated with the yacht race. After a most convivial evening of good company, food and wine we retired to the ship to prepare for a 7 am departure.

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