Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Sunday, January 05, 2003

3, 2, 1 ready, go!

06 Jan 03, South Pole Ė by Paolo G. Calisse

I left McMurdo today, abandoning for the last time another bunch of things, e.g. rocks, mountains (both visible altough pretty away from the station) and the sea, or the knowledge that there was sea water under my feet while I was waiting for the aircraft at Williams Field, the airport on the Ice Shelf.

We wait, wait, and wait. Than we taken off, but as I was deeply concentrating in trying to contain a strong wish to find a toilet, the pilot aborted the take off while almost airborne and got back to the airfield.

Actually, he said it was a technical problem, but the result is the same. Our baggages were moved to another LC-130 with a new crew, and we were moved there as well as about two hours later. Meanwhile, I spent most of the time trying to call back home unsuccessfully. A voice with an american accent was telling on the phone that my home number doesn't exist. What??? Maybe my wife already divorced from me.

Anyway, we gained again our place in the aircraft, after a reassuring visit to the toilet, that made me feel better. While taxiing, I spotted the Boomerang gondola moved out of the Pig Barn onboard of a tall crane. They launched later in the day.

I will consider my winter over started at 12:15 pm today 6th January 0. That's the time I walk out of the aircraft. This could not be very important for you, but let me say it is for me.

After several meeting a lunch and a talk to all the people I know here, in the afternoon I taken a visit to the Viper telescope, the place where I will spent most of the next 10 months, buried under papers, electronics, cryogenics, and mechanical parts. It is a little room in the MAPO building, the Astrophysics Observatory about 1 km away from the station. You enter the building, suspended by a large frame sinking in the snow, you cross a wonderful mech workshop filled with any kind of tool and spare, and after crossing a nother corridor you find my room. I wrote it just in case you should visit me in the near futur.

The room is surrounded by electronic racks and computer. I spoken with Bill, a scientist well known for talking at warp speed, and being introduced to the telescope, a gorgeous piece of technology rated to understand the best kept secrets of the universe. The Viper telescope looks complex, but by now I would say that is well designed and maintained. I hope I will not change my opinion. And that it has been well updated during the last summer, that will make my job easier during the winter. It is built around a 2m large aluminum mirror, built on the top of a tower, and protected by a sunshield cone-shaped even taller. You can lean down from the upper edge of the shield, the view is fantastic and look at the motor, the secondary, the tertiary mirror, and to the chopper, a mirror tilting its position at about 3 Hz, or to the dewar containing the detectors, hanging over the whole structure.

It is pretty different from what people imagine when thinking to a telescope. Iíll send you a picture as soon as I will get a digital camera to be used (the one I used earlier is currently at Dome C with the Storeyís team). And will have plenty of time to describe any minimal detail and get any of you, wherever you are in the world, fully bored.

By now, as usual, I feel my mood getting better any hour more. Iím not feeling very any high altitude sickness, probably a remember from my last trip. Tomorrow Iíll get, anyway, a day off, to avoid pushing too much ahead. I left Sydney a bit sad, thinking to all these time to be spent away from my partner and from my son, and to all the changes in my life that this winter will require. But Antarctica itís really a great place, and is helping me to recover pretty quickly.

Paolo

Dome C

Monday, 6 January 2003

I always find sleep elusive on the first night at altitude, and last night was no exception. However we are all in pretty good shape today. It's another "Dome C" day - temperatures ranging from -26 C at midday down to -38 C at midnight, and wind of 6 knots or less. It's cold enough that we're all dressed in our handsome Extreme Cold Weather gear, supplied to us for the first time this year by the Australian Antarctic Division.

We are sleeping in Weatherhaven tents, each of which has six or eight beds arranged in two rows, dormitory style. An oil heater keeps the temperature reasonably cosy. A perhaps unexpected feature is a large ceiling fan, which circulates the air within the tent. Without it, the temperature throughout the room would become very stratified, with the ceiling as much as 20 C warmer than the floor.

Now that we are at Dome C the diaries will come to you via Inmarsat, rather than Iridium. Email is sent to and from the station twice per day. We'll still use our Iridium phone for sending messages at other times when necessary. The advantage of Inmarsat is that it uses geostationary satellites, positioned high above the earth's equator. In principle, as few as three satellites could give coverage over almost the whole globe. From any fixed location on earth you can always see the same satellite - and it doesn't move across the sky like the Iridium ones do. On the other hand, because the satellites are much higher than the Iridium ones, a much larger antenna, and more transmitter power, is required. For us, however, the advantage of Inmarsat is far more mundane - the station pays for the calls whereas we pay for Iridium.

We began the morning, logically enough, with breakfast. Jon and I sorted out our email connections, while Tony grabbed a Skidoo and took out to the Astrophysics Tent the "work" component of the unreasonable quantity of stuff we had bought with us last night. Carlo, who looks after station logistics, took me for a ride in the Kaesbohrer to look at some sleds. The Kaesbohrer is a lot like a bulldozer, except that it has very long and wide tracks. This means it doesn't sink into the snow as much, so it's ideal for snow grooming and generally towing things around.

Before lunch we held a one-hour meeting with the Station Leader (Camillo), Carlo, and other key people, and discussed all of our logistic requirements for the next month. It was an interesting meeting, carried out in roughly equal proportions of Italian, French and English, but in the end we all understood each other. It was agreed that we needed a small hill, perhaps 2 metres high, on which to site the AASTINO. This will give it a solid base, and make it easier for the station crew to groom the snow around it. We'll probably call it Robert Hill, after the then Minister for the Environment who opened our AASTO at South Pole back in 1997. Senator Hill may feel that a 2 metre hill is nothing to be proud of, but in truth it will be one of the highest topographic features for several hundred kilometres.

The final location of the AASTINO will be half way between the new station (more about this later) and the University of Nice Astrophysics tower (more about this later, too). The Nice tower is about 250 metres away from the new station, on the far side from the present station.

We've decided to build the AASTINO on top of a sled, rather than directly on the ground. This gives us the advantage that we can move it around. Carlo showed me two sleds - one 6 metres long and one 12 metres long. After further discussions with Jon and Tony we decided on the smaller one.

Having now endowed our AASTINO with the gift of mobility, we've greatly opened up our options. We'll put the AASTINO together initially out at the Astrophysics Tent, well away from the station. This gives us a big, warm, almost empty laboratory in which to assemble the bits that will go inside the AASTINO. In addition, we can be assembling the AASTINO while the station crew are building the hill, rather than having to wait until they're finished. We'll tow it to its final location once we've done the assembly, but before we light the engines up.

The Astrophysics Tent is about a kilometre from the station, and is conveniently reached by Skidoo - especially if anything heavy has to be carried. The Skidoos are a lot of fun to drive, with plenty of grunt but woeful understeer. Maybe I just had the tyre pressures wrong. Once we've adjusted to the altitude we'll take a closer look at how they shape up as a serious form of transport.

We've each been issued with a walkie-talkie, so that we can call back to the station at any time. The radio itself is worn in an inside pocket, so that body warmth keeps it warm (and hence functioning), while the microphone clips to your lapel. The general effect is very cool. Tony thinks it makes him look like a secret agent, and no-one yet has had the heart to tell him that secret agents don't wear bright orange overalls.

The AASTINO arrives at Dome CThe real action started today with the Kaesbohrer dragging all of our crates out to the Astrophysics Tent. By the end of the day we were well ahead of even the most outrageously optimistic schedule. We've discovered that all 21 of our crates, plus the high purity nitrogen cylinders, had arrived intact. We'd unpacked all the big things like the AASTINO panels, and all the little nthings that looked interesting. It was a lot like christmas, unwrapping the various packages to find out what was in them - sometimes something really neat like our nifty electronic component analyser, sometimes a real dud like a 3/4 inch right-angle pipe bend.

One of the items that helped make up our 4 tonnes of gear was a pair of wall clocks. Interestingly, both were still telling the right time when we opened the crate, despite enduring the 11 day traverse from the coast at temperatures down to -40 C.

Meanwhile, the station crew have fitted a splendid custom-designed AASTINO-sized wooden floor to a sled, and parked it outside the Astrophysics Tent on a section of snow they'd levelled with the Kaesbohrer.

Just before dinner the station computer guru, Sandro, helped us all get connected to the station network. Ding-dong is now happily communicating with the other computers here, and has even assured me that it can make use of the printer.

In other major developments, Tony has assembled the tool chest and Jon has pulled the digital camera apart to find out whether the reason it no longer works is more to do with being drenched in sea water or being dropped onto the steel deck of the ship during a particularly exciting iceberg encounter. However, since the usual medical advice is to take it easy on your first day above 10,000 feet, I think we'll all be turning in soon.

High Heels

05 Jan 03 - by Paolo G. Calisse

I'm now sitting, in McMurdo, on a chair in front of a long line of computer where people is writing email message or browsing the internet. Turning the eyes, but not the head, I can continue to type and look at the monitor of the blonde sitting at my right or of the fat guy on my left.

The blonde is the more interesting view, and not for the reason you - and my wife - imagine. The reason is that she is trying to buy a couple of high-heels shoes on the internet and takes note of any ugliest model available on the market. At present is focusing on something called "Mary Popp platform shoes", that, if used in relevant amount, could be great to consolidate the coastline against stormy seawaves, but recently was evaluating to purchase a couple of "W-Fire 5" model, that is not the name of a fire department truck but looks exactly the same and would probably do the same noise when operating.

That's life. If I would bet about where I would be when I was 44 years old, I never imagine I was here, waiting for a transfer flight to the South Pole and watching a person buying high heels shoes by the internet. The world is an amazing place.

Turning back to the day, today was looking like the BOOMERANG balloon-borne telescope launching day, but the weather was really horrible and unfortunately they have delaied till tomorrow. That's a pity. I was still hoping to watch to the launch, that is amazingly spectacular. The balloon and all the payload chain, when fully extended, are taller than the Eiffell Tower, and pulling up a load of more than 3200 pounds. At floating altitude the balloon inflates to full size, assuming the shape of an upside-down onion with a diameter of more than 300 meters. It wouldn't easily fit into the Colosseum.

The launch procedure is something quick and delicate. Shortly after the balloon has been inflated, it is released and immediately starts to raise up. But, as the balloon starts almost completely empty (it will infalte at floating altitude, where the external pressure will be 4% of the ground based barometric pressure), most of the balloon is firmly kept extended on the ground. A truck with the telescope have to move toward the balloon at the right speed, that is pretty high, to avoid stress on the balloon, that is made of a very fragile layer of mylar. After the truck get under the balloon vertical line, it have to slow down and release the gondola with the telescope, that will quickly raise up and start his 20 days trip around antarctica.

All the team is pretty worried. Time is passing, the deadline for the latest good launching day of the season is quickly approaching but the Boomerang is still at ground due to bad weather. Meanwhile, another balloon borne experiment, the ATIC, has been launched and is happily turning around antarctica since the 29th of December.

I really hope that everything will get better for Paolo, Silvia, Phil, Armandino and all the other team members. The Boomerang is really a great effort and deserve a victory over the weird weather of Antarctica.

So, how we like to say in italian In bocca al lupo! (in the mouth of the wolfe) again to all the Boomerang team!

p.s. Actually there is another version of this very popular Italian wish, more appropriate for the place: "in c**o alla balena", where the two stars hidden a short word used in "familiar" Italian to describe a part of at least any vertebrate that is better do not write completely, and "balena" stands for whale. Where does this form comes from I don't know and please do not ask me. Any way, listen to me: never say to an Italian "auguri" (best wishes) when he is waiting for something to happen. We all believe it will bring unluckiness. Is by far better to choose between the two above forms, it's really up to you.

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