Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Making a house a home

Wednesday 8 January, 2003

Last night the temperature in our dormitory tent was 1 C, not really enough for comfort. I suspect somebody left a window open. To make matters worse, we had another case of "absentee alarm clock owner". This is a well-known dormitory phenomenon, whereby someone sets their alarm for some ungodly hour. Inevitably it is a high-tech alarm that gets increasingly raucous and impossible to ignore as time goes on. The owner, no doubt subconsciously wishing to avoid being woken in this way, wakes five minutes earlier, dresses, and heads off to work. The alarm then goes off, and wakes everyone in the tent who pretend to be still asleep in the hope that someone else will go and switch it off. After about ten minutes someone's nerves finally crack, feet are heard padding across the room followed by a dreadful alarm-clock crunching sound, then silence.

One of the first tasks for today was to bring an extension cord across from the Astrophysics Tent, and start heating the AASTINO up. By the end of the day it was +10 C inside, and a very cosy place to work. The heater was in fact the subject of a last-minute crisis before we left Sydney in December. We knew we needed a 2 kW fan heater, and assumed we could just walk into a shop in Sydney and buy one. After unsuccessfully trying all the major department stores, we finally realised that nobody sells heaters in Sydney in December. Admittedly it was 38 C in the shade outside, but you'd think somebody would want one. In the end we stole the heater from Michael Ashley's office at UNSW, and now will have to find another one for him that looks just like it before next winter.

This morning was cold and cloudy, with the wind above 10 knots. We were glad to have the AASTINO structure completed yesterday, as most of the work could now be done in relative comfort. Working outside at -30 C is difficult for all kinds of reasons. The human body, properly clad, can cope. However, that clothing makes many tasks extremely difficult; doing any fine work wearing thick, insulating gloves is nigh impossible. In addition, most common plastics are frozen rigid. Electrical cables will snap, rather than bend, unless specially made for the job from Teflon or silicone insulation. Other items become incredibly brittle. Our precious plastic bins and tool chests have be taken inside carefully and warmed before use. Adhesives don't set, paint doesn't dry, sealants don't seal. Spirit levels freeze (all except for the bubble). Mercury thermometers freeze. There are lots of good reasons for wanting to get our AASTINO built and warmed up as soon as possible!

By the end of today our AASTINO looked no different on the outside. However, we'd all been hard at work inside, installing the bookshelves, bench and other fittings that will make it into a proper laboratory. Having reached "lock-up" stage yesterday (not that anyone ever locks anything up at Dome C), progress today would have appeared to a casual onlooker to have been low to non-existent. In that respect it was no different to building a house. The structure is up, but it will be a day or two before everything inside is ready for the new occupants to start doing serious science.

The bulldozer crew have started work on Robert Hill, and it is now about 50 cm high. They will build it up over a few days to allow it to consolidate. It will be 10 m by 10 m in extent, large enough for the AASTINO, tent, solar panels and a skidoo.

Speaking of which, we found ourselves again this morning to be without a skidoo. However the walk isn't so bad first thing in the morning.

The main activity at Dome C is currently the construction of the new, permanent, year-round station. This will be complete within two or three years, and will house 16 people in relative comfort. Roughly half will be scientists, the remainder support crew. At the present Dome C station there are several other scientific programs already underway. The largest of these is EPICA, a European ice-coring project. Two US teams are here for the first time this summer, involved in different aspects of the reflectivity of snow. Astronomy is represented by the Nice group (Karim and his colleagues) and by UNSW.

The current station, which is operated jointly by France and Italy, is designed to hold 40 people, but there are presently 54 here - 51 men and 3 women. Most folk are French or Italian, but so far we have met four Americans, a German, a Briton and a Dane. With the three of us representing Australia, it is a lively international mix.

In complete contrast to Dumont d'Urville, Dome C is utterly devoid of wildlife. The only living creatures here are humans. I realise now that I probably disappointed bird-fanciers with my failure to describe the many other bird species that were present at DdU. In truth, I was so besotted with the penguins that I paid the others scant heed. I can, however, report that there were basically three types - white ones, black ones, and black-and-white ones. These last ones may have been the result of interbreeding between the first two, but I suspect not. The white ones were particularly successful at pretending to be little patches of snow, and were amazingly hard to see amongst the rocks. In addition to the Emperor and Adelie penguins, there were also of course the ubiquitous skuas. These are a mottled brown colour, and look and behave like an overgrown seagull on steroids. In contrast to the penguins, which look cute even if they don't always behave in an exemplary fashion toward one another, skuas do not even look cute and their behaviour is even worse. When skuas are not stealing baby penguin chicks from their nests, they're looking around for anything else that is not bolted down so they can make off with it. Perhaps one day, on one of these Antarctic expeditions, I will meet a skua enthusiast who
will reveal to me their better side. On the other hand, I have yet to see a skua stuffed toy.

Ding-dong has been happily printing things on the station printer, although there is some misunderstanding about what an "L" should look like. Ding-dong and I both agree that a symbol made up of two straight lines at 90 degrees - much like the angle brackets we've been unpacking out at the AASTINO - looks just fine. The printer, however, feels that a solid triangle resembling a Qantas tail fin is better. It's not something to lose sleep over, but I know I will.

The Winter Diaries

Paolo has now returned to the South Pole to where he will spend the winter supporting the VIPER project, but will also keep a close eye on the AASTO. Please visit Paolo's winter diaries.

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