Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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Saturday, January 11, 2003

Ready to go

On Sundays the station slows down a bit, but never really stops. The UNSW team are of course hard at work, completing the fit out of the AASTINO and installation of the engines. We're just about finished, and will try to start the engines tomorrow or the next day.

We've also finished Icecam and, once the silicone sealant has properly set, will put it back outside to start its lonely year-long vigil of the skies.

We're very pleased with how well things have gone during our first week at Dome C. All the re-assembly is now more or less complete, and the real fun will start once we switch it all on and see if we can get anything to work. The support from the Dome C station staff has been just wonderful.

It's sometimes easy to forget the sheer complexity of operating a station on the Antarctic plateau - nothing is simple. Water for washing and general use is made by melting snow over an oil burner in a large container. A special area of the station is set aside as a clean snow area, and bulldozers go off there periodically to scoop up a large shovelful to dump into the melter. Unfortunately the water always ends up with a slightly unpleasant taste, but it doesn't pay to be fussy. Unlike at the South Pole, where each person is restricted to two 2-minute showers per week, there is no specific limit here on the frequency or duration of hot showers.

Drinking water is brought here in 20 litre plastic containers from Dumont d'Urville, where a desalination plant operates. The containers are of course frozen solid, and have to be melted in the kitchen before use. Most people, however, drink mineral water - either Italian or Tasmanian according to taste.

Lunch and dinner are served with wine, usually Australian cask wine, but good quality Australian wine is also trotted out on occasion. There's also lots of strange liquors that people put in their coffee - I'm reliably informed that Bailey's Irish Cream tastes a lot better in coffee than UHT milk. Although unlimited quantities of free alcohol are available all the time, no-one drinks to excess and most people don't drink at all. No-one wants to deaden their appreciation of an experience like Dome C. In addition, no-one wants to die, which is what could easily if happen if one were incautious here.

On special occasions the ice-core drillers provide the station with "Christ ice" to put in drinks. This is 2000 year-old ice, and the air trapped in is so compressed that the ice fizzes and pops in a glass. Now that we have finished unpacking, we are continuing to discover that we have brought with us some very strange things, and left behind a few rather important ones. For example, amongst all our antistatic things we found a thing that looks like a dog muzzle. This is silly because dogs aren't allowed in Antarctica anymore, and even when they were allowed here they were never terribly good at soldering. We also found a clear liquid in an unlabelled glass container that we think is isopropyl alcohol. It seems to do a good job of all the things you'd use isopropyl alcohol for, so we'll just pretend it is. Essentially we have re-defined the term "isopropyl alcohol" to mean "the stuff in the bottle".

Meanwhile, our colleagues back at UNSW are accusing us of taking every single Phillips-head screwdriver from the lab. We didn't. We swear we have only five here - not counting the little screwdriver things you put in the cordless drill and smash screw-heads to bits with. (This last comment is a gentle swipe at some of my younger colleagues.)

Jon, Tony and John inside the AASTINO. Photo by Gianpiero VenturiThis afternoon we were working in the AASTINO and the phone rang. This can be unnerving when you're in the middle of nowhere, but we soon realised it was the Iridium satellite phone. Paolo was calling us from the South Pole, and we enjoyed a good chat with him. Later, we decided that having a phone in the AASTINO was really rather fun, so we rang up Michael Ashley, back to Sydney, to see if there was any sign of our electronics spares box back at UNSW. He checked; there wasn't.

We're becoming more discriminating about which Skidoo we take. The worst is the beat-up yellow one that only reluctantly turns corners - especially right-hand ones. The best is the black one, whose only deficiency seems to be that the speedometer doesn't work below 80 km/hr. As was said in a different context: "Ah, the serenity! And the only thing better than the serenity is a two-stroke going flat out..."

Today saw the arrival of a Twin Otter from the Italian coastal station of Terra Nova Bay, bringing with it the head of the Italian Antarctic Program, Mario Zucchelli. This is the first flight in since the one we arrived on. Apparently the weather at Dumont d'Urville has been dreadful since the day we left, so we were very lucky to be able to get here when we did. We could be still back in DdU, and the AASTINO could still be just a big pile of crates.

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