Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2002/03

   

   
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17 February 2003

Friday, January 17, 2003

Switching it on

After two long and difficult days, it's time to get up to date with the diary and other important correspondence. The weekend got off to a bad start on Friday evening when we brought a very full jerry can of Jet-A1 into the AASTINO from outside, unfortunately forgetting how much this stuff expands with temperature. When we opened the lid a fountain of fuel sprayed out across the room, covering Jon and me and anything else that was in the way. The worst thing about jet fuel is that stinks, and it takes forever to get the smell out of your clothes. On a more positive note, it seems to make quite a good floor cleaner, and now our antistatic mat looks like new again.

Most of Friday was devoted to Icecam and COBBER. Working on these twin instruments is awkward in the extreme. The electronics is in a narrow "crypt" several metres below the ground, which is accessed via a long ladder. Inside the crypt it is poorly lit, bitterly cold and there is not enough room to swing a cat - assuming you could get hold of one in Antarctica. The walls are lined with banks of batteries, under which are two huge, long tanks of glycol. It is not a place for the claustrophobic.

Icecam and COBBER share a common computer system, and a battery power supply that lasts all year. They achieve this feat by spending most of their time "asleep"; the only thing happening is that a very low-power piece of electronics is steadily counting the seconds. Every two hours this piece of electronics, appropriately called the "wakey-wakey board", prods the computer into life. Within two minutes the computer has completed the measurements, stored the data onto a Flash Disk, sent a synopsis of the data back to us at UNSW via ARGOS satellite, and shut itself down again. If for some reason the computer crashes, or decides it would like to stay on a bit longer and play Minesweeper with itself, the wakey-wakey board shuts it down anyway. Like the gods of death and rebirth, the wakey-wakey board has a dual role.

ARGOS, by the way, is a system of satellites designed especially for data gathering from remote, low-power sites such as ocean buoys. It is possible to send data to it using very low power; whichever ARGOS satellite is overhead at the time grabs the data and then beams them down to a ground station later in its orbit. It's therefore ideal for this experiment, the chief limitation being that we are limited to just 32 bytes (32 letters) per satellite pass. Still, it's remarkable how much information can be conveyed in those 32 bytes.

Speaking of cats (which, like all exotic animals, are totally banned from Antarctica) I was saddened to learn from Jean-Louis that the Dome C cat had died just before we arrived. According to Jean-Louis, the Station got low on food and they had to eat it. (It sounds almost plausible in Jean-Louis' solemn French accent.) On my previous visit here two years ago, the cat was very much alive. Mind you, the only evidence for its existence was in the form of fresh droppings each morning, in the tray of kitty-litter that Jean Louis kept, carefully placed where it would just be noticed, in a corner of the kitchen. Nevertheless, Dome C is the poorer for its loss.

The Twin Otter that had arrived a couple of days ago finally left this morning. The plane was here for two days because the pilots needed to discharge their compulsory requirement for 36 hours rest before they could leave again. Next job I get will have a clause like that in the contract, too. It was fun to chat to the pilots during mealtimes - like all pilots I have spoken to in Antarctica they were fiercely proud of their aircraft, and immediately leapt to fend off any criticism of its manifest deficiencies (such as being as slow as a slug).

Sid the Stirling engine continues to run well, and for most of this afternoon we ran Nancy as well. One particular triumph is the exhaust system. The design of this probably generated more debate in our group at UNSW during the year than any other technical issue, as keeping the pipes ice-free when the exhaust is roughly 50% water vapour is a tough challenge. In the end we went for two slender pipes joined together along their length, rising vertically and uninsulated about for about a metre from the top of the AASTINO. After several days of running there is not a single crystal of ice on the exhaust stack.

Amongst the minor afflictions the UNSW team are suffering from, my frostbitten nose seems to have attracted the greatest comment. I am convinced that the injury occurred while we were assembling the AASTINO in the first few days, but others are unkindly suggesting that excessive fanging of the Skidoo is to blame. Not wishing to see me end up like Tycho Brahe, the Station crew have helped me fashion a possum-skin nose warmer that attaches to my goggles. I think it is very becoming - Jon and Tony say it makes me look like a dag. (Possums of course are a feral pest in New Zealand, after some moron introduced them there from Australia. New Zealanders are therefore always on the lookout for inventive new things to make out of possum fur, and they seem to have succeeded in flogging the Italian Antarctic Program a bag of offcuts. I don't know who the person was who introduced possums to New Zealand, but it was possibly the same one who introduced rabbits, cane toads and four-wheel-drives into Australia.)

Another major achievement of today has been setting up all the flags. Tony did this all himself, and did such a good job that already people are coming out to the AASTINO to be photographed in front of it. Basically we have the flags of the four nations involved in our project (Australia, France, Italy and the US) flying in a row at the entrance to the AASTINO site. Above the AASTINO, attached to the copper pipe we brought along as a spare for the Stirling engine exhaust, the UNSW flag flies alone. (Flag protocol formally dictates that it should not be any higher than the Australian flag, so we could be in for a hard time from the Governor General when we get home - assuming he doesn't have anything else on his mind.)

In the course of developing the AASTINO we've gone from a naively simple concept to a very complicated realisation. While a single computer (the Supervisor) is basically in control of everything, somehow every item seems to need a different interface. Thus, we have an Ethernet, RS232, RS422, and a Dallas 1-wire bus strung around the walls. The challenge for the next few days will be to get it all to work, but by the end of today we were merrily switching major pieces of hardware on and off with just a few keystrokes (well, lots of keystrokes actually - it is Linux after all).

Friday was a particularly frustrating day for me because, as a result of the intense cold, the tips of my thumbs have cracked and split in several places, making it painful and awkward to do any fine work. Now that we have some resistors, it's essential that I get on with building the various pieces of electronics we need. Unfortunately it proved impossible - even if I battled on, the circuit components ended up with blood on them, which probably reduces their life expectancy, and makes all the resistors look like 2.2k, 2% tolerance.

Sergio, the Station doctor, pays a house-call to the AASTINO.  In the background is the However, on Saturday help was at hand. Attracted by our new flags, the station doctor (Sergio) dropped by. He was just taking some time off, but I took the opportunity to ask him about my thumbs. (Yet another advantage of Antarctica - a couple of days ago it was Internet shopping, today it's a doctor who pays house-calls.) He prescribed some magic cream for my thumbs and they're feeling better already.(Technical note - flag poles are not curved, its just an effect from the camera)

Just before dinner tonight Tony started setting up the webcam, which we hope to have online throughout the year. We're running short of wire (like everything else), so Tony set about joining two short lengths of twin flex to make a longer one. After carefully stripping the insulation from the ends, tinning, soldering, then meticulously sleeving the joint with heat shrink tubing, Tony was amazed to find he still had two pieces of wire - one of which was joined in a loop. Jon fell off his chair laughing. At this altitude it's inevitable you'll make mistakes, the secret is to make only those that won't kill you.

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