Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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Friday, November 14, 2003

A day in the snow

Surviving the first night at altitude is always a physical challenge, so I was quite pleased this morning to wake up and find I was still alive.

I spend the early morning organising computers and things in the "Free-time Tent", and sent a couple of email messages out via Iridium (including yesterday's diary). Unfortunately the Free-time Tent has an aluminised roof through which the satellite signals cannot penetrate. Using Iridium therefore involves sticking the phone out the window with its antenna extended in the general direction of the satellites, while sitting inside typing.

Between the flakiness of the Iridium link, the sheer bloody-mindedness of Microsoft Windows and the inept interface software (which seems to have been written by a couple of poorly-briefed work experience students), this is an altogether frustrating experience. However, after about 90 minutes I was able to transfer a few kB in each direction - which included receiving some useful tips from Jon L as to where the boxes of stuff he stored here last winter might be located.

The remainder of the morning was spent organising email accounts, acquiring a walkie-talkie to use in the AASTINO, and making extra red blood cells to cope with the high altitude.

Later on we grabbed a snowmobile and headed out to the AASTINO. It was in great shape, with remarkably little snow accumulation despite its year of isolation. The wooden boxes, however, were rather more buried, but still nothing worse than a couple of weeks at South Pole would have created. Unfortunately, we could not get in. The previous residents had stuck both doors shut with Silastic - which probably seemed like a good idea at the time as the doors don't fit terribly well - but right at the moment posed something of an obstacle to further progress.

So, after lunch we returned with some serious house-breaking tools, including a steak knife which we kind of borrowed from the kitchen. We took lots of photos of the snow and then hacked away at the door seals. We worked on the "back" door (the one next to the engines, also known as the tradesman's entrance), because it seemed a bit less stuck than the front door and also because it was in the sun. (It's -40C here even at mid-day.)

Eventually our chiseling, prying and hacking succeeded, and we stepped inside. It was remarkably warm (-22; I'd brought along a little digital thermometer from Jaycar for precisely this purpose), as the sun warmed the shelter. First impressions were alarming - there was a large pool of glycol engine coolant on the floor, and the pink, sticky coolant was liberally sprayed around the wall behind the engines. At worst, the engines might have frozen and cracked their blocks, in which case the compressed gas inside them would have spewed coolant everywhere. I even convinced myself that the header tanks were empty by tapping on them. (This, however, turned out to be a false clue - the tanks in fact were half full but the glugginess of the cold glycol made the tapping test unreliable.)

In addition, one of the exhaust fans had dropped form the ceiling, and was hanging by its wires. One of the room-circulation fans had done likewise, with the result what the ceiling was festooned with fans, ducting and wires. None of this mattered much - these were all minor injuries that should not have contributed to the demise of the AASTINO.

In fact, everything else was looking pretty good. The display on the control panel told us the batteries were fully charged, and cheerful electronic displays and light-emitting diodes glowed from the instrument rack. The two big solar panels we installed last year were clearly working superbly. Once the AASTINO has warmed up we'll start sleuthing in earnest to find out why it stop transmitting messages to us, but for now it's good to see that there appears not to have been any kind of catastrophe.

Inside the AASTINO, Anna took lots of photos, and noted down the position of every switch and the reading on every display. This simple exercise was rendered a little challenging by the fact that all the pens were frozen, and we couldn't find any pencils to write with. Eventually I remembered that solder makes a passable substitute for a pencil (it is mostly lead, after all), and our process of documentation got underway. Using one of the cover strips that go over our cable trays as a dipstick, we found that both glycol header tanks were half full, and that about 85mm of fuel remained in the fuel tank.

Just before 7 pm we finally got the AASTINO wired into the station power again. The final impediment to warming the AASTINO came when I found that the fan-heater (which we stole from Michael Ashley's office last year) was so cold that the fan wouldn't turn. After a few minutes of prodding it with a screwdriver through the grill (kiddies - don't try this at home), it started to slowly groan its way around and, as it sucked warm air through itself, gradually whirl into life.

Tomorrow we should have a warm, if somewhat gooey AASTINO.

John

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