Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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Monday, November 17, 2003

Forensic science

Today we got heaps done. Armed with some extremely helpful emails from the gang back at UNSW (and Michael A. who's in Boston right now), we launched a major assault on the Supervisor computer and started to extract some of its hidden secrets. We used Ding-dong, my Dell laptop computer, to make a direct connection to the Supervisor, and from there download all the relevant files. Anna has the remarkable ability to make computers do what she wants without having to threaten them with physical violence - I've watched her closely but I still have no idea how she does it.

We were also able to set up the Iridium phone so that the AASTINO can communicate directly with UNSW again. This is a big step forward because it allows remote monitoring and control over all the experiments.

Anna at Dome C. Image taken by the webcamWe got the web-camera going (actually I think it was working all along), and tested the wakey-wakey board that switches the Supervisor computer off and restarts it again if it steps out of line. So far, we're not finding much that's not in perfect working order.

Surprisingly, there is a good 240 mm of fuel in the tanks, which is plenty for the engines to have kept running. We'd thought there was a lot less when we first put a dipstick into the still cold tanks on Friday. However, on that occasion the dipstick hit what must have been frozen fuel at the bottom of the tank, leading to a false impression.

So, the story is starting to look like this. On July 1 the cigarette-lighter adaptor that powers the Iridium phone (OK, OK, it seemed like a good idea at the time...) ceased to function. Unable to contact UNSW (or anyone else, for the matter), the AASTINO went into autonomous mode and just kept on running by itself. Some time later, and we've yet to find out when, Nancy (the one still functioning Stirling engine) stopped, for reasons yet to be determined but probably not because of a shortage of fuel. A outside air temperature of -80C may have been a contributing factor. By now it was pitch dark 24 hours a day and so the solar panels weren't much use to anyone, but there were still 200 amp-hours of fully-charged batteries left, minus whatever was used by the Supervisor computer in trying to restart Nancy. The Supervisor would finally have given up on Nancy, and set about saving power by turning off everything it didn't need.

It seems that it then kept running until August 19, when it finally came to a halt. It should have restarted once the sun had risen again (ironically, that would have been around mid-August), but for some reason it didn't. So, when we arrived last week, the batteries were fully charged, everything was powered up, but nothing was actually taking data. We don't yet know why - maybe it was all just too cold. The next few days should reveal all.

Early in the morning the AASTINO received its second visitor for the season, Gerhard Krinner of the University Joseph Fourier in Grenoble. Gerhard is setting up an experiment to measure snow precipitation using some rather clever optical methods. He was very interested in the AASTINO as it offers a possible way for him to run his experiment through the winter. We just have to figure out how to wire him up in the next two weeks.

In today's very cold temperatures the snowmobiles are right at the limit of what they can cope with. The old black ones seem to manage best, although the one we had before lunch had a dodgy centrifugal clutch. When I tried to return to the station I found the clutch was permanently engaged and the only way to start it was to run alongside it and leap on when it fired, rather like a cowboy catching a horse in a B-grade Western.

Last summer a US team of atmospheric physicists led by Von Walden arrived with a yellow snowmobile that is very handsome but somewhat under-powered. The station mechanics immediately dismissed it as a toy, a snowmobile for "bambino". Von promptly christened it "Bambino", and the name has stuck. Unfortunately Bambino does not have a block heater, which means that when it is parked outside it cannot be plugged into station power and kept warm. It also has only one cylinder (the others have two), which roughly halves the probability of it starting on any given occasion. The station crew are working on modifications to it that I am sure will surprise and delight Von when he arrives later his month.

During lunch the station doctor button-holed us and asked if we'd mind filling out a psychological test. At first we thought he was joking - the chances of finding anyone in Antarctica who is completely sane are pretty remote. However, it turned out he was asking everyone to do the test as part of some study he was doing. I've actually never done a psych test before so it was rather fun. The first part asked the same question in 100 different ways; the second part wanted to know if I felt happy/sad/scared/confident/hopeless etc and the answer to most of it was yes, while the third part concentrated rather unnecessarily on some of my personal bodily functions. I guess if the Twin Otter arrives tomorrow with a load of straight-jackets we'll know we all failed.

The answer to "scared", by the way, has to be yes (well, a little, anyway). Fear is Nature's way of helping you to stay alive.

Meanwhile, it got down to -52 C again last night. It's hard to keep warm enough in the sleeping tent, even with the oil heater.

John

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