Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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Friday, November 28, 2003

Hold me tight

We spent yet another morning writing and answering emails, and working out a general plan of attack for our remaining few days here. Today is also the day that our colleagues at UNSW are sending off the boxes that will go by icebreaker and then overland traverse to Dome C, arriving here in early January. Anything else will at least have to fly by Twin Otter from Dumont d'Urville to get here. This is therefore our last chance to think of dangerous things (that can't go by air), heavy things (that could in principle go by air but would make us very unpopular), and unimportant things (that we couldn't quite justify bringing here by air, but are happy to sneak in on the traverse). Into this last category fall a selection of videos and DVDs of Australian films (such as Mad Max) that Tony has selected to try and raise the general cultural tone of the Station.


More than one person had commented on the "Tales from the crypt" photos we sent. In particular, some have unkindly noted that the five layers of clothing I was wearing fail to show off my natural Bruce Lee like physique to best effect. Tony wrote to say that Michael Jordan was demanding I give his parka back. I cannot remember now if it is manners or clothes that maketh the man, but I probably should concentrate now on the manners and admit that sartorial elegance is not my forte. (I did, for a while, feel that, with the dark glasses and dressed in the long parka, I bore an uncanny resemblance to Keanu Reaves in "The Matrix". However at this altitude it's possible to convince yourself of almost anything.)

During lunch a Twin Otter taxied up and parked outside the restaurant, and I was surprised to find it a perfectly reasonable thing to happen. In normal suburban life one gets used to the sound of a car pulling up outside, which normally presages a visit from friends, door-to-door salesmen or the Federal Police. Here, the arrival of visitors is heralded by the sound of two Pratt and Whitney gas turbines driving their propellers into reverse pitch just outside the window.

Email continues to be rather erratic. We suspect some emails never get through; on other occasions we get multiple copies of the same message. This morning I received nine copies of the same email!

After lunch I started up Nancy, and was dismayed to see another belch of bubbles in the coolant - this almost certainly indicates a slow internal leak of the nitrogen working fluid. It is going to be a difficult decision to choose which of the two engines to send back for reconditioning at the end of summer, and which to leave to run for another winter alongside the new engine. Yesterday Sid put on a stellar performance, and has put himself firmly back into contention as the engine to stay.

Nancy, however, was clearly determined to show that she was fighting fit, and today her power output ramped up to a record 930 watts. This is not bad for an engine that is only rated at 800 watts at sea level. More alarming, though, was that the exhaust temperature also ramped up, to just over 500 C. I've never seen one of our engines get this hot before, and frantically searched through the software settings to find out at which point the engine would either melt or, preferably, some sort of alarm would go off. It turns out that there is indeed an alarm, and it's set by the manufacturer (who, one assumes, has carefully taken into account the melting point of all the various engine bits) at 545 C. With this piece of information to hand I was able to relax and watch as Nancy settled back into a less frenetic "float charging" mode.

One way we could solve the dilemma of which engine to ship back to New Zealand would be invite diary readers to phone in, as in the Big Brother TV show, and vote to send Sid or Nancy out of the AASTINO. However at $6/minute for the satellite phone, I suspect we wouldn't get many takers.

The title of today's diary is a plea to both Sid and Nancy to hold on tight to their nitrogen. One way or another we need to have at least one of them leak-tight by February.

Around mid-afternoon Geanpiero arrived at the AASTINO to tell us our radio wasn't working, which indeed it wasn't because the battery was flat. The only weird thing is that he arrived in a bulldozer. He may have been thinking that, because of the many visitors we get at the AASTINO, parking might be a bit of a problem and, as everyone knows, the only way to be really of sure of a parking space anywhere is to turn up in a bulldozer. As it turned out there was plenty of room and he didn't even have to nudge our snowmobile out of the way.

Unfortunately he completely ruined the snowmobile track back to the main station and, just as I've almost perfected my Scandinavian flick into the entrance to that tricky cresting right-hander I've been working on, I find there's now a set of furrows in the snow a foot deep that complete ruin any kind of smooth exit.

Geanpiero was also able to tell us that the mechanical workshop had made a nice little bracket for our fan. I'd given them the sketch this morning - they asked if it was urgent and when I said no, they said it would be ready in a couple of hours. That's service!

Anna solved the problem with the Axis web camera, which surprised us mid year by refusing to take pictures every 12 hours, and deciding only to take pictures when it felt like it. The problem arose because, in its enthusiasm to get on with taking pictures (which is what web cameras really like to do), it was drawing a monumental gulp of current from the power supply each time it was switched on. Unfortunately the power supply was less than pleased with this, and after a brief and, I assume, highly acrimonious discussion between the two, arrived at a compromise whereby the power supply delivered just enough current to set fire to the resistors in series with the web camera, but not enough to allow the web camera to actually get on with its job.

We've temporarily wired the web camera up to Station power so, if it really gets carried away with excitement at the prospect of being able to take yet another picture, it can call upon the full resources of a 150 kW diesel generator to supply it with electrical power.

To conclude the day Jean Louis put on his star dessert, Ille Flottante (Oeufs a la neige). Neither the Italian nor the French translate into anything you'd immediately deem edible, but this is indeed one of his best and was treated accordingly by the assembled throng (i.e., I don't think there'll be much left for breakfast tomorrow).

John

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