Antarctic Astronomy Diaries 2003/04

   

   
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04 December 2003

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Don't let me down

This morning dawned warm and sunny but with a noticeable absence of Twin Otters in the air. Further investigation revealed that today's flight has been cancelled, and even the possibility of a flight tomorrow is looking rather shaky. Apparently the ski-way at Terra Nova Bay now has a metre of snow on it, and it's unclear how long it will take to clear.

With mid-summer approaching, every passing day means that the ice shelf at Terra Nova Bay is getting smaller. This is good news for ships and for various forms of wildlife, but is bad news for the Hercules because the ski-way is simply an area of ice shelf that has been cleared of snow. Around about now is when there is no longer enough sea-ice left at Terra Nova Bay to safely land a Hercules C130.

This does not, however, mean that we're stuck here for the rest of the year. Instead, we might fly to the US coastal station of McMurdo, which is a few hundred kilometres further south than Terra Nova Bay. McMurdo is, however, completely closed at the moment as well.

The Twin Otters can of course take off and land on any piece of ice or snow larger than a pocket handkerchief, so getting to Terra Nova Bay or McMurdo is not the problem. It's just that there's no point going there if we can't continue on to Christchurch. The other night I was talking to Jim, one of the Twin Otter pilots, and he was proudly telling me that, amongst the many admirable characteristics of the Twin Otter, it is one of fastest planes around in terms of acceleration from 0 to 60 knots. This helps enormously when you need to take off within a very short distance. (What he failed to mention, however, is that, as the Twin Otter accelerates further, the fact that it has the aerodynamics of a house brick works increasingly to its disadvantage and it takes the rest of week to gain the next 60 knots.)

We spent a good part of the morning in the AASTINO doing those "odds and ends" jobs we hadn't quite got around to previously. Anna sorted our capacitors out and put them in neatly labelled boxes, along with the diodes and other beaut little things we actually remembered to bring down this year. She also labelled our box of 6,100 resistors with a big sign that says "resistors". Personally I think this is a mistake because now the space aliens will know exactly where to find them again.

While Anna was doing this, and also downloading some more data from our remaining science instrument, Summit, I brought in our industrial strength vacuum cleaner and vacuumed the floor ready for the AASTINO's next occupants. The AASTINO is now firmly back in contention for a "Good Housekeeping" award.

The other job this morning was to glue back the rubber door seal which came off when we hacked our way into the AASTINO with a steak knife two weeks ago. This turned out to be a challenging job, involving contact adhesive and a simulated paint brush made from a screwdriver with some paper towel cable-tied to it. (I guess we never thought to bring paint brushes down with us.) The instructions on the contact adhesive tin implore the user not to attempt to apply it below +10 C, but I assume they only say these things to keep their lawyers happy and, at -28 C today, it's as warm as it's going to get anyway so it's now or never.

The seal actually went back on quite nicely, but unfortunately I got contact adhesive all over the fingers of my nice black gloves. Contact adhesive is completely irremovable, at least with the solvents we have available here. Worse still, everyone else thinks it is snot, with the result that I am now condemned to be a social outcast for the rest of this expedition. (Actually, come to think of it, Jet-A1 might take it off. I'll give that a go tomorrow.)

After lunch we kind of veged out and watched most of the "Lord of the Rings", which I hadn't seen before and which, like the escargots, I have no particular wish to revisit. (I suspect this comment will immediately lose me half my diary readership.) In fact the only really good bit was where one of the less heavily made-up actors lopped off the head of a more heavily made-up actor with a sword. It was a forceful visual reminder of what will happen if Tony goes into the AASTINO in a couple of weeks time and forgets to turn the big ceiling fan off.

The next task was to try and rearrange our commercial flight bookings, as it's clear we're not going to be back in Christchurch by Wednesday. We trust that Qantas will be understanding. While this is now my tenth trip to Antarctica, and I've heard horror stories of people being stranded by storms for a week or more, I've never yet had to wait more than a couple of days for flights. I hope that neither the weather nor Qantas will let me down this time.

By late afternoon it had completely clouded over again, and the wind had picked up to the extent that it was quite unpleasant again outside. The afternoon was basically a write-off, although Anna is continuing to work away at the engine log-files and is making some very interesting discoveries. There's now more and more evidence accumulating for the "frozen batteries" theory. Tomorrow we might do something crazy like start an engine and then suddenly disconnect a battery (which is effectively what happens when it freezes) and see if the engine freaks out as expected. That's if we're still here, of course.

John

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