Saturday, 25 December 2010

Away mission

written 23.12.10

The equipment for my experiments haven?t arrived yet. The gear for
one half of my work will arrive in early January, and the other half
won?t arrive until the end of January. That?s just the logistics of
getting gear designed, tested, readied, and trained on in Europe, and
then shipped to Concordia via Hobart, Australia, and Dumond D?Urville
station on the Antarctic coast, and then transported over the the ice
to us. It?s a huge logistical operation that through the summer
season seems to occupy two full time staff just in Concordia.
The Astrolabe (or the ?Gastrolabe? to those unfortunate enough to have
had to make the 6 day voyage aboard) is the French supply and research
vessel currently en route from Hobart with some boxes for me on board.
I?m told she is a fin keeled, flat bottomed ship, so that she can be
manoevrable enough to get into Dumond D?Urville?s tight and shallow
waters. The price is that on the open ocean she rolls and wallows
terribly. And the Southern Ocean is not at all kind to a rolling and
wallowing boat, and the sea sickness can be terrible. Hence the
?gastro? nickname.
In the meantime, I do have some responsibilities to meet but really,
I?m having to work to find ways to fill my time.
So I?ve been spending time helping others with their experiments
wherever I can, hoping the goodwill will pay off when I need them to
co-operate with mine My experiments are on humans, and so therefore
must be voluntary. ESA relies on the goodwill of the crew to
participate in them.
So today I offered to go help dig a hole.
There are seismologists here with earthquake detectors buried in the
snow, and one, 5km away from the base, needs to be checked to make
sure it is positioned properly. We need to make sure it?s perfectly
flat. So we have to go and dig it out. But leaving Concordia is a big
deal and not undertaken lightly.
It?s a beautiful sunny day and we can see for miles, but this is a
completely flat, featureless plain at around -30. If the weather
closes in, the wind covers your tracks with drifting snow, the range
of vision to a few hundred metres or in severe weather centimetres,
the temperature immediately drops down to a windchill -50 or below.
You wouldn?t last long in that.
So we don?t take chances. Fully geared up in down suits, layered
gloves, Sorel snow boots we ride out in a Kassborer tracked vehicle
equipped with two GPS systems, radios, satellite phones, and down
sleeping bags. Seven wheels down each side with wide tracks, it?s a
mobile box that roars as it inches over the snow. It?s slow but it
cruises over anything, and it jerks and sways over the sastrugi. When
you arrive, never, never switch the engine off because you?ll not be
able to restart it. One of the group that comes has been struggling
with acute mountain sickness so I quietly pack an oxygen cylinder and
some diamox just in case.
We drive out until Concordia is an indistinct speck on the horizon,
and in the middle of this featureless plain we arrive at a set of
solar panels standing to a lonely post. We dig down 2 metres through
snow at first and then ice. The effort at this altitude is startling.
You feel great, but the life just drains out of your arms so fast.
Within minutes you?re gasping for air. With the briefest fof rests
you feel normal again, but restart the work and again within minutes
you?re exhausted. It?s very frustrating, and you have to acquire
patience to cope, otherwise you?ll burn out. Pace yourself, Eoin.
It?s not something I?m good at. The digging takes hours. The sun
burns down. No ozone, I remind myself, keep re-applying the sunblock.
2 metres down we find the sensor. We lift off the large rudimentary
wooden cover, and underneath the sensor is a 40cm diameter solid black
object shaped like a tall upturned bowl. We lift a fitted cover and
underneath is a spirit level. It?s still centred perfectly. Well
that?s good news. We can fill the snow back in and go home.

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