Thursday, 13 January 2011

It's such a hassle when the suncream freezes

Typed 6/1/11

I have some samples from last year?s ESA projects, blood samples
mostly, that are being kept in a tunnel a few hundred metres from the
base. At the surface the temperature might be -25 degrees centigrade,
but two metres down the snow is -50. The tunnel left over from the
EPICA drilling experiments is an ideal place to freeze these samples
and so there they sit, waiting for a plane to take them to DDU.

I had to go down to check all ten boxes were packed properly. It was
a nice sunny day and although cold as usual, there was no wind and I
could feel the sun?s rays warming my down suit as I walked to the
tunnel. But once inside the cold irresistibly sucked all that warmth
out as I worked through each box. My hat and neck fleece were thickly
coated in frost by the time I finished.

The tunnel?s ceiling is remarkable for the ice crystal growing on it,
delicate branched crystals that look just like a thick, white forest
of conical fir bushes growing downwards, around 30 centimetres long.
I took a few pictures but the contact with the metal body of my camera
numbed my gloved hands in minutes flat, and I ran out back into the
sun, yelping as the hot aches took over.

The sunshine felt so warm on my face I would have loved to sit on the
snow, lean back on the wall of snow beside the tunnel?s entrance and
soak it up for a while, but I quickly realised my face was cooking ?
you really miss the ozone layer, here, believe me. And that?s when I
discovered that my suncream had frozen, and there was nothing for it
but to layer up over my face and trudge back to the base. Ho hum.

Tomorrow my gear finally arrives. Well, half of it anyway.

I?ve got two projects to run, both funded by the European Space Agency
(ESA). One, the Long term Medical Survey, is designed directly by ESA
and is a fairly loosely defined project that involves weekly
questionnaires, frequent physical checks and, when the equipment
arrives, periodic monitoring of heart rate, ECG, temperature, oxygen
saturation, and respiratory rate. The questionnaires and checks have
been running for a few years, and the monitoring is new. I get the
feeling ESA is still in the process of finding out what is really
worth looking at. I?ll be piloting the physical monitoring equipment
and we?ll just have to see how we get on with it. It?s due to arrive
at the end of January.

The other project, NEUROPOLE, is a carefully put together amalgam of
several projects that were proposed to ESA by scientists in various
disciplines across Europe. It will answer some specific scientific
questions about how the challenges of isolation etc at Concordia
affect mood, cognition, sleep, and exercise tolerance, and how a
programme of exercise might help normalise all these factors. It?s
directly relevant to planning the Mars mission. It is a long way to
Mars and the small crew will live in confined and uncomfortable
conditions, coping with the unimaginable stresses of separation from
Earth, of physical dangers and discomfort never before experienced by
anyone, and the very genuine stress of prolonged boredom. But despite
this they will need to stay sharp and cohesive and that is a big
challenge to achieve. It is so far removed from the challenges that
humans were built, physically and psychologically, by nature to cope
with. We need to know what will happen, and how to help the crew
cope. There is such good evidence from medicine that exercise is good
at helping with all sorts of problems, such as coping with pressure,
depression, poor sleep, and so on that providing a good quality
exercise programme for the crew is a must, and NEUROPOLE?s central
design is around a programme of exercise that each crew member does,
and tests to see how they respond to it. The study is a bit
real-world and every crew member can do the same experiments. A
randomised controlled study it is not, but then, how could it ever be?

But back down to Earth; this is Antarctica, and this gear has been
designed and made in Europe and is being shipped to me via the
astrolabe to DDU (Dumond D?Urville station). One of the project
leaders, Natalie, is coming out to Concordia for three weeks, to help
me get the project started. She, and the equipment were due to arrive
today, but that?s been postponed to Friday now.

I?ve run out of other things to do. The parts of my research that I
can do are ticking over easily, I?ve got to the point that I?m
over-organised, and I?ve read all the papers that I brought I
really, really can?t wait for this stuff to arrive!

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