Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Excursion 2 - Into the Quiet Sector

Dec. 22, 2011 at 9AM we grouped at the back door and loaded into the Piston Bully track vehicle for a short drive out away from the station into an area called the “Quiet Sector”.  The primary research in this area are a set of seismometers and it is considered the “quietest” station in the world.  In this case, quite means no vibrations.  This translates into they don’t want people going into this area if at all possible.  But we needed to do some maintenance on the facility there so 4 snow machines roared off and the piston bully rumbled along after them disturbing the peace by generally making a seismic ruckus. 

My supervisor Al was driving since he was the only one who knew the way and was familiar with the delicacies of entering the facility (though I did read the manual).  I was riding shot gun to learn the route.  The winds were down from yesterday and the visibility was considerably improved from when the PB let us down (see previous post-click here).  Surely they would give us a different one, but no, they fixed some parts and drove it back yesterday so they gave it to us again today. 

Battered flags mark the research equipment buried below.
In Antarctica, away from the station, visibility of 1 mile vs 3 or 5 looks about the same; very white.  And with the clouds thick enough to obscure the disk of the sun and no direct light, looking through our big Smith goggles, the scene had an eerie orange/gray appearance.  The horizon was lost in the wash and the flag line had not been refreshed for the season and was a mix of short and long bamboo poles and red and orange wind battered flags and some poles with no flags.  The snow mobiles had gone ahead but with out direct sun, the lack of shadows the tracks were barely visible.  Also the humps of drifted snow were not clear until we were upon them but the PB was designed for just this type of terrain.  The goggles made the scene look somewhat dim but I tried taking them off and without them, the scene was a complete white wash.  I tried another pair of sunglasses and still could not see as well as with the big dark fly-eye goggles you see in the pictures.

I looked back over my shoulder and I could easily see the station standing out so it wasn’t as bad as it looked except for the lack of contrast.  As we trundled along we exchanged comments about the terrain and Al added that even more eerie is that you can get out in these conditions and with the altitude induced hypoxia and make bad decisions – but you don’t care because of the hypoxia.  (I am pleased to report that personally have been handling the altitude quite well.)

As we quietly plowed along, both watching the road carefully, I had an odd sense of pleasure at really feeling like I am in Antarctica.  About half way down the line, the beast lost power for a moment.  “Oh ooh”, Al said.  He adjusted things a bit and after less than a minute it was stable again but didn’t seem quite like it was the same.  I wondered if we would turn around but earlier Al pointed out that we could walk back for no farther than we were going. 

We finally arrived at the vault where two of the snow machine’s were stopped and the guys were digging snow away from the top of the vault a mere 5 miles from the station.  As we approached, the horizon still foreboding, some snow was oddly blowing up from nowhere and across our path.  I notice that the wind was now a different direction and I was a bit nervous.  Indeed, we had a survival bag and such a circumstance is the reason for the snow school 10 days ago, and the heated building below was a potential retreat but not for so many people.  Oxygen concentration in such a small confined space was also an issue for this trip and part of the care in entering the vault.

But, we got out and very soon the wind was back from the original direction.  Above the station was a patch of blue that was slowly growing as we worked.  The guys were just ready to open the vault and head in to take care of business. 

The carpenters measured inside the vault.  The electrician inspected the high voltage – everything looked good.  The UT person inspected the utilities; found the emergency lights for a power outage were not working – assume bad battery (future repair), the fan associated with the switch in the shaft rattled rather loudly.  The IT person changed out a unit.  Al and I were there to make sure the science was undisturbed and proper measures were taken.
She is in the driver's seat

Additionally, though, I took a big snow sample in a ½ gallon jug to look for micrometeorites.  And John Rask (fellow MDRS Mars Hab veteran) also partook of some rouge science taking snow samples to look for bacterial life.  He has a paper from 2000 where some Antarctic critters were found where they were not supposed to be found so he is following that up with more samples.  We have tentative NSF approval to do this and from these preliminary findings justify getting approval for a more extensive exploration. 

The snow machines headed off first and just as we were ready to leave the other two machines that had been farther out, returned.  They helped close the vaults and the 5 of us piled back into the machine only this time with me in the driver’s seat.  The vehicle has two speeds generally, not moving and chunking along. With my foot all the way down we were going about half the normal speed and when we didn’t show up on time, the Comm’s staff called us and we reported we were still in transit.  We returned to the station about an hour after leaving the vault and just in time for lunch.   Click here for more photos.

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