Monthly Archives: February 2012

Antarctica: Remote Field Camp Expedition

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Jon Rask, who works at Ames as a contractor with Dynamac Corp, participated in a three-person expedition to deliver science hardware supplies for set up of an extremely remote field camp called PG2, at an elevation of ~11500 feet, near the South Pole.  The PG2 station will be used to investigate space weather, solar activity, and the intensity of phenomenon like the Aurora Australis (southern lights). Here’s a blog post from his time in Antarctica. 
On January 5th, I had the opportunity to participate in a 3 person expedition to deliver science hardware supplies for set up of an extremely remote field camp called PG2, at an elevation of ~11500 feet (about 2000 feet higher than South Pole). The weather was good, only -35F on the ground and mostly clear.  The flight was unforgettable, and passed over the gigantic icy polar plateau. It looked like a huge ocean, spanning to every horizon as far as one could see. We flew at about 15000 feet, which was the physiological equivalent of about 17000 feet. The air is very thin at these elevations. The Twin Otter was not pressurized, so I had to breathe heavily and fast to stay alert. Even though I was just sitting during the flight, I felt like I was experiencing a cardiovascular workout similar to running on a treadmill.
The field sites we visited are almost as far inland as anywhere else in Antarctica – much like North Dakota is with respect to North America (see the attached map – the red dots approximate the locations of where we went – I also put a dot where Marambio is, another field site I explored earlier in March 2011). It was literally a brain rattling experience to land on a fresh but rough surface where no plane had landed before. Stepping out of the Twin Otter and lumbering down the ladder, followed by a jump to the surface that reminded me of videos of Apollo astronauts descending the Lunar Module ladder to the Lunar surface. Bizarre wind-carved drifts called Sastrugi were scattered everywhere and formed elegant sharp and blunt surfaces, some of which were a foot or more high. From the air, the patterns look very organized and regular, but on the ground they look chaotic. We had to shovel them flat over about a 1000 foot long path where we built a runway…
To complete our mission, we had to go to another field site in the Antarctic Gamburtsev Province (AGAP) where fuel and other supplies were cached. We refueled the plane and completed two fuel deliveries from AGAP to PG2 (they are the bright orange barrels, full of the extreme cold weather fuel that all the heavy equipment and planes use here in Antarctica – it is similar to diesel/kerosene).
The AGAP field camp was utilized in 2007-2009 to map the subglacial Gamburtsev Mountain Range that is buried by over 2000 feet of ice and snow. This mountain range was first discovered in 1958 and believed to be very similar in size and shape as the European Alps – they are about 750 miles long and about 9000 feet high. This mountain range is extremely old. About 35 million years ago, active glaciation on their surfaces merged with one another, gradually building up to form the Eat Antarctic Ice Sheet – subsequently burying the Gamburtsev mountains in the process.
PG2 will be used to investigate space weather, solar activity, and the intensity of phenomenon like the Aurora Australis (southern lights). Protons and charged particles that are blasted off the surface of the sun travel through space, pass through and get trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, then spiral down the north and south magnetic field lines. During this process they collide with Nitrogen (N) and Oxygen (O) in Earth’s atmosphere, which causes them to emit green (O) brownish-red (O) blue (N), and red (N) light. Other colors like yellow and pink are combinations of emissions from both Nitrogen and Oxygen. The data collected will be compared to similar field sites in Greenland that investigate the Aurora Borealis (northern lights), and could ultimately be used to help ensure safe navigation in future long duration spaceflight….