Astronomy on Ice: Expedition to Antarctica

It is the driest place on the planet and – usually – one of the calmest. But when Geoff Sims flew into a remote site in the heart of Antarctica called Ridge A, the wind was howling.

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“There were 25 knot gusts, which is really bad when it is 40 degrees below zero,” the physics PhD student recalls of his expedition to the frozen continent in December and January. “It was pretty daunting to arrive during those conditions. You can’t expose any skin for more than a few seconds.”

Along with other researchers, including UNSW’s Emeritus Professor John Storey, Sims quickly had to set up tents for protection, as well as dismantle some of the equipment at the isolated astronomical site, so it could be sent back on the plane to the South Pole, almost 1000 kilometres away.

It was a challenge. “We had these massive gloves on, which were great, but you can’t undo a screw or a bolt or connect a wire. So you have to take your gloves off for a few minutes to do some work inside the tent, and then your hands get really cold,” he says.

ImageHe was initially scheduled to spend two nights camping out at Ridge A, helping service the autonomous PLATO-R observatory, which had been installed a year before by an Australian and American team, led by UNSW’s Professor Michael Ashley, and Dr Craig Kusela of the University of Arizona.

In the end, due to transport delays, the 30-year old spent six days and five nights on the extremely cold plateau, which is at an elevation of over 4000 metres.

“It really is a beautiful place. But it’s very difficult to sleep there, partly because of the cold and partly because of the altitude and partly because you have bright sunlight shining into the tent 24 hours a day,” he says.

While this might sound like a nightmare to some, for Sims the six-week long scientific expedition was an extraordinary adventure and the culmination of a decade-long desire to travel to Antarctica on “the kind of trip that money can’t buy.”

A keen maths and physics student at school, it was his passion for photography that drew him towards studying the stars: “I was photographing the moon and the night sky for my HSC and that developed into an interest in astronomy,” he says.

“In 2002 I saw a total solar eclipse from the middle of the desert in South Australia. They’re really amazing, and the next eclipse was going to be visible from Antarctica. Unfortunately I didn’t make it down there, but it had sparked my interest in Antarctica so a few years later I decided to merge the two together and study Antarctic astronomy.”

For his PhD, Sims has analysed the frequency and brightness of the Aurora Australis, as well as levels of water vapour in the atmosphere, to determine their possible impacts on astronomical observations at various Antarctic locations.

Water vapour strongly absorbs terahertz radiation from space, but the dryness of Ridge A means this frequency of light can reach the ground telescope there, and can be used to study the life cycle of gas, dust and stars in the Milky Way.

During the trip, Sims and Storey kept a daily blog on the physics school website where they posted many photographs of their experiences, including spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve at the US coastal station of McMurdo.

Food features a lot. Sims, who is also a keen surfer, was particularly amazed by the culinary skills of their assigned mountaineer at Ridge A, Ben Adkison, who cooked tasty meals in one of the most remote locations on earth. “Before we left he had showed us this spreadsheet of proposed menus – things like quesadillas, enchiladas and pancakes.  I thought he was dreaming – that there was no way he would make this on site. But he did.”

Deborah Smith

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