Geographic South Pole


Fourmilab South Pole Expedition

January, 2013

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Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

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2013-01-09 13:27 UTC Click images for enlargements.

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2013-01-08 21:25 UTC

The station is an impressive building with a core and multiple wings on the other side. The flags of the ceremonial South Pole are toward the left.

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2013-01-08 21:25 UTC

For those who haven't arranged for a tour, there is a single room visitor centre near the landing strip. Those arriving on skis or by foot will appreciate that this building is heated.

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2013-01-09 15:06 UTC

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Welcome to all; there is a toilet. No, corporate coffee is not actually available within this shack.

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2013-01-08 21:36 UTC

The external doors to the station are impressive. So are the official penguin hats of the Fourmilab expedition.

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2013-01-08 21:41 UTC

Every year, the marker at the geographic South Pole is replaced with the winner of a design competition among residents of the station. This trophy case shows markers from previous years.

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2013-01-08 21:45 UTC

The South Pole station is pretty much what you'd imagine Americans would build there, with Lockheed Martin as prime contractor. Here is the basketball court (which doubles as a movie theatre—the screen is behind the basket at the end).

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The music room.

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Behind the station is a large supply dump, part supplies for the operation of the station and cached for the over-winter crew of about 45 people, and part left-overs from the construction of the present station and dismantlement of the dome which preceded it. This debris is being removed as Hercules flight return cargo capacity permits. The small dome to the right contains a steerable antenna which provides high bandwidth communications with a retired NASA TDRSS satellite which has been placed in an inclined orbit so it's visible from the Pole part of the day. The dome to the left is used for lower bandwidth communications through other satellites.

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Here is a close-up of the two communication domes.

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The predecessor to the current South Pole station was a geodesic dome with container buildings inside. This was a disaster, and it was a memorable milestone when its last remnants were dismantled.

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Game room: this wing is also the redoubt to which the over-winter crew would retreat in case of fire or other emergency which required abandoning other parts of the station. It has its own autonomous supplies to allow them to survive until resupply and rescue becomes available in the southern spring.

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2013-01-08 22:15 UTC

The computer lab is less used than before. Each of the station crew has their own individual “berth” (the U.S. Navy built the first South Pole station, and naval terminology persists to this day) with its own Internet connection.

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The medical centre concentrates on preventive care and stabilising conditions, but is fully equipped to perform emergency surgery when evacuation is not an option, and has done so.

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Okay, if you say so.

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Fire is the preeminent worry at a station as isolated at this. Fire alarm and sprinkler pipes are ubiquitous, and a six person fire brigade is included in the summer crew. In the winter, there are no dedicated fire-fighters, but members of the over-winter crew train for that job. Still, station personnel told me that in the case of a fire in an out-building in the winter, it would probably be allowed to burn down.

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2013-01-08 22:23 UTC


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There are many long corridors in the station. All of the red lockers contain firefighting equipment. Fire doors isolate wings of the station to contain the spread of a fire.

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The station may be devoted to the most pure pursuits of science in this inhospitable environment, but still, there's a gift shop.

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Not to mention a post office.

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Of course, you'll want to get your passport stamped. Actually, you don't get it stamped—you stamp it yourself with a selection of stamps in a box at the post office. And make sure you set the date correctly!

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Dr Vladimir Papitashvili, Program Director of Antarctic Astrophysics and Geospace Sciences for the U.S. National Science Foundation and chief NSF officer at the station accompanied our tour and provided extensive expert insight into science operations at the station and the demanding logistics which are required to support them.

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2013-01-08 22:58 UTC

In the winter, this hydroponic garden provides fresh vegetables to the crew. Why hydroponic? The grotesque Antarctic Treaty System prohibits bringing in even sterilised soil in which to grow things lest it contaminate this barren continent. The flowers at the right are fake silk flowers: actual flowers are prohibited by the Treaty. Over-winter crews are still allowed to think about flowers, but not actually have them.

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Here's the laundry. Think about it: you're sitting atop three kilometres of fresh water ice, and the scarcest resource is water. Station personnel are allowed two showers a week of two minutes each, plus one load of laundry a week. While this is the lap of luxury compared to polar explorers of yore (or, for that matter, our expedition), many people contemplating a sojourn at the Pole respond with ewwww!

Water is scarce because the only way to obtain it is to melt the ice by burning fuel which has to be hauled in either by air or dragged across the ice from McMurdo (about half is flown in and half hauled from the coast). A 500 kilowatt nuclear reactor would completely change this (and the entire logistics of the polar station), but the greenies can't wrap what passes for their minds around such a concept. Better to burn jet fuel flying diesel fuel to be burned to melt water than doing something which emits no pollutants into the pristine polar environment.

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2013-01-08 23:02 UTC

Comfy chair library.

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Amazing, the books you'll find there….

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Imagine yourself alone here, in mid-winter. At the end of the corridor you hear the clicking of giant claws, then the lights go out….

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2013-01-09 15:34 UTC

The South Pole Telescope is a ten metre aperture antenna able to make observations in the microwave, millimetre-wave, and submillimetre-wave bands. Because emissions in these wavelengths are strongly absorbed by water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere, a telescope at the South Pole, one of the driest places on Earth, is able to make observations which would otherwise require a space telescope.

To the left of the ten metre telescope is the shallow dish (actually just a shield for the primary instrument, not an antenna) of the BICEP experiment, intended to measure the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

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2013-01-08 21:53 UTC

From a different angle, we see the South Pole Telescope complex and the SPUD telescope to the right. Again, what looks like a dish is just a shield to deflect radiation reflected from the surface.

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2013-01-09 14:11 UTC

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This building is the only visible evidence of the massive IceCube neutrino detector beneath it.

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This is a model of one of the IceCube detector modules. There are a total of 86 “strings” of 60 such modules each, placed in the ice at depths ranging from 1450 to 2450 metres, for a total of 5160 detectors. The holes in which the strings are emplaced were made by drilling into the ice cap with hot water, made by melting ice and heating it with fuel.

by John Walker
February 22nd, 2013
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This document is in the public domain.