Editor's note: Marine geophysicist Robin Bell is leading an expedition to Antarctica to explore a mysterious mountain range beneath the ice sheet. Following is the seventh of her updates on the effort as part of ScientificAmerican.com's in-depth report on the "Future of the Poles."

McMURDO STATION, ANTARCTICA--Thanksgiving weekend was long and gray.  All work stopped in the U.S. Antarctic program.  While the holiday feasts and polar companionship are wonderful, the associated delays are difficult. More than two weeks behind schedule, the British Antarctic Survey Otter, a bright red plane with skis, was hopping between skyways and fuel caches when it was stalled by the holiday at the South Pole. The South Pole turkey was delicious and the staff incredibly generous, but the downside is there was no fuel available until the end of the weekend.  Our survey plane was similarly tripped up.  We had planned to fly on Sunday evening once the airport opened again, but we were grounded.  Our fuel tanks were empty.  The skyway was open but the fuel pits were not.  Unable to fly on fumes, we had to wait till Monday.

By Monday, the storm had blown over. The sky is now clear.  The gale force winds have driven the sea ice away and there is open water 30 miles to the north. If we were working here 100 years ago, we would be dreaming of a re-supply ship sailing through the open water.  But times have changed. Instead, we dream of a flat reflective surface to calibrate our radar.  It is a perfect day to install equipment on the British airplane and test the equipment on the U.S. aircraft. 

The goals of the first flight are to make sure the three racks of equipment have sufficient power, the equipment starts up and the pilot guidance system works.  We have to make sure the transfer from ground to aircraft power is smooth.  On a commercial airliner, this is the time when the lights dim and the fans slow just before the aircraft is ready to leave the gate.   On our survey aircraft, we cannot have the light dimming and the fans slowing.  Just as irregular power during a electrical storm can ruin the electronics in ahouse, this power switch from ground to aircraft power can make the gravity meter crash, or cause the data acquisition system to fail.  My colleague Michael Studinger and the project engineer Nick Frearson have developed a procedure to ensure the equipment is safe. 

None of us have slept well, worried about the things that might go wrong on the test flight.  We used to call this the smoke test --- if nothing smoked, it was a success.  Michael has laid out a pair of east/west lines to fly over the ice shelf and across some foothills of the Transantarctic Mountains.  On the ground, we just have to wait. In the aircraft, they are so busy looking at things rush by on the screens that they do not have a moment to look out at the sceneryfrom the Royal Society Ranges ahead to the buckling ice shelf. The only  chance they  to admire the Antarctic  landscape is when the pilot, who is following the survey system, declares:  ”If I was setting the flight path. I would begin to climb soon.”  When Nick and Michael look up, the cockpit view is filled with snow-covered mountains. 

The good news is the survey system worked and prompted the pilot to climb almost the moment he pointed the view out.

We can tell almost immediately that we passed the smoke test by the look on their faces when they complete the flight.  Nothing smoked and we now have about 368GB of data to evaluate.  With any luck tomorrow, we can try a test flight for the British aircraft.

Our radar is getting closer to the middle of the ice sheet.  One instrument is almost ready, although we need to calibrate and tune others.  More good news arrives.  The second delivery of fuel to the northern camp was successful as the packages with parachutes attached slipped out of the back of the C-17 and floated to the northern camp. 

The next days will be spent flying and examining the gigabytes of data. The wiggle plots of the data will move us closer to believing everything is working.   


Dispatches from the Bottom of the Earth: An Antarctic Expedition in Search of Lost Mountains Encased in Ice


Photo courtesy of Robin Bell