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Robotic Telescope Installed on Antarctica Plateau 128

Posted by Zonk
from the j-j-j-just-a-b-b-bit-n-n-n-nippy dept.
Reservoir Hill writes "Antarctica claims some of the best astronomical sky conditions in the world — devoid of clouds with steady air that makes for clear viewing. The very best conditions unfortunately lie deep in the interior on a high-altitude plateau called Dome A. With an elevation of up to 4,093m, it's known as the most unapproachable point in the earth's southernmost region. Now astronomers in a Chinese scientific expedition have set up an experimental observatory at Dome A after lugging their equipment across Antarctica with the help of Australia and the US. The observatory will hunt for alien planets, while also measuring the observing conditions at the site to see if it is worth trying to build bigger observatories there. The observatory is automated, pointing its telescopes on its own while astronomers monitor its progress from other locations around the world via satellite link. PLATO is powered by a gas generator, and has a 4000-litre tank of jet fuel to keep it running through the winter. The observatory will search for planets around other stars using an array of four 14.5-centimetre telescopes called the Chinese Small Telescope Array (CSTAR). Astronomers hope to return in 2009 with new instruments, including the Antarctica Schmidt Telescopes (AST-3), a trio of telescopes with 0.5-metre mirrors, which will be more sensitive to planets than CSTAR."
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Robotic Telescope Installed on Antarctica Plateau

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  • Wow. 1000 gallons of jet fuel to run on. Hopefully they're using it efficiently, and not just running the generator non-stop.
    • by gotzero (1177159)
      Better than a reactor... I think the concept is neat as long as they treat the surrounding environment well. Hopefully we will get some groundbreaking research and nice pictures for the rest of us!
      • by TooMuchToDo (882796) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:54PM (#22325366)
        Actually, I think I'd prefer an RTG reactor like they use on long-range satellite probes. No CO2 emissions, lasts longer, and any heat you don't use to generate electricity can be used to warm the equipment.
        • by TubeSteak (669689)

          Actually, I think I'd prefer an RTG reactor like they use on long-range satellite probes
          Yea, but do you want to leave that lying around unattended? I imagine it's worth quite a bit more than some diesel generators and jet fuel.
          • From the article, it said the telescope is located in Dome A, a hard to reach plateau in Antarctica. If someone has the resources to get to the plateau, I doubt they're going to care about stealing the small RTG.
            • by rbanffy (584143)
              Do not underestimate the will of someone who badly wants some very nasty radioactive materials.

              Still, a lot of radioactive stuff can simply be stolen from the average medical facility (years ago, here in Brazil several people were killed in a mishap with Ce 137 when an abandoned - IIRC - radio-therapy machine was found by some very dumb people). I bet those are the low hanging fruit we should worry about.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by UseTheSource (66510)
          Actually, I think I'd prefer an RTG reactor like they use on long-range satellite probes. No CO2 emissions, lasts longer, and any heat you don't use to generate electricity can be used to warm the equipment.

          IANAA (I Am Not An Astronomer), but I would think there would be less distortion if the optics were actually at the same temperature as the ambient air temperature.

          Also, if you're doing any sort of spectroscopy, you'd want your detector to be really, really cold and that would be easier to attain i
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by OddThinking (1078509)
            IAAAA (I am an amateur astronomer) and yes, you want the equipment at the same temp as the surrounding air. Otherwise, the equipment will create a local air current, which would cause optical distortions.
          • Agreed. You're going to want to keep the optics as cold as possible. But I would think you'd want to keep the batteries, satellite communications, equipment, and other support systems warm.
        • Re:Lots o' jet fuel (Score:5, Informative)

          by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2@gd[ ]aud.net ['arg' in gap]> on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:37PM (#22326540) Homepage
          No more RTG in Antarctica since the last signup of the Antarctic Treaty [wikipedia.org]. There used to be automated weather stations [wikipedia.org] (AWS) on the high plateau using RTG of the same generation as what is currently powering the Voyager spacecrafts, but they had to be removed over a decade ago and replaced by large batteries and a combination of wind and solar power.

          As for astronomy, the team running this automated experiment at Dome A did it previously at Dome C. I was on the first winterover team [gdargaud.net] in 2005 and monitoring the turbulence for astronomy was one of the main goals. Bigger telescopes are being installed as we speak in time for the start of the 4th winterover in a few days.

          Dome A is 1000m higher than Dome C (4200m vs 3200m) but is even harder to reach and the temperature in winter borders on the insane: we had -78C during our winterover so I'll let you imagine at Dome A...

    • I've started a car at -44 degrees (not wind chill--that's a mythical concept) and let me tell you, it's not pretty. I think at the really cold temperatures in the antarctic, you really do want to run the generator non-stop. Also, it was litres, so less than 300 gallons.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward
        You're right, it was liters. 4000 of them.
      • by s20451 (410424)
        Parent was correct -- 1000 gallons is roughly 4000 litres (the amount specified in the summary).

        To put this into perspective, the fuel capacity of the Boeing 737 is between 4700 and 7800 gallons (18000 to 30000 liters), depending on the model. So compared to the 737's range, you'd burn around 4000 litres flying from, let's say, Los Angeles to Denver.
      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by PitaBred (632671)
        The reason they use jet fuel instead of gasoline is just because of that. At cold temperatures, gas starts getting more viscous. Jet fuel needs to get MUCH colder to start getting thick and hard to use. They probably only run the generator when necessary.
        • Re:Really cold (Score:4, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:59PM (#22326794)
          The problem with gasoline in those temperatures isn't so much that it gets more viscous--jet fuel gets much more viscous, in fact... The thing is, at those temperatures, gasoline isn't volatile enough to readily burn in an engine, and the compression stroke of a gasoline engine doesn't provide enough heat in those temperatures to elevate the atmosphere in the cylinder to a high enough degree to let the fuel normally burn.

          Diesels engines are what make power down there, because 1) the compression stroke does provide enough heat to ignite diesel-like fuels. 2) they're more efficient.

          They use jet fuels because they're compatible with icing inhibitors--and proper diesel engines don't mind.
        • Why is PitaBred getting modded informative when he is wrong, and AC modded down when he is right?

          Kerosene (jet A) does become more viscous when cold than octane (traditional gas). I'm sure they use Kerosene because the viscosity increase is manageable, it contains more power per liter than gas, diesel engines are more efficient, it is safer to transport, and jet A is probably easier to get in the Antarctic.

          I wish I had some of my ethereal mod points right now.
    • by Tribbin (565963)
      Luckily the Dutch found a robot that can handle the gass-pump.
    • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:58PM (#22325430)
      I'm one of the 4 UNSW scientists who designed PLATO. We certainly are using the fuel efficiently. When the sun is up we get over 1kW from solar panels, and we run one diesel generator at a time with just enough heat output to stop the fuel from getting too cold and turning to gel. Interestingly, the solar panels are considerably (about 30%) more efficient than you would expect from temperate site measurements - the colder temperatures (-50C at the moment) help, as does sunlight reflected from the snow.
      • Hazah! I'm really surprised to get a response from a project participant, and thrilled with your answer. I wish you best of luck with the project!
      • by FudRucker (866063)
        during the antarctic winter there is no sun shining, which will be several months out of the year = (june thru december without any sunshine?) the antarctic summer gets sunshine 24/7...

        i have family living in Alaska so i hear about the land of the midnight sun, (and no sun in winter)
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by pipatron (966506)
        Why did you not consider wind power? I'd imagine it would be quite strong and even winds there, and no neighbours to whine about the ruined view.
        • Re:Lots o' jet fuel (Score:5, Informative)

          by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:32PM (#22325870)

          Actually, Dome A is one of the least windy places on Earth, typically just 2-3 metres per second. Dome A is the highest point in the centre of the Antarctic plateau, and this is where the katabatic winds start from. The winds accelerate as they head towards the coast, and that is where they can reach 100's of kph.

          So, unfortunately, wind power was not feasible.

          • by Ioldanach (88584)
            Fascinating, and with clear skies that would aid your telescopes as well by lessening atmospheric disturbances. Sounds like you'll just need a whole lot more solar panels, then. Though I'm curious, without much wind, how do they stay free of snow? Heating systems installed in them?
            • From what I understand, Antarctica is largely a desert. The little accumulation it does get simply never melts.
          • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

            by geekoid (135745)
            So how do you feel when some jackass on /. questions your decisions even though they have no information to base their opinions on?

            Heh, maybe you could stop the wind and hold the world hostage for more funding! MUAHAHAhahahah..*coughwheeze*

          • Actually, Dome A is one of the least windy places on Earth, typically just 2-3 metres per second. Dome A is the highest point in the centre of the Antarctic plateau, and this is where the katabatic winds start from. The winds accelerate as they head towards the coast, and that is where they can reach 100's of kph.

            So, unfortunately, wind power was not feasible.

            So then it seems like there are two choices: (i) put the wind power elsewhere and run a cable from there (inefficient and could cause lots of problems), or (ii) build the turbines to work with vertical winds instead of horizontal windows or some angle thereof as determined by the site. It's not that wind power is not feasible, just that it needs to be harnessed differently.

      • Nice to see that you took care to make efficient use of the fuel, but did you guys find the remains of any Elder Things? [wikipedia.org]. What about shoggoths? They're pretty nasty if you thaw 'em out.
      • by russ1337 (938915)

        I'm one of the 4 UNSW scientists who designed PLATO.
        Lets hope you did a good job.... and are nice to your boss.

        Nothing worse than overhearing a conversation in the hallway " um', yeah, ok, well it looks like we're sending Michael down there to sit with PLATO, and um, you know, push the red button once a day at 8am...and yeah, we'll be wanting him to be there all winter. ok?"
        • Nothing worse than overhearing a conversation in the hallway " um', yeah, ok, well it looks like we're sending Michael down there to sit with PLATO, and um, you know, push the red button once a day at 8am...and yeah, we'll be wanting him to be there all winter. ok?"
          Silly ... the red button once a day is so passe. Now you have to type "4 8 15 16 23 42" every 108 minutes.
        • by NateTech (50881)
          That would have been better as, "Um, Michael? Yeah... um, I'm going to need you to stop by PLATO on Saaaaturday, mmm-kay?"
      • by syousef (465911)
        I have an Astronomy masters from UWS which I never have and never intended to use in any professional capacity. (I found my niche in IT, and basically making a living doing science was too big a risk).

        Let me just say it's fantastic to hear some real Astronomy still being done in Australia. I studied the history of Aussie Astronomy and found it quite depressing that we were once at the forefront especially in Radio astronomy, whereas now, not so much.

        Also don't let the criticisms here get to you. If you're a
      • by Ioldanach (88584)
        Was wind not viable? Or is this just the pilot, with installed instruments monitoring wind to determine what parameters you'll need for a permanent wind turbine? As a pilot project, I can see going with simpler tech such as a generator in the early phase and adding wind turbines at a later date. You'd have to find some extremely durable maintenance free wind turbines for that location, but with 1kw wind turbines in the $3k range, you could easily place several around the site to handle the inevitable fai
        • by Intron (870560)
          The closer you get to the poles the less wind you get. You have less heat differential and less rotation of the Earth to circulate the air.
      • I'm one of the 4 UNSW scientists who designed PLATO. We certainly are using the fuel efficiently. When the sun is up we get over 1kW from solar panels, and we run one diesel generator at a time with just enough heat output to stop the fuel from getting too cold and turning to gel. Interestingly, the solar panels are considerably (about 30%) more efficient than you would expect from temperate site measurements - the colder temperatures (-50C at the moment) help, as does sunlight reflected from the snow.

        Wow,

      • I belong to another discussion group who says that antartica is a govt conspiracy and does not exist. I am not one of the disbelievers however. I posted links to three articles about this to the board and also this discussion. http://theflatearthsociety.org/forum/index.php?topic=19756.0 [theflatearthsociety.org]
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by syousef (465911)
      Getting the scientists there and back uses more jet fuel than this.

      Environmentalism is a noble and necessary cause but if you're going to make cost savings try ellminating things like Christmas lights before you decide to object to science like this on environmental grounds. We wouldn't know about environmental impact if we didn't do good science.
      • I agree with your point, and I'm not saying it's a worthy cause. I'm well aware of how much Jet A it takes to get a Hercules to that side of the world with the necessary equipment and people. All I said was that I hope the kerosene they're using was being used efficiently. Don't mistake that for "Oh noes! Save the treez! They be burnin' fuels for star findin'!"
      • by Ioldanach (88584)
        I don't think people question the use of jet fuel for this project so much on environmental grounds as on maintainability grounds. 4000l of fuel will eventually need to be replenished. Installing more solar, wind turbines, and gyroscopic batteries designed to be maintenance free over a long life could reduce the need for service from semiannual or annual to once per decade. Obviously, everything will at some point need service but if you can install sufficient spares then you'll only need to go out there
    • by cymen (8178)
      Yeah, like it would work real well to do a lot of start stop cycles in the COLDEST FREAKING PLACE.
  • Now that's cool (Score:1, Flamebait)

    by smooth wombat (796938)
    I'm a big proponent of not buying goods made in China due to their human rights abuses, but this most certainly falls under the cool category (literally). Dragging all that equipment and fuel across what is probably the most barren landscape on the planet, with weather conditions subject to change at a moments notice, is a feat. Unfortunately, the generator will now be polluting this area but I don't think solar panels would do the trick.

    Something else though. With the recent flyby of an asteroid last mo
  • But... (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by Tribbin (565963)
    Amazing and all, but is it able to fill my gass-tank?
  • If they're going all the way to Antarctica, can't they bring some bigger telescopes?
    • Re:14.5 centimeters? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:05PM (#22325536)
      Well, you have to start somewhere! Remember that Dome A is completely remote. There is no station there, and PLATO is running without human intervention for as long as a year. The amount of fuel we could take in dictated the available power, and that in turn limited the size of telescope we could take in. Still, we have four 14.5cm telescopes, a 1.5m sonic radar, two sky cameras, 4 webcameras, a 15-m tower, and a 450 micron wavelength telescope, several terabytes of disks, a dozen computers, about 64GB of flash storage, two Iridium satellite modems.
  • by deft (253558) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:53PM (#22325348) Homepage
    I find it interesting that they decided (probably pretty intelligently) that the eaeiest way to do this project was robotrically, instead of trying to man a mission to antarctica through the winter.

    i wonder if the same theory was applied to space travel would a mars mission be logically manned or not?

    My guess is just to prove we can, rather than actual practicality, which I'm all for because it pushes out the boundaries of what we know, and sets a goal.

    That said, i couldnt help thinking of the similarities of hostile environments. (without the distance issues)
    • by dasbush (1143709)
      Uhm, most of our space exploration to date has been unmanned. Mars rovers, the probe that just flew by Mercury, et al. Actual time spent in space has to be greater on the robot side than on the human side. Humans can only take so much, machines are... well.. machines.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Telvin_3d (855514)
      A robotic mission makes sense in a situation where the variables are known. A robot can be designed to take care of almost any fixed situation. As long as you know where you are going, roughly what you will find and what you will do once you get there, robotic missions are a really great idea.

      Where human missions are useful is where the variables are not known. If you are not sure what will need to be done, or if depending on your initial finding the rest of the mission will change unpredictably, you nee
      • by Kandenshi (832555)
        I'd rather not risk human life on a mission where we're basically saying

        "whoop! We're not really sure what things will be like once you get there... Not really 100% sure what we'll have you do upon arrival either... Good luck!"

        For that, I'm all in favor of some general purpose robots, followed by more fine-tuned robots :P
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      But, um, we have had manned missions to Antarctica [wikipedia.org]. And there are plenty of practical reasons for a manned mission to Mars. Like when you don't know exactly what you're looking for, for instance.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Robotic missions make a lot of sense at first, and then it becomes more and more practical to send humans. It's a lot easier and more cost-effective for them to just send a robot to antarctica, and they're not sure if it's even worth sending that much. If they send equipment and it turns out to be a lot harder and more worthless than they thought, it's a lot easier to just leave the equipment there for recovery later, if at all. With actual humans down there, they need to send more initially to keep them al
    • I find it interesting that they decided (probably pretty intelligently) that the eaeiest way to do this project was robotrically

      Well, this isn't exactly a robot - not in the normal sense. (Compared to Spirit and Opportunity.) When you get down to it, PLATO is really just a fancy webcam. Scientifically very useful, but very limited in what it can do.
      • by NateTech (50881)
        "Limited in what in can do" = KISS principal.

        There's absolutely nothing wrong with that either. All the so-called Software "Engineers" could learn a lesson from these guys in building purpose-built things that are simple and work!
        • "Limited in what in can do" = KISS principal.

          Not true at all - a device can be limited in what it can do, and still be a fairly sophisticated design.
           
           

          There's absolutely nothing wrong with that either. All the so-called Software "Engineers" could learn a lesson from these guys in building purpose-built things that are simple and work!

          I seriously doubt anything about PLATO is 'simple'.
    • by rbanffy (584143)
      "i wonder if the same theory was applied to space travel would a mars mission be logically manned or not?"

      Manned missions are unbeatable for inspiring people.

      We still talk and make movies about astronauts who went to the moon, but we make very few movies (I can only remember "Andromeda Strain") about space probes.
  • by rminsk (831757) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:53PM (#22325360)

    The observatory will hunt for alien planets...
    Wouldn't any planet not our own be an alien planet?
  • by eap (91469) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:55PM (#22325380) Journal

    PLATO is powered by a gas generator, and has a 4000-litre tank of jet fuel to keep it running through the winter.
    If they can generate their own gas, why do they need jet fuel?
    • by s20451 (410424)
      "Gas" here is in the physical state sense, not the fuel sense.

      They're using a gas turbine to generate electricity. A gas turbine is basically a jet engine, where the exhaust gases are collected and redirected to perform useful work (in this case, to turn a fan connected to the rotor in a generator). The gas generator is part of this assembly, and generates the huge volumes of gas needed to turn the fan.
      • by H0p313ss (811249)
        I'm hoping that wooshing noise you heard before you posted was the joke going over your head.
  • Chinese, eh? Well, no need to ask about their attitudes to pollution, huh?

    The last thing that one of the greatest expaneses of reasonably unpolluted places on earth, (reasonably? They can detect significant levels of lead at both poles thanks to the worldwide use of leaded fuel), is more pollution.

    How about a large tank of hydrogen instead, guys?
    • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:42PM (#22325966)

      The decision to use "jet fuel", specifically Antarctic grade kerosene, was made by the Australian team after much consideration of all reasonable alternatives. Environmental issues were foremost in our minds. PLATO produces a microscopic addition to the kerosene usage in Antarctica. We are using efficient diesel generators, and have over 200mm of additional insulation lining both modules of PLATO. Every 15 watts of heat we put in raises the internal temperature by 1 degree C.

      We have 1kW of solar panels, which provide most of the power during summer. However, when the sun is down, and with the very low windspeeds at Dome A, the choices become limited.

      We will eagerly embrace hydrogen fuel cells when they become practical. However, they are not there yet.

    • Got a car? Take any form of motorized transportation? Chances are that you have personally used over 4000 liters of fuel in just the past couple of years. Maybe you ought to invest in a tank of hydrogen.
      • I'd love to - where's the technology? Even the Toyota Prius is a fraud - it has comparable or less fuel economy than a good, small diesel. Anyways, rather than carry around a ton of useless metal when I travel, I use a small 4-stoke scooter. It consumes and pollutes much less than a car. Not as safe, though...
  • I know that Antarctica is on the bottom part of the world and you can't see alien planets if you're looking DOWN. This is why the project "became aborted halfway in its implementation due to some reasons."

    It's just a lot of turtles, as far you can see ...

  • What? A "robot" tag without the compulsory "whatcouldpossiblygowrong" tag?
  • simply awesome. I wonder if at some point they'll put them online for access and have membership accounts for controlling and data collection. Services like that are a great way to generate funds for operation. A solid membership base can help to continuously scan the skies by having people that can schedule log-ins from locations around the world.
  • It's especially good because you can look right up through that hole in the ozone layer.
  • The observatory will hunt for alien planets

    Are there any other kind?

    • by russ1337 (938915)

      The observatory will hunt for alien planets
      Are there any other kind?
      Well to put it another way, they are not interested in the planets that have green-cards.
  • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:29PM (#22325832)

    As one of the University of New South Wales people involved, I thought slashdot might like some information on the computer systems that PLATO uses.

    PLATO uses two redundant PC/104 form factor computers running Debian Etch. The computers boot from a 4GB flash disk (we tested 5 different models in the lab, and found one that worked reliably to -60C, despite only being spec'ed to -25C; all the other models worked to -40C, but had problems below that).

    We use a readonly filesystem, with /home, /etc, and /var being created on boot in a ramdisk. This works really well, and it is nice to be able to turn off the power at any time without being concerned about filesystem corruption. Needless to say, with no possibility of any human being on-site for the rest of the year, we have thought very carefully about reliability.

    Bulk data storage is provided by terabytes of conventional disks, with the most precious data being backed up on ~64GB of USB flash disks. Conventional disks don't handle the altitude very well, so we don't like to rely on them.

    Communication is via two Iridium satellite modems, running at 2400 baud. We can push software updates by sending a set of "Short Burst Data" messages of up to 2000 bytes at a time. We can also login to PLATO using ssh, and I'm logged in as I'm typing this and running experiments.

    There is a CAN (Controller Area Network) bus running throughout PLATO and linking the two modules: the Instrument Module, and the Engine Module, 45m apart. Each of 11 nodes on the bus has a small Atmel board that can turn power on/off to experiments, digital and analog I/O, etc.

    More info, photos, and links to the health and status data are at http://mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au/~mcba/plato [unsw.edu.au]

    • 2400 baud - ouch. At that data rate, how much data can be returned in a given day? Or is the plan to just physically pickup the bulk of the data at the end of the year for processing, and use the real time info just for guidance and target selection?
      • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:47PM (#22326042)

        With two modems going flat out we could theoretically transfer 40MB per day. In practice the link isn't all that reliable and we would be lucky to achieve half of that. Still, it is enough to control the experiments and return reduced data to verify that everything is working. All of the health and status information fits into 12KB per day.

        The bulk of the data will be physically returned by the next Chinese traverse team, this time next year.

    • Fantastic photos and interesting stuff.

      I'm a kiwi and I've worked with the Scott Base deployments out of Christchurch, but never made it there myself. Take care mate, and hope you make the news again soon!

      Cheers.

      Russ
    • Checked out the pics - those generators are so CUTE! What is the spec on them, and what are you doing for low temp starts?
      • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:06PM (#22326252)

        The engines are Hatz 1B30, we use two different generators: four are made by eCycle, and two by Mavilor. Each puts out about 1kW at 120VDC.

        To start the engines we have two banks of Ultracapacitors. These are amazing devices, 3000 Farads each, charged to 2V, with 12 in each bank arranged to give 12VDC. They can turn over the engines very quickly. We haven't had to crank an engine for more than 2 seconds yet, although we haven't dropped the engine temperatures below 0C.

        We tested the system in a pressure tank at UNSW to simulate the roughly 0.5atm pressure. The engines still work well at this altitude.

    • So why not use short wave transmissions for data even as a backup?
    • by conlaw (983784) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:04PM (#22326220)
      Professor Ashley,

      I'd give you mod points for your answers but there seems to be no category for comments that are simultaneously informative, interesting and insightful. Therefore, I'll just extend thanks on behalf of all of us who will benefit from this extension of knowledge and wish you great success and excellent karma.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by niktemadur (793971)
        Well said. But don't worry about excellent karma for Prof Ashley, I've never seen a Slashdot User profile page with more +5 posts in a single thread in my life! (Darth Vader voice) "Impressive, most impressive".

        The equipment is quite modest by many standards, what impresses me is what they were able to make it portable, then freakin' sled it to one of the most remote spots on the planet. What other telescope is in a spot so completely away from artificial lights?
        I wonder what sort of image noise will be
    • Has your team considered puting the hard drives in a pressure vessel of some sort? It seems silly to put data on drives that you're afraid to rely on because of altitude problems.
      • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @08:12PM (#22327582)

        Has your team considered puting the hard drives in a pressure vessel of some sort?

        Yes, we have thought about this a lot, and have never had the time to complete the design! It is the best solution, and we should be doing it. It is much easier nowadays that IDE interfaces are going away and serial connections mean that fewer cables need to leave the pressure vessel.

        If we use a USB interface, I'm a bit nervous about the reliability of Linux USB storage, or perhaps it is the controllers that interface the drive with USB. I've had many examples of filesystem corruption with external USB drives. And USB flash disks seem to have problems too. Quite often during boot a drive will give all sorts of error messages and will require power cycling to fix it. Googling for these problems show that they are common, but with no solutions that I have found.

        Our particular PC/104 computer has both USB 1 and 2 interfaces, but we can only boot reliably off USB 1, and we see intermittent failures if we use both USB 1 and 2. The flakiness of USB for storage is a major frustration.

        SATA wasn't an option on our computer. These are low-power embedded systems, so they tend to lag a bit with some of the newer interfaces.

        • by rcw-home (122017)

          SATA wasn't an option on our computer. These are low-power embedded systems, so they tend to lag a bit with some of the newer interfaces.

          Do adapters [cooldrives.com] work?

    • Hello Michael, are you still running your experiments at Dome C ? I haven't been there since late 2005 and I haven't been following closely.

      Do you expect the seeing to be significantly better at Dome A than Dome C ? Do you know if the turbulent layer is lower than the 30m of Dome C ? Is there winter weather information available since the chinese first set foot there in 2005 (I'd expect they left an AWS) ?

      I hope you have improved the reliability of your equipment and that it didn't get too banged up during transportation. Anyway, good luck with this experiment. Has the traverse team turned tail already ?

      • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Thursday February 07, 2008 @08:55AM (#22332236)

        Hi Guillaume, good to hear from you! (Slashdotters - do yourself a favour and visit Guillaume's website and have a look at some of his amazing photos). We aren't currently running anything at Dome C. Dome A is likely to have similar seeing to Dome C above the boundary layer, but the layer is expected to be lower, possibly touching the ice. That is one of PLATO's prime goals - to measure the height of the boundary layer with a sonic radar.

        The Chinese took an Australian Antarctic Division AWS to Dome A in 2005.

        Yes, the reliability of our equipment continues to improve. It is now even better than the stuff we took to Dome C!

        We mounted everything on shock absorbers to survive the 1200 km sled trip. There was no damage.

        The traverse team should arrive back in Zhongshan station today.

  • by JoeD (12073)
    Better watch out for shoggoths!
  • by Michael Ashley (812193) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:29PM (#22326466)

    For your interest, here is some information on how PLATO got to Dome A.

    The PLATO modules were built at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Instruments were provided by our collaborators at a number of universities in China, the US, and the UK.

    In late November 2007 PLATO was trucked 3912 km to Perth, where it joined a Chinese icebreaker for a two week trip to Zhongshan station on the edge of Antarctica. A helicopter then lifted the modules off the ship and about 100km inland where they joined a traverse for the ~1200 km journey to Dome A.

    The traverse was an amazing feat. 17 people, 5 tractors. PLATO itself weighted about 10 tonnes. The traverse moves at speeds of 5-10 km per hour each day for 10 hours, and then rested for 14 hours. After three weeks of this, they arrive at Dome A. I am told that the undulating motion of the tractors over the ice can give you "sled sickness", an unpleasant variety of seasickness.

    The team spent 10 days at Dome A, and did a fantastic job of installing the experiments and getting everything working. The temperatures were around -30C, which isn't much of an issue at low wind speeds. The altitude (4090m) is more of a problem, as it makes physical work exhausting, and there are difficulties with sleeping, mental acuity, etc.

    Much more information, and a diary of the trip by the Chinese team members, is at http://mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au/~mcba/plato [unsw.edu.au].

    • by Shag (3737)

      The temperatures were around -30C, which isn't much of an issue at low wind speeds. The altitude (4090m) is more of a problem, as it makes physical work exhausting, and there are difficulties with sleeping, mental acuity, etc.
      You Aussies fund a share of the Gemini observatories - should've come hung out with all of us at 4200+m for practice! :)

      (Admittedly, we don't get to -30C. -10C is unusually cold for us.)
  • please post here your "at the moi=untains of madness" after this thread.

    Thank you!

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