Sitting beneath the swirling Aurora Australis, the Halley VI research station on Antarctica's Brunt Ice Shelf hums away for months at a time completely devoid of life, save for a nearby colony of emperor penguins struggling against the savage Antarctic winter winds in temperatures as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit, or about -55 degrees Celsius.
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As recently as 2016, there had been a skeletal crew of about 15 scientists and engineers braving the incredible isolation, blistering cold, and months of 24-hour darkness, but circumstances have forced the research center to be completely vacated from February to November, threatening to take a major scientific resource offline for much of the year. Now, however, the scientists and engineers of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have developed systems that allow the science to go on even when it isn't occupied.
Vacating the Halley VI Research Station
For years, the Halley research stations, first started in 1956, have been a valuable source of data on space weather and atmospheric chemistry. These stations have contributed to such collaborations as the Space Environment Impacts Expert Group, SPACESTORM, and the World Meteorological Organization's Global Atmospheric Watch, and the long-term collection of data by Halley scientists allowed scientists to discover the hole in the ozone layer in 1985.
That the site is so productive is all the more amazing given the extreme environment. Sitting on the Brunt Ice Shelf, the 'ground' beneath the research center--about 130 meters of ice 'floating' on top of the sea--is being driven westward toward the Wendell Sea at a speed of nearly 2 meters every day.
Built to be mobile, the support beams of the several 'pods' that make up Halley VI have skis on the bottom, allowing specialized, heavy towing vehicles to pull the entire research station across the ice when needed, keeping it one step ahead of the calving of the sea-facing front of the ice shelf.
Measuring the calving dynamics of the ice shelf itself is one of the tasks carried out by the survey, which in 2016 forced the Halley VI research station to relocate to a different section of the ice shelf after a chasm began to form that threatened to cut the research station off from the main body of the ice shelf.
The instability of the ice shelf precipitated the decision to vacate the Halley VI research station from February to November, as sudden changes in the ice conditions could pose a risk to the safety of those occupying the site and since the area is completely inaccessible outside of the summer months, there would be no way to evacuate if necessary. So, starting in 2017, Halley VI has been a summer-only site.
All-Year Science at a Summer Only Research Center
This has been incredibly detrimental to the work of the BAS, since the Antarctic summer really only lasts for about 9-weeks. Losing more than half the year wasn't tenable, so the scientists and engineers at BAS set out to develop a way to continue to operate the base even when it wasn't occupied.
Their answer was the Halley automation project, an innovative system that continues to power the station and allow for automated systems to continue to carry out the work of the station even while it is unoccupied, performing experiments, taking measurements, and relaying back data to the BAS headquarters in Cambridge, UK.
"This is a truly innovative project and the fact that it has continued faultlessly until mid-winter is a major achievement for our engineers and scientists," said David Vaughan, Director of Science at BAS. "I’m overjoyed that the crucial program of long-term measurement of climate, ozone and space weather are continuing today because of our engineers’ skill and ingenuity.
The system is powered by a Capstone C30 Micro-turbine, which according to the BAS is "similar to a jet engine, that is housed in a specially designed temperature-controlled container, with a continuous fuel and data feed. This can be controlled from BAS headquarters in Cambridge, and has provided continuous power at about 9kW since it was first turned on in [January 2019]."
So far, the system has run for more than 140 days, withstanding temperatures as low as -45 degrees Farhenheit, or -43 degrees Celsius, and spinning at about 70,000 rpm, 24-hours a day. While that might sound intense, it only uses about 10% of the fuel normally used by the site when it is occupied by people.
The BAS sees this new system as a major development for conducting research in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
"The prospect of delivering such complex science from remote locations without the requirement to have people on the ground year-round opens so many opportunities," Vaughan said. "Although it will be a while before we have a fully resilient system, my fingers are crossed that the system keeps spinning until the end of winter so we can record the formation and recovery of the annual Antarctic Ozone Hole in September to October – that would be a major triumph!"