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  • Private missions?

    Don't take it too seriously, but I was wondering, how feasible would it be to set up a private mini-base on Antarctica? Aspects I am looking at are:

    1. Legal

    - Would it be against any international treaty?
    - Other potential issues

    2. Technical

    - Housing suitable for extreme weather conditions
    - Energy supply, constant and redundant and at hte same time not increasing pollution levels
    - Other potential issues

    3. Medical

    - What to do in case of minor problems
    - Emergency rescue in case of major problems (surgery needed and such)
    - Requirements for all staff

    4. Financial

    - Cost of building prefab-housing elements
    - Cost of all equipment
    - Cost of snowmobiles and other vehicles
    - Cost of food and fuel supplies
    - Cost of transport of all cargo to the final destination
    - Cost of airline tickets
    - Cost of achieving zero or near zero-polution
    - Other costs

    5. Enviromental issues

    - How to achieve zero or near zero polution
    - Waste processing technologies

    6. Anything else that can affect the mission in any way

  • #2
    Re: Private missions?

    A nice little thought experiment.

    Originally posted by flighter
    1. Legal

    - Would it be against any international treaty?
    - Other potential issues

    The relevant treaty would be the Antarctic Treaty, which about 60 nations have signed. The treaty is non-binding on nations which have not signed, but there would likely be political pressure on non-member nations or groups which wanted to establish bases in the Antarctic. However, it should be noted that in the 1980's Greenpeace established an Antarctic base for the purpose of monitoring national programs - in fact, it was primarily to monitor McMurdo Station, which is where I am now - and they found that the American program was not very environmentally friendly at that time, which forced a number of changes.

    So, depending on the nature of the station, even an independent group might be able to establish a base in Antarctica with little political difficulty. However, if one does so it is policy of most programs (and certainly the U.S. one) not to assist non-government expeditions or programs in Antarctica.


    2. Technical

    - Housing suitable for extreme weather conditions
    - Energy supply, constant and redundant and at hte same time not increasing pollution levels
    - Other potential issues
    A good deal depends on the location of such a base. Weather on the peninsula or along the coast does not get too bad, and does not require extraordinary measures. Those measures that would be required have largely been pretty well developed in the far north. At McMurdo Station, many of the buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s, when the idea of insulating a building was somewhat farfetched. In fact, I believe many of the earlier expeditions did a better job of insulation. Perhaps because McMurdo was built by the U.S. Navy, the focus was on lots of heaters and boilers and other mechanical means to keep warm, and insulation was not much considered. In fact, new houses in the Carolinas (two southern U.S. states where I've spent most of my life, and where winter temperatures drop to 20F/-6C) are better insulated than many of the buildings here. My point is that despite some pretty poor legacy designs and implementations, this station still gets by all right. With a little attention to detail (and the new South Pole Station is much better in this regard) fuel needs could be much reduced and - again depending on location - could possibly even be replaced entirely by wind, geothermal, or tidal power sources. However, if I were designing such a station I would still keep at least some emergency fuel stores and tested power generation capability in the form of diesel generators or perhaps fuel cells. The fuel needs to be a type that won't freeze at -60C, such as AN-8, which has the liability that it doesn't have quite as much power as normal fuels.

    Incidentally, the Kiwis at Scott Base are getting ready to experiment with wind turbines. Three turbines came in on the last ship, and they hope to get them set up this summer. They will still keep generators for emergency power, but figure wind power will be sufficient to keep their station running most of the time.


    3. Medical

    - What to do in case of minor problems
    - Emergency rescue in case of major problems (surgery needed and such)
    - Requirements for all staff
    Most stations have at least one doctor, frequently two, as well as a lot of people trained in first-aid. Emergency care depends again on location. Coastal areas can have planes fly in to medevac patients year-round, but the possibility of storms and the necessity to get an airfield ready mean that it might take two weeks to complete. Stations on the polar plateau do not have this luxury due to colder temperatures that come with higher altitude. The cut-off point is -50C.

    The U.S. program has stringent medical requirements for all participants, and even higher standards for winter overs, as medevacs are costly even when possible. Winter overs are also psychologically screened. They want to make sure we are just the right amount of crazy.

    An emphasis on safety is also necessary, especially during winter. Cowboys are not wanted - they are a hazard to themselves and others. On the other hand, the sort of people who never want to leave the house . . . never come to Antarctica. We tend to get a lot of risk-takers, the program just tries to weed out the excessive risk-takers.


    I'll try to remember to continue this later. I like your questions.

    Incidentally, I have taken some photos and videos of some of the installations at McMurdo Station and South Pole Station, and might be able to send those to you in the future.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Private missions?

      It would be lovely to see the photos.

      Anyway, what made me think of this was few missions by Mars Society, trying to simulate environment first astronauts on Mars will probably experience (total isolation, extreme weather conditions, very limited resources etc)/

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Private missions?

        Continuing where I left off:

        Originally posted by flighter
        4. Financial

        - Cost of building prefab-housing elements
        - Cost of all equipment
        - Cost of snowmobiles and other vehicles
        - Cost of food and fuel supplies
        - Cost of transport of all cargo to the final destination
        - Cost of airline tickets
        - Cost of achieving zero or near zero-polution
        - Other costs
        I can't help you out on too many specifics, but I saw a figure lately that the U.S. Antarctic program goes through $300m per year, which supports three year-round stations, several summer only stations, transportation, etc., for a peak summer population I'm guesstimating at 1600 (over 1200 at McMurdo, about 250 at Pole, and I'm not sure how many at Palmer, plus those at other summer camps like WAIS) and a winter population of about 200-300 total. Some projects are funded by universities or other groups, and I don't know if that is factored into that budget.

        However, it should be noted that that is for paying government contractors, who notoriously charge top rates. Balanced against that is that wages for personnel on the Ice are low compared to wages for workers in the commercial sector in similar environments in the arctic. Depending on the nature of your private mission, wages and other costs could be significantly higher or lower. The costs of the work to be done are also relevant, of course. Deploying multi-million dollar scientific equipment to field camps by helicopter or airplane can get pretty expensive pretty fast. Moving supplies by ship and ground would be much cheaper.

        It should also be noted that government contractors tend to hire nationals of their own countries, and the western nations tend to have high wages. This is sometimes justified if it means a higher quality of work and higher production, but in many cases workers and materials could be found at lower prices in other places. Naturally, one needs to exercise caution, as the lowest bidder may well have an inferior product.


        5. Enviromental issues

        - How to achieve zero or near zero polution
        - Waste processing technologies
        The US Antarctic Program ships most of its waste back to the United States these days, as a result of that Greenpeace operation I mentioned earlier. They used to dump sewage directly into McMurdo Sound, and they used to take the trash out onto the sea-ice and burn it, allowing the debris to sink to the sea floor when the ice broke up each summer. That was typical decades ago, but most programs now ship their trash out, and some treat their sewage as well. McMurdo Station has a relatively new, modern sewage treatment system, which dumps out water that is almost clean enough to reuse.

        However, those may not be the best choices for future programs. Technologies to handle waste are continuously being advanced around the world, and it would be better to look into the state of the art in those fields than to rely on what has been done here in the past - especially as technology in Antarctica tends to lag a little due to a work force that has often been physically or culturally isolated from the latest developments in their respective fields, and due to distance and the time it takes to get the technology here. (If a new item comes out on the market in January and is not important enough to ship by air, it will take at least a year before that item can make its way to McMurdo, and 22 months or more before it is likely to arrive at Pole - assuming the bureaucracy moves with incredible sophistication and speed.)

        That said, there are some very interesting things going on in these fields, though unfortunately some of the information is hard to find in English. For example, some nations have developed very efficient incinerators that turn waste to energy and produce almost no pollution, but due to emotional hysteria and scientific illiteracy in much of the English-speaking world, these are not politically viable in many English-speaking nations. (In fairness, similar emotional hysteria and scientific illiteracy has prevented the use of genetically engineered foods in much of Europe.)


        6. Anything else that can affect the mission in any way
        Shortly after my previous post, a Canadian working here mentioned that the dry air has been causing the skin on his fingers to crack, which he had never had trouble with in the Arctic, which reminds me: Antarctica is VERY dry.

        This has some benefits: staying warm in cold and dry weather is easier than staying warm in cold and wet weather. On the other hand, there are some serious ill effects as well, one of which is that electronics tend to have a short life span due to static electricity.

        Now, a computer center might be humidified to the point where it is not a problem, or hardware might be hardened for use elsewhere (or simply considered expendable if cheap enough), but it would probably be best not to rely on sophisticated electronics for any emergency systems.

        Electricity in general, however, is a necessity here. The problem with static does not affect all components equally: it is primarily the sophisticated electronics with extremely small parts (computer chips and the like) that are in danger from static electricity. I am also reminded that the mechanics at South Pole told me that the older heavy equipment - from the 1960s and early 1970s - works best there, as the newer stuff has electronics that don't last long, though I'm not sure if that is due to static electricity or just the cold.

        If you are thinking in terms of a Martian colony, the cold and aridity will be even greater, and the same lesson may well hold: keep it as simple as possible.

        I personally also prefer passive solutions to active (mechanical) ones, because most passive systems don't have sudden failures, and a mixture of solutions might buy time to repair a mechanical system (e.g., good insulation and weatherproofing gives you more time to fix the boiler, as well as reducing the size and complexity of the mechanical system needed to heat a building).

        Considerable attention should also be paid to the psychological profiles of anyone working in a remote location. Not everyone can handle it gracefully.


        One final word: all sorts of technologies are changing, and there are some incredible things coming that will change what it means to be in a remote location. Most notably, the internet has allowed those of us in Antarctica to remain connected to the outside world in a way that winter overs in the 1960s, or even the 1980s, could have scarcely believed, and the emerging field of desktop manufacturing may have another large effect soon. Eventually, the combination of communications technology and nanotechnology may well make location a thing of little importance - except, of course, for things like scenery. And nothing compares to Antarctic scenery.

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