Campus Currents

Telecommute Route
Collecting data at the South Pole from afar

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South Pole Robot, illustration by Marc Rosenthal

Ah, spring. While New Englanders emerge to soak up the sun's increasing rays and revel in the sight of tiny green things poking through the soil, down in Antarctica, it's the onset of perpetual darkness and "Condition 1" weather for days at a time (winds over 63 mph, visibility less than 100 feet, wind chill below minus 100 F), and life as we know it doesn't exist.

But for the few sturdy souls who overwinter down under in the name of science, life does indeed go on. And if you're a robot of sorts, weather and darkness be damned.

That's the case for an 8-foot, heavily insulated, modular cube that was deployed at McMurdo Station near the South Pole early last year by scientists from the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. In the cold, dark blow of austral winter, the Autonomous Real-time Remote Observatory gathers "space weather" information, which is dispatched back to UNH via a series of satellites circling the globe.

"It's down there now chugging away," says Marc Lessard '83, a research associate professor of space physics who compares the observatory to the Little Engine That Could for its ability to keep on keeping on despite hardships.

Powered only by three small wind turbines (solar panels supplement during the summer), the observatory gathers data on the interaction of solar wind energy with Earth's magnetic field lines high above our atmosphere.

"The global electrical circuit is incredibly complicated and there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about how it works,"notes Lessard. "In order to fully understand the phenomena we're studying, you have to know what happens with the field lines at both the poles."

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