Science in Challenging Environments
Antarctica New Zealand’s job is to get scientists where they need to be to conduct world-leading research from safe, remote platforms in challenging environments.
It’s no surprise the agency responsible for supporting science on the Ice has a keen eye on the outcome of the inaugural New Zealand Space Challenge, which seeks “innovative solutions to enable safer, more efficient navigation across Antarctica”.
The smarter and safer the navigation, the better.
“Our vision is for everyone to value, protect and understand Antarctica,” says Antarctica New Zealand General Manager Communications Megan Martin. “As science becomes more complex in Antarctica, some of it is moving further afield into deep field environments – which means there are associated challenges with logistics to get scientists where they want to be.”
Antarctica New Zealand already knows the power of using space data for navigating uncharted lands, off the back of a successful deep-field traverse season into the heart of the Ross Ice Shelf and the Siple Coast.
The expedition, which was the largest Antarctic traverse New Zealand has led since the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition in the 1950s, wouldn’t have been such a success without the team of “bright sparks” behind the journey, says Antarctica New Zealand General Manager Antarctic Operations Simon Trotter.
University of Canterbury glaciologist Dr Dan Price used German space technology to successfully plan the route – 1100 kilometres across the ice shelf, which he and three others travelled. “The main safety concern was crevassing, so months were spent using satellites to plan a route that would avoid the worst areas,” Dr Price says. “We were able to use the [satellite] imagery to work out exactly where we were in a completely featureless environment.”
The traverse was in support of science goals of a multidisciplinary science project attempting to understand how the Ross Ice Shelf dynamics will respond to a warming world, through the process of drilling through the surface to obtain information about the ice, ocean and sediment below.
Key information came from TerraSAR-X, a satellite mission operated by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), which takes something akin to an x-ray of the ice shelf and exposes crevasses hidden beneath the snow.
Dr Price says for previous ice shelf expeditions, focus was placed on visual imagery – essentially just photographs taken from space. “This alternative technique, using radar images, exposes crevasses that would otherwise be missed. That removes a lot of uncertainty when you’re driving into these regions.”
Trotter says other National Antarctic Programmes have used similar navigation methods for some time; for example, the United States programme used space data to establish the now well-trodden route to the South Pole, but “we’re going into some new terrain that carries a higher degree of risk”. Traverses are a good way to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel needed for aircraft, he says, but using space data provided by other countries is a “very expensive undertaking”.
“At the end of the day if the New Zealand Space Challenge enables us to be safer in our operations and to get to more remote areas, more easily and more affordably – and challenges the use of fossil fuels in a high-risk environment, then it will be worthwhile.”
Dr Price says Antarctica is an incredible place to test technology and resources that could eventually be used in space. “Anything that comes out of this challenge could be highly beneficial to the logistical efforts in the Antarctic.”
Trotter says there’s always going to be a “human factor” required to carry out Antarctic research and exploration, “but as the cost of technology and data reduces, we’re going to be able to do so much more”.
The inaugural New Zealand Space Challenge offers $40,000 cash and commercialisation support to the best idea of how to improve the safety of navigation on Antarctic ice using satellite data and sensors operating in extreme environments.
Photo Credit: Bruce Davies of the GPR tracking equipment used in the traverse. Supplied by Antarctica New Zealand