Harry Eaton just can't seem to stay behind his desk. Last
January, he was part of the APL team that launched the Flare
Genesis solar observatory on a 19-day balloon flight over
Antarctica. And this month, the electrical engineer from the
Technical Services Department will resume his adventures on the
southernmost continent. His mission? To recover Flare Genesis
from where it landed Jan. 26, 1996, at the end of its circumpolar
flight in a remote, windswept area of Antarctica.
"I wanted to see more," says Eaton, explaining why he volunteered to return. "There's great natural beauty, with sunlight 24 hours a day this time of year. Just the experience of being there in such an exotic place is worth the trip."
A specialist in circuit design for the TSD Engineering and Fabrication Branch, Eaton originally joined the project as a jack-of-all-trades who was knowledgeable about the complex control systems for the observatory's optical instrumentation.
Flare Genesis was developed at APL under the leadership of Dave Rust, principal investigator for the project and head of the Space Department's Center for Applied Solar Physics. It was designed to map solar magnetic fields with high resolution over long viewing durations.
Following launch beneath a huge NASA balloon on Jan. 7, 1996, from near McMurdo Station, Flare Genesis rode the counterclockwise summer winds in Antarctica, high above Earth's obscuring atmosphere that hinders ground-based observations of the sun. A critical antenna was damaged at launch and prevented precise focusing of the telescope, but Flare Genesis still obtained some 14,000 solar images. Rust says the images have been partially computer-corrected to yield "the longest run of continuous observations of solar surface flows ever obtained."
APL's Graham Murphy, Flare Genesis Project scientist, was in a chase plane on Jan. 26 that documented the observatory's descent by parachute. He reported the landing was "gentle," with no apparent harm to the gondola and telescope. As expected, the fragile solar panels were damaged beyond repair upon impact.
"Flare Genesis should still be visible, and we have GPS coordinates," Eaton says. "But it'll be packed with blown snow in every crack and crevice." Although Antarctica gets little snow, the extreme cold and high winds preserve and fiercely drift the existing snow cover.
Eaton left Baltimore by plane on Nov. 15, bound for Christ Church, New Zealand. He was then scheduled to board a cargo plane for McMurdo, the main U.S. research station in Antarctica. Upon arrival, he was required to take a two-day survival training course called "happy camper school" by polar veterans.
Then begins the "international" part of his mission. Early in December, an Italian resupply plane dropped him off at a remote site maintained by France for geophysical research.
Known as Dome C, the site is several hundred miles inland from Dumont d'Urville, the French base on the coast of Antarctica. Flare Genesis landed relatively close to the crude path the French team maintains between Dome C and Dumont d'Urville, and they have offered to assist Eaton in retrieving it on a return trip to the base. They have the heavy tractors, sleds and cranes needed to hoist and transport the observatory.
Eaton removed the solar panels and secured the sensitive mirrors and optical equipment. Flare Genesis was then cut from the ice and slowly hauled back to civilization over treacherous terrain known as "sustrugi": frozen waves of drifted snow that can be several yards high.
At Dumont d'Urville, Eaton oversaw the thawing of Flare Genesis and its careful packing for shipment by boat to Hobart, Tasmania. From there, Eaton and the observatory were flown back to APL.
Rust hopes to refurbish Flare Genesis in time for a reflight over Antarctica in January 1998. His goal is to obtain observations of increased sunspot activity, which reaches its peak in 1999. Eaton will be returning with a treasure trove of photographs, videotapes, and a detailed diary of his trip.
"It's an exciting way to spend a couple of weeks, that's for sure," he says. "I never thought I'd get to Antarctica once, let alone twice."
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