This Antarctic Base Is More Remote Than the International Space Station
Researchers are braving the Antarctic winter to simulate what it'll be like to travel to other planets.
Concordia Station at sunset. Image: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–E. Kaimakamis
The longstanding human dream of traveling to other planets is so inherently appealing that it can be easy to forget just how challenging these missions would actually be for astronauts.
In order to anticipate how future crews might handle some of space's hardships, the European Space Agency (ESA) has dispatched a 13-person research team to one of the harshest places on Earth: Antarctica's Concordia Research Station. This base is the most remote human settlement in the world—more remote, even, than the International Space Station, in terms of both distance and travel time.
The agency announced today that this 2015 winter-over team, led by ESA-sponsored doctor Beth Healey, is currently gearing up for the long months of isolation ahead. The winter season lasts from February through to around September, and most crews don't leave until November.
Though this is the 11th crew to take the plunge into Antarctica's prolonged darkness, the experiment will be a little different this time around, due to ESA's new partnership with the British Antarctic Survey. The BAS operates the Halley VI station, which is located at sea level elevation on the Brunt Ice Shelf.
Concordia, by contrast, is located over 1,000 km inland from the nearest coastal stations, on the high-elevation Antarctic Plateau—3,200 meters above sea level. The BAS agreed to match some of Concordia experiments, such as monitoring sleep patterns and other vitals, with their own Halley crew members. This comparison will allow ESA to finally hone in on any mental or physical changes in its crew members that are associated specifically with the low air pressure and oxygen levels endemic to high altitudes.
But those aren't the only obstacles the 2015 overwinter crew will face this year. Because the station is located smack in the middle of Earth's largest desert, the air is lip-chappingly dry, causing eye and skin irritations. Temperatures can drop to -80 degrees Celsius (or -112 degrees Fahrenheit), and the entire region is engulfed in total darkness for four months during the unforgiving Antarctic winter. Evacuation is only possible for three short months in the summer; otherwise, the crew is on their own.
In short: Life in Concordia presents many of the same obstacles as life in space. That's why ESA has been sending crews to overwinter there since the base was first established, to study how stressors associated with long periods of sensory deprivation, isolation, and alien environments affect mental and physical health.
It is a miracle to me that nobody has pulled a Shining-style scenario at Concordia yet, because it truly does seem like an irresistible premise for a horror thriller. Months of darkness, no outside contact, a small but tough cast of characters? It writes itself.
Add to that the fact that the crew members must frequently record video diaries expounding on their emotional state, and you can even have that documentary feel that's so in vogue right now. In fact, it looks like someone has already taken this opportunity with a low-budget flick called South of Sanity, released in 2012.
Cinematic potential aside, these video diaries do play a central role in gauging the crew's mental health. The acoustics and contents of the diaries are analyzed by doctors for signs of psychological wear-and-tear, and Concordia residents are even asked to read out paragraphs from fairy tales, so the observation team can compare differences in body language and intonation between freely talking and reading aloud.
This year's crew will be subject to a few other interesting experiments, including one that investigates whether this prolonged isolation will have any long-term effects on the wiring of the researchers' brains. The Eye and Sleep experiment consists of collecting ophthalmological data with a pupillometer every week, to discern whether the months of darkness alter sleep patterns. The crew will also attempt to find extremophile bacteria near the station.
The entire process sounds relentlessly gruelling, and it's hard to believe that nobody has snapped in the decade since Concordia crews first began braving Earth's harshest winter. Unlike characters in my proposed sci-fi thriller, the researchers selected for this annual faux-space odyssey are far too tough to crack. Narratively, that's not as fun, but the science they'll bring home when the southern summer finally breaks late this year will be worth it.