Space | 03. February 2023 | posted by Dirk Heinen

TRIPLE-IceCraft expedition to Antarctica – the long way south – part 1

Credit: DLR/RWTH Aachen/Dirk Heinen
View of the ice shelf edge

Some regions on Earth are as mysterious as distant celestial bodies – but equally explored. These include subglacial lakes in Antarctica. These lakes lie under a permanent layer of ice, often several kilometres thick, and sometimes form an ecosystem that has been closed off for about a million years. It is safe to assume that they contain microbial life that has adapted to these extreme environmental conditions. But to study microbial life, samples must be taken without contamination, so that no microorganisms are introduced from the surface. This is a particularly technical and methodological challenge. In 2018, the German Space Agency at DLR launched the Technologies for Rapid Ice Penetration and subglacial Lake Exploration (TRIPLE) project to develop an autonomous, robotic system for contamination-free exploration of these lakes and, prospectively, for exploration of the oceans beneath the ice crust of the icy moons Europa and Enceladus. Twenty-eight development teams from Germany are currently involved in the project. The TRIPLE system consists of an ice-melting probe, an autonomous underwater vehicle and an astrobiological laboratory where samples can be examined in situ. The TRIPLE-IceCraft meltdown probe is now being tested in Antarctica by a team from RWTH Aachen University and GSI GmbH from Aachen, who were responsible for designing it. At the Neumayer Station III operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), TRIPLE-IceCraft is to penetrate the Ekström Ice Shelf and plunge into the ocean below. TRIPLE-IceCraft was developed as a fully traceable melting probe for drilling down to several hundred metres.##markend##

Day 1 – Aachen 24 January 2023 – 07:00 (UTC)

For us (Fabian Schöttler from GSI GmbH, Jan Audehm, Simon Zierke, and me from RWTH Aachen University) the journey begins in Aachen. After a car ride to Frankfurt, we will take a flight to Oslo. From there, the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) will organise the journey to the Troll research station in Antarctica.

Credit: 2023 Google,INEGI
The flight route: Frankfurt – Oslo – Prague – N’Djamena – Cape Town – Troll – Neumayer III

Five days before departure, we have to severely limit our contacts and test ourselves regularly for COVID in order not to cause an outbreak at Neumayer Station III. Upon arrival in Oslo, we go directly to an airport hotel for further isolation. The main luggage is collected in the evening, and dinner is served by room service.

Day 2 – Oslo, Norway – 01:50 (UTC)

We meet in the lobby early in the morning and head to the charter terminal at Oslo airport. There, they are loading our luggage and preparing the aircraft. Most of the travellers are Norwegian scientists. Ten people from Germany are travelling through the organisation of AWI. After a short briefing, everyone boards the aircraft. The 'Smartwings' airline conducts the flights for the NPI. As planned, the plane takes off towards Prague.

Day 2 – Prague, Czech Republic – 03:50 (UTC)

Here we make a short stopover to change crew, refuel and load fresh food. Afterwards, we head for N'Djamena in Chad. The short refuelling stop takes an hour longer than planned, as the tanker has not loaded enough kerosene and has to refuel itself in between.

Day 2 – Cape Town, South Africa – 21:30 (UTC)

In Cape Town, there is another refuelling, a crew change, and the polar clothing is loaded into the passenger compartment. The weather forecast for the Troll research station is good. The next leg of the flight can begin! We fly overnight; it is pitch dark over the Southern Ocean. For me, the night is short. I am woken up by my colleague Simon Zierke. In 30 minutes, we will land. The weather is great, the Sun is shining, and the sky is deep blue. Only the ocean can still be seen in all directions. As I wake up, I rummage through the polar clothing, picking out a polar overall, thick socks, polar boots, sunglasses, hat, and gloves. The overall fits well over the normal clothes. The rest of the clothes are put aside for the time being while we see the first isolated mini icebergs floating across the ocean.

Credit: DLR/RWTH Aachen/Dirk Heinen
On the approach to Troll, the ice shelf edge becomes visible

The ice shelf edge becomes visible on the horizon! The eternal ice is coming towards us rapidly. The plane starts to descend. Everyone, please fasten your seatbelts! We are now above the ice and the ridge near the Troll research station becomes visible. As the plane makes a slight turn, we see the runway with some containers lined up, another aircraft and some vehicles. The plane continues to descend, touches down and brakes.

Credit: DLR/RWTH Aachen/Dirk Heinen
Transfer in Troll

Day 3 – Troll Research Station, Antarctica – 04:40 (UTC)

We have landed! Antarctica, we are here! Just a short wait, put on the rest of the polar clothing and get out! It is slightly windy. The air is fresh and freezing cold!

After a short coffee break in a tent next to the runway, the crew of Polar 5, an AWI research aircraft, is already checking the weather at Neumayer Station III. Despite the wind on site, we should continue our journey immediately after the departure of the larger aircraft. The Polar 5 is of the Basler BT-67 type and is based on the famous Douglas DC-3, also known as the 'Candy Bomber'. The aircraft engines are started, and the propellers spin faster and faster. The seats are not as comfortable as on the previous flight, and the noise level is much higher. We can sense that we are moving further and further away from civilisation.

Credit: DLR/RWTH Aachen/Dirk Heinen
Well-equipped for icy temperatures – us in polar clothing

We taxi slowly onto the runway and continue. We fly along the ice shelves and enjoy the view over the ice, the mountains, and the good weather. After just under an hour and a half, the descent begins again. At the same time, the weather gets worse. It is cloudy and gusty. We fly through clouds, and then the visibility improves again. We can make out Neumayer Station III, continue to descend and touch down. We are there! A large team of Neumayer residents welcomes us on the runway.

Day 3 – Neumayer Station III, Antarctica – 10:00 (UTC)

We disembark. The weather is much more uncomfortable and much windier than at Troll Station. However, the polar suits keep us warm. Together we form a chain between the plane and a snowcat to unload all the luggage and cargo. We trudge the few hundred metres over the solid snow to the Neumayer Station and there we are! Finally! Now we can settle down and start the tests.

Credit: DLR/RWTH Aachen/Dirk Heinen
Neumayer Station welcome team



About the author

Dirk Heinen researches melting probes and their navigation systems. Melting probes are used to penetrate and explore glaciers and ice shelves and to reach underlying subglacial lakes. Currently, the melting probes are used in terrestrial analogue missions with the aim of being able to explore subglacial oceans of the icy moons Europa and Enceladus in situ in the future. to authorpage