21. December 2016

Work­ing on the eter­nal ice: DLR's GARS O'Hig­gins Antarc­tic sta­tion turns 25

Work­ing on the white con­ti­nent
Image 1/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

Working on the white continent

DLR's GARS O’Hig­gins re­ceiv­ing sta­tion has been in op­er­a­tion in Antarc­ti­ca for 25 years. The nine-me­tre an­ten­na can re­ceive satel­lite da­ta even in ex­treme storm con­di­tions.
Da­ta re­cep­tion in the Antarc­tic
Image 2/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

Data reception in the Antarctic

The nine-me­tre an­ten­na of DLR's GARS O'Hig­gins Antarc­tic Sta­tion of DLR re­ceives a vast amount of satel­lite da­ta. In ad­di­tion to re­ceiv­ing da­ta, com­mands are trans­mit­ted to satel­lites and, in some cas­es, pro­cess­ing of the da­ta al­so takes place on site.
The Ger­man Antarc­tic re­ceiv­ing sta­tion GARS O’Hig­gins
Image 3/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

The German Antarctic receiving station GARS O’Higgins

GARS (Ger­man Antarc­tic Re­ceiv­ing Sta­tion) O'Hig­gins was found­ed in 1991. The white build­ing and the nine-me­tre an­ten­na on the DLR Antarc­tic sta­tion are di­rect­ly ad­ja­cent to their Chilean col­leagues red). The DLR sta­tion, which has been in op­er­a­tion for 25 years, is now oc­cu­pied by a small team all year round.
An of­fice with an icy view
Image 4/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

An office with an icy view

Pen­guins live and breed around DLR’s GARS O'Hig­gins Antarc­tic sta­tion. The an­i­mals take shel­ter at the base of the nine-me­tre an­ten­na dur­ing storms, and in sum­mer they breed in the im­me­di­ate vicin­i­ty of the sta­tion.
25-year cel­e­bra­tion in Pun­ta Are­nas
Image 5/5, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0).

25-year celebration in Punta Arenas

On the Chilean main­land in Pun­ta Are­nas, DLR cel­e­brat­ed the 25th an­niver­sary of its GARS O’Hig­gins Antarc­tic sta­tion to­geth­er with part­ners in­clud­ing the Chilean Antarc­tic re­search in­sti­tute (In­sti­tu­to An­tár­ti­ca Chilean; IN­ACH). Among the guests were the Ger­man am­bas­sador to Chile, Rolf Schulze, the gov­er­nor of the Mag­el­lan re­gion, Jorge Mauri­cio Flies Añón, as well as po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

14,205 kilometres from Berlin, storms rage across the Antarctic Peninsula at speeds of up to 250 kilometres per hour. Perched on the northern tip, the Ger­man Antarc­tic Re­ceiv­ing Sta­tion GARS O'Hig­gins, operated by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has defied these conditions for 25 years, operating a nine-metre antenna and staffed by a small team 365 days of the year. During this time, the facility has received tens of thousands of data packages from satellites such as TerraSAR, TanDEM-X and BIROS, transmitted commands back up into orbit, and served the German Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy (BKG) as a radiotelescope. Now, 2.5 million euro are being invested to prepare the station for future missions: in addition to modernising the infrastructure, the antenna control system will be switched from analogue to digital. "GARS O'Higgins is important for DLR's Earth observation mission, and this modernisation is intended as preparation," says Stefan Dech, Director of the Earth Observation Center (DFD) within DLR.

Set to permanent receiving mode in the Antarctic

It all started 25 years ago when the nine-metre antenna first received data from the Earth observation satellite ERS-1 – marking the start of operations at the Antarctic station. In the beginning, four-man teams lived and worked at this remote location from October to March. GARS O'Higgins remained unoccupied for the rest of the year, 'mothballed' for the Antarctic winter. "In the end, it proved inordinately laborious to get the station up and running again six months later," reminisces Erhard Diedrich, Head of the International Ground Segment at the DLR German Remote Sensing Data Center and therefore directly responsible for the DLR Antarctic station. Demand for data reception has also increased. Ultimately, the start of the station's year-round operation coincided precisely with the launch of the radar satellite TanDEM-X in June 2010. Over one third of all data needed for the now complete, global 3-D elevation model produced as part of this mission was received at GARS O'Higgins.

Antarctic station GARS O'Higgins
Video - Antarctic station GARS O'Higgins
Credit: DLR

Journey by air or sea

Now, the station and its 35 containers are staffed round-the-clock, a task that demands maximum flexibility and commitment on the part of the DLR team: most people travelling to the Antarctic will remain on the ground for several months. "And it is perfectly normal for a scheduled return by air or by sea to be delayed for up to four weeks due to inclement weather," says Diedrich. Simply travelling to the end of the world is a long affair: passengers set off from Punta Arenas on the Chilean mainland on board a Hercules transport aircraft owned by the Chilean or Brazilian air force, which flies them to the staging area on King George Island. From there, a 'Twin Otter' takes them to the glacier overlooking GARS O'Higgins and the neighbouring Chilean station General Bernado O'Higgins. The only alternative is to travel by ship, crossing the stormy Drake Passage from Punta Arenas. "We require the logistic support of our Chilean and Brazilian partners on all of these routes." The teams joined to celebrate an event marking the 25 anniversary of the station in the Chilean Antarctic Research Institute (INACH) to look back on this partnership, attended by the German Ambassador to Chile, Rolf Schulze, the Governor of the Region of Magallanes, Jorge Mauricio Flies Añón, as well as political representatives.

Receive, send, process

Nowadays, a veritable fleet of satellites send their data to the receiver system in the Antarctic: in addition to the radar satellites TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, these also include TET-1 and BIROS, which are part of the German FireBIRD mission. On an international level, the station is used for the German-US GRACE mission and for the Canadian Cassiope and NEOSSat missions. Unlike 25 years ago, when data was 'just' received from space, now the station also sends commands to the satellites. Processing the incoming data is another new task: some data with information on swell and sea ice coverage, or the position of icebergs, ships and oil slicks, is processed virtually in real time. The data can then be transmitted to assist ships or rescue missions.

New Year's Eve at the end of the world

As remote as the DLR station is, its residents can still stay in touch with home, although they spend long weeks in relative isolation. "Fortunately, it is fairly easy to call our families and friends, even in the Antarctic," says Ruslan Artemenko, a veteran of 21 Antarctic missions and scheduled to once again spend New Year's Eve at GARS O'Higgins. "Satellites are not concerned with the turn of a year." The station needs to be ready if a satellite flies over and sends data to Earth, even during the holidays. But colleagues do have the slight compensation of celebrating twice – a small get-together in the station kitchen at 20:00 when the fireworks start firing in Germany, and again, four hours later, as the clock chimes midnight in the Antarctic. Then, the team at the DLR station will join their colleagues in the adjacent Chilean station for a proper New Year's party.

The future of the Antarctic station

The station and its team may face additional tasks in the coming years: for instance, a substantially larger quantity of data will have to be received and then sent from the Antarctic to Germany if the Tandem-L radar mission proposed by DLR is indeed implemented. At the moment, the data is recorded on magnetic tapes, which are then sent by ship. The Chilean government is currently exploring whether the Antarctic research stations could be connected with the mainland by a sea cable. "This kind of fast and cost-efficient connection would allow us to transmit our recorded data quickly and continuously, and we could also create up-to-date and high-resolution information products. The recording capacities of future satellite missions would therefore increase significantly," emphasises Dech.

  • Manuela Braun
    Ed­i­tor, Hu­man Space Flight, Space Sci­ence & En­gi­neer­ing Ed­i­tor, DLR Web Por­tal
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Cor­po­rate Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Me­dia Re­la­tions Sec­tion
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-3882
    Fax: +49 2203 601-3249
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
  • Erhard Diedrich
    Head of De­part­ment
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Re­mote Sens­ing Da­ta Cen­ter (DFD)
    In­ter­na­tion­al Ground Seg­ment
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Weßling
  • Prof. Dr. Stefan Dech
    Di­rec­tor DFD
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Re­mote Sens­ing Da­ta Cen­ter (DFD)
    Earth Oberser­va­tion Cen­ter (EOC)
    Telephone: +49 8153 28-2885
    Fax: +49 8153 28-3444
    Münchener Straße 20
    82234 Weßling
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