Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Concordia Base Log
By: Adrianos Golemis, ESA research MD

Time:  L+135 (March 2014)
Temperature: -59 ˚C
Week: 20
Sunlight: 12 hours (Autumn Equinox)
Morale: Great!

Log Entry #11 – Ex Frigore, Scientia
 Greetings from the crew of Concordia Station, Dome Circe, Antarctica. Here the autumn equinox has passed and we are in anticipation of the long, dark winter.
Today’s title is a reference to the mission insignia of the Apollo 13 Moon-bound mission. Apollo 13 was one of the most desperate moments in mankind’s struggle to reach the stars, as an accident resulting from a mechanical failure threatened the lives of the crew. The imminent catastrophe could well mean a huge deceleration of the US space program, if some of the first Americans in space were lost. But quite on the contrary, through ingenuity, united effort and wits, the Apollo 13 crew returned safely to the Earth and the mission itself eventually turned into NASA’s finest hour.
Had the three astronauts reached the Moon however, the Earth’s lonely satellite, they would have done so for science. That is what the Latin motto of Apollo 13 emblem reads: Ex Luna, Scientiae, “out of the Moon, knowledge” (Picture #48).

Picture #48: Apollo 13 mission insignia [Credits: Wikipedia]

In our quest for knowledge, we humans have traversed far and survived in many unhospitable places. One of these is Concordia and it lies deep in the heart of the Antarctic continent, now threatened more and more from the effects of the global warming, but still an unwelcome place to humans. The gnosis that we extract from the mysteries that lay hidden in the ice, in the air, in the sky, and within ourselves will give us the power to improve life on the Earth and on other worlds in the future. Coming back to Apollo 13’s similar goals, here’s the soundtrack from the namesake movie, one of the most inspiring I’ve ever enjoyed:

The secrets of our universe, our origin and our future are buried deep in the most improbable of locations – but, they can be revealed. With patience, effort, ingenuity and craftsmanship, feats that humans display in abundance when united and not fighting each other, we unveil that which is concealed and little by little, piece by piece, we complete our puzzle of awareness.

Our inborn curiosity drives us to challenge the odds and stray further, always keen to explore, constantly searching for more. It is our instinct to pierce the veil of the unknown, looking further, delving deeper. And to achieve that, the weapon in our hand is called Science.

Indeed Science is the very reason that our tiny human shelter of Concordia exists amidst the eternal realm of ice. To paraphrase Apollo 13’s motto, ours could easily be “Ex Frigore, Scientia”, knowledge out of the frost.

In many aspects, Antarctica has a multitude of secrets to offer to our craving for understanding. This is the very reason that many nations maintain a year-long presence in the challenging conditions of Earth’s seventh continent. In our case, Astronomers, Glaceologists, Meteorologists and Scientists of the Atmosphere reside at Dome Circe, constantly gathering new data and analysing them, hoping to be guided towards new marvels and decipher the mysteries of our world. My own responsibility as the European Space Agency’s research MD, next to them, is to study the behaviour and adaptation of humans to the adverse conditions of this tiny habitat in Antarctica, where altitude, hypoxia and dryness affect sleep and physical activity, and where permanent sunlight or night time confuse one’s circadian rhythms and play tricks on psychology.

In particular, there are 10 experimental protocols being carried out this year. One of them, for example, monitors our nutrition and metabolism, since we live constantly at a high altitude that affects the amount of energy we spend for each activity. For this reason, once a month we make a test to evaluate our metabolic needs – it is a rather pleasant one as all you have to do is relax with eyes closed under a canopy measuring the air you breathe in and out (Picture #49). Other experiments check how our vascular pressure and bodily posture might be affected by the conditions of the strange environment we live in and another one is about our sleep. In this last case, our sleep is much disturbed by the dryness of the place (sometimes humidity is less than in a desert and you wake up with a very dry mouth), the lack of oxygen due to high altitude and the abnormal day-night cycle during the summer and winter. All of these parameters plus a few others, like the temperature of our limbs when lying to bed, are recorded for later analysis. On top of that, we sleep 6 times a year wearing special equipment including EEG (electroencephalogram) electrodes and such.

Picture #49: Having our metabolism checked. This picture always reminds me of the astronauts in hibernation in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

All this research is of great interest to the European Space Agency, as it accurately simulates how humans can adapt to the adverse living conditions of long-term space missions. But mainly, all the benefits of the experiments conducted at Concordia will return eventually back to society, on the Earth. For instance, by understanding how to deal with sleep apnoea here in Antarctica, induced primarily by the hypoxic atmosphere, we can then help patients with obstructive apnoea back in Europe. Accordingly, there is one experiment that aspires to discover which is the best antibacterial materials to use in a closed (isolated) construction, be it an Antarctic Station or a spaceship. The purpose here is to reduce risks of cross-contamination of the crew. Once the best material for this is known, it can then be used also in infirmaries to avoid hospital-acquired infections.

There is yet another element in the medical research at Concordia Station that has to do with human psychology and its adaptation to long-term isolation and confinement. Crew members are asked to fill in questionnaires about their mood, habits and general well-being; there is also a digital diary that we keep, voicing our best and worst moments of the week to a special computer. This will then attempt to analyse our psychological state based on the tone of our voice and other minute details. Team dynamics are being researched as well; there is a special computer game that we play three people at a time, which monitors our tendency towards assisting others (team spirit) or trying to achieve the goal on our own. Both extremes do not seem to pay off well in the game (playing alone and help no one or only help others and forget to score points yourself). Thus we have to find the correct equilibrium as far as team activities are concerned.

Last, an interesting experiment is about to discover if a certain quantity of Vitamin D administer during the long polar night can help Antarctic crews. The absolute lack of sunlight for 3 months can have negative effects on our bones and muscles, perhaps Vitamin D administration is the answer to reverse that. Let us also not forget that part of the biomedical research at Concordia is using recycled water: To avoid wasting resources, shower water is filtered by a sophisticated machine and made available again for shower. It is my duty to check its quality often (Picture #50), as well the quality of the water we drink, which comes from melting snow from outside.

Picture #50: Checking the quality of potable and recycled water takes a lot of tests.

Participation in all these experiments is voluntary and we must be thankful for the disposition of the Concordia crew to be involved and thus provide data impossible to be gathered anywhere else. All data are anonymous, too.

Science is an important tool in improving the conditions of our life and the future of our species. For me one of the most inspiring moments was when I received a photo of a young friend in France, doing the same sleep tests as we do (Picture #51). We have been since exchanging e-mails and describing to one another this experience, as if it was an astronaut experiment. His smile in the picture is a nice reminder of the importance of what we do.

Picture #51: My little friend, Thomas, with an EEG to study his sleep, same as we do here.

Apollo 13 was meant to bring three astronauts to the lunar surface, for Science. A few years later, almost as their counterparts, we found ourselves on a similar journey: Longer, but not so far away, our instincts brought us in the coldest continent of our planet, once more to conduct science.

With that I bid you all farewell, as usual with a photo from outside. ҉

Picture #52: The colours of dusk upon Dome Circe – μούχρωμα, as we say in Greek.

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