New data communications link is a boon to South Pole scientists

American scientists taking advantage of the clear, dark skies and dry atmosphere at the South Pole to do cutting-edge astrophysics face numerous drawbacks working at this remote location. Besides the physical and perhaps psychological discomforts, the lack of consistently available data communications links makes their work at the Amundsen-Scott Station more arduous. But a new satellite connection that recently went into service is giving these researchers improved access to e-mail, the Web, and their colleagues back in the U.S.

When it comes to telecommunications, the problem with being at the "bottom" of the world is that most communications satellites, which are in geostationary orbit around the Earth's equator, are not visible from the South Pole. Thus scientists working there have typically had to rely on old satellites that have fallen out of orbit -- and into the view of their satellite dishes.

Now, one of those old spacecraft is proving that "older isn't necessarily bad," says Peter Jones, vice president of government markets at Comsat General, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Global Telecommunications. Although it was launched in 1976 and is the oldest commercial communications satellite in the world still in service, the MARISAT F-2 recently became a critical link between Antarctic astrophysicists and their colleagues at the universities of Chicago and Wisconsin.

Previously, South Pole-based researchers used as much bandwidth as they could eke out of "any satellite you can find that's no longer geostationary but is geosynchronous," says Bob Loewenstein, senior research associate at the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

To satisfy the data requirements of current and future researchers, the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency, decided to invest in a more robust setup.

Among the new earth-based components are a new nine-meter satellite dish at the South Pole, which is steerable, so that when the Marisat craft "sets" after being in contact for roughly seven hours, the dish can find GOES-3, another U.S. satellite, Loewenstein says.

The bottom line is that U.S. scientists at the South Pole now have about 12 hours per day of useful satellite time, much more than previously, according to Loewenstein, of which Marisat, with its 2 Mbps bandwidth, contributes 7 hours. What this means for research projects is that it's easier to send more data gathered at the research station back to the U.S., where teams of scientists can work on it. This is especially important because very large volumes of data are generated at the Pole, even after it has been reduced prior to transmission.

Data sent by the scientists to Marisat is then received back at a Comsat gateway facility in Clarksburg, Maryland, where a store-and-forward router sends it on its way to U.S.-based researchers.

Among the projects underway at the South Pole are investigations into the early universe.

One is looking about 300,000 years after the "big bang" looking for spatial clumping of matter in the early universe. The experiment is trying to determine why the universe looks the way it does now with clusters of galaxies, Loewenstein explains. This structure greatly depends on the structure in the early universe.

It took ten years for the researchers to press their case for better communications, but they are now seeing the payoff.

"In order to do cutting edge, exotic science, you need communications, especially at the pole, which is so isolated," the scientist says.

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