Ahoy there me techies!

The Aurora Australis, on a recent voyage to Antarctica, was a high-tech computer network on water, with scientists conducting onboard biological analysis through a five-server system.

A project of the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the 95-metre Aurora Australis and its 44 scientists returned to Hobart on November18 2002 after a five-week voyage during which scientists used radar and satellite systems to monitor sea algae, iceberg size and other Antarctic conditions, trying to better understand climate change.

Aside from the scientists, there were 20 crew on board as well as technicians and pilots. The ship also carried helicopters from which radar was used in flights over the ice to try to measure the ice's thickness.

The Aurora Australis also carried an automatic weather station, which was deployed on an iceberg referred to as B9B. The station used satellite reception with optical and infrared sensors to gather weather details, which were logged on board and also sent back to the Kingston, Tasmania base.

A Red Hat Linux box controlled an onboard satellite imagery data system, which used TeraScan software to point the satellite dish at satellites overhead. Purchased from an American company called SeaSpace, the system sends satellite images back to the Kingston base to be viewed in real time, marine electronics officer Alan Poole said.

AAD head of science technical support, Jon Reeve, said they had been using Linux since the start of the year. "We formerly used Unix, so it wasn't a huge leap. Basically stability was the reason for the move. We've always been keen to use new technology. We were probably one of the first organisations [in Australia] to use the TCP/IP protocol in our communication systems."

Data logs and other information, such as e-mail, were stored on five Windows NT servers using Oracle backend databases.

Reeve also said the onboard computer systems used Java applications to display data about the ship's status, which could be viewed on any of the 10 remote displays onboard.

Expeditioners were never out of contact, with 64kbs intranet and e-mail access. E-mails to and from the ship were routed via the Kingston base, compressed to a zip file, and downloaded twice a day. A 2.4GB radio link also provided contact with Kingston.

However, ensuring this technology was always-on meant planning for unique problems.

"Power on ships has traditionally been a problem, but we have a big UPS that has outlets around the ship and can run all the instrumentation and computer systems for more than an hour," Reeve said.

The online journal of expedition leader Dr Doug Thost showed air temperature during the trip fell to -10C, conditions also anticipated by Reeve.

"Some voyages get down to -30 degrees outside, but inside the ship it is kept warm. We do have some problems with icing of sensors that are out in the wind," he said.

If there were any disasters, the world could have read about it via Dr Thost's daily situation reports on the AAD Web site, as well as maps showing the ship's daily progress.

Dr Thost's situation report from November7 illustrates two days of operations when not everything went to plan.

"Flights from our fly-off position to [iceberg] B9B yesterday established four GPS base stations on the [ice]berg, and one on fast ice nearby. Ground definition at the [ice]berg was poor, making landing difficult, but the pilots persevered. Unfortunately the ice radar, which had worked well a few days ago on a test flight over A4, refused to work. After a few attempted fixes and test flights in the vicinity of the ship, it was decided nothing could be done to repair it, and the last flight of the day retrieved the GPS units in the field."

The GPS units were set out by the team to measure the dynamics of the iceberg, Poole said.

"Unfortunately the radar problems meant they didn't survey as big an area as they would have liked to," he said.

The next day the ship had a data cable severed when it was blown off course while docked for experiments measuring light levels at the algae/seawater interface. This was repaired the next day.

Since arriving back in Kingston, the AAD continues to conduct analysis on the data and samples collected. This could take months to years, Poole said.

The Aurora Australis headed south again on November 22 to deploy supplies and winter personnel to base stations in the Antarctic.

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