Space Research in Antarctica

The Antarctic continent has been an international research platform for biologists, geologists, and geophysicists since the Norwegian Explorer Roald Amundsen narrowly defeated Robert Scott in a race to the South Pole in 1911. South Pole Station was built by the U. S. as part of its contribution to the IGY (International Geophysical Year) in 1957, and today serves as one of three U. S. bases on the world's most remote continent.

The Augsburg College Physics Department conducts geophysical research in the Antarctic in collaboration with universities and other research institutions across the world. Augsburg's involvement in geophysical research in Antarctica is part of an intense international effort to better understand the dynamics of Earth's space environment, including the full range of the sun's influence on Earth's weather and climate.

The highest parts of Earth's atmosphere form a thin, electrified gas (plasma) controlled by magnetic fields, and many variations follow these field lines. Because the parts of the Earth's magnetic field that reach farthest into space project down to the ground at high latitudes, the international space science community has supported the deployment of ground-based ionospheric and geomagnetic observatories in the Antarctic to complement observatories in the Arctic (such as the MACCS stations, which also involve Augsburg physicists) and orbiting satellites.

Geophysical observatories across Antarctica, operated by several nations, study the Earth's space environment using auroral cameras, radio receivers with a wide range of frequencies, and two types of instruments to detect and record changes in the Earth's magnetic field.

Augsburg's Involvement

Augsburg is involved in Antarctic research in two ways: 1) in the analysis of observations of waves in the Earth's magnetic field, detected by highly sensitive magnetometers at nearly all U. S. and British bases in Antarctica, and 2) in the coordination and provision of multi-instrument data from several automated observatories.

Augsburg physicists have been involved since 1980 as members of a team of scientists from several U. S. universities and corporate laboratories studying the Earth's space environment above Antarctica. The University of New Hampshire and Augsburg College jointly operate search coil magnetometers at the two continental U. S. bases in Antarctica, South Pole Station and McMurdo (see map). These instruments sample and record the 3-dimensional magnetic field ten times per second.

Antarctic bases are few and far between; only the U. S. and Russia have permanent bases inland. Although space scientists have long used arrays of ground observatories in the northern hemisphere to study ionospheric and magnetospheric processes, the hazards and expense that would be involved in establishing additional stations in the harsh and distant Antarctic environment are prohibitive.

Instead, the National Science Foundation began a program in 1990 to deploy a set of six Automated Geophysical Observatories at selected remote sites on the Antarctic continent. Augsburg's Physics department is active in this program, in working with data from search coil magnetometers from all six of AGOs. Augsburg's Computer Science Department is involved in distributing AGO data to users worldwide, and in providing daily monitoring services via the world wide web.

The British Antarctic Survey also began deploying such AGOs, and since 1994 Augsburg, along with the University of New Hampshire, has provided search coil magnetometers for these observatories, again with support from the NSF.

Please see the NSF press release concerning the AGO stations.