Live from Antarctica 2
Date: Sunday, Jan 12 1997
From: Ann Devereaux, Palmer Station
(Ann is on the NASA ACTS Satellite team)
Sunday's at Palmer are the cooks' (there are 2) days off, so everybody at the station is on their own. The meals on Sunday run a lot to leftovers and sandwiches, as you might imagine, since not many people trust themselves in an industrial kitchen meant to serve 50 people. On the other hand, sometimes people volunteer to cook the dinner on Sundays--brave, brave people. I'm not brave, but I volunteer to help cook. One of the women scientists and I prepare a Indian-style feast, with chicken, rice, and lentils. Unfortunately, today is the first day of satellite test time for us, and at 1 PM I leave her to fend for herself and go up to the penthouse to work. I never do get back in time to share the reviews (all good, I'm told) or the dinner as it ends up a late night in T5.
Comes the designated time to begin satellite service--but no signal from JPL. Of course, we weren't *really* expecting things to be perfect the first time, but it was a disappointment, nonetheless. We spend some time on the INMARSAT phone talking to JPL, where even on a Sunday, there are 3 or 4 people waiting to help troubleshoot the link-up. After various solutions don't seem to work, we decide that maybe the antenna isn't pointing at the satellite very well, and decide to loosen the bolts that hold it and try to scan across the sky. As Dan turns the antenna dish, I watch the display in our radio which shows the spectrum of the incoming radio waves. A horizontal, jagged line is merely static, a pictorial view of what static on your radio "looks" like in its frequencies. This static is caused by many things--the sun, the atmosphere, the equipment itself. A vertical peak or hump up above this static represents extra power in a particular frequency, like tuning in a station on your radio dial. My job is to look for such a tell-tale spike, indicating that we are pointing at the satellite and it is beaming down to us the signal that it is receiving from JPL. Luckily for Dan, perched up on the antenna outside in blustery cold winds, I see the spike, and we know that the problem has been in pointing the antenna all along. What we have to do now is figure out the absolute best direction to point in, and this is done in the same way as we found the signal in the first place. This time, though, Dan and I periodically trade off climbing up the antenna to move it while the other person watches the power display--there is just so much cold we Californians can take.
Finally, we make the connection solid, and tell JPL to start sending us pictures. Both our radio set up and theirs back home have small cameras and microphones, along with TV screens. When everything is clear across the satellite, each camera and microphone can send pictures and voice across the link to the TV's at the other side. When we see the first TV from JPL, it is fantastic. By the magic of the satellite, we can see the inside of our communications lab at JPL like it was right next door, and talk with our boss and co-workers face to face. Of course, we're about as remote from them as you can get, and so we emphasize this by carrying our camera outside and showing them the awesome view from our deck: the glacier towering over the bay to the east, the view of Palmer Station down below us, and the snowy range of mountains beyond the bay to our west. It is looking at this view and breathing the cold, clean air which makes the whole trip special.