From ESA Chronicles From Concordia: “Far from any road”


European Space Agency
From ESA Chronicles From Concordia

ESA Concordia Sunrise Sunrise

7 February 2020
LAYLAN

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The last flight out. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

‘The Sun starts slowly moving toward the horizon
And the colours begin to change
And when the last airplane leaves, nobody really knows what to think.’

ESA-sponsored medical doctor Stijn Thoolen reflects on the end of the summer campaign at Concordia research station, marked by the departure of the last airplane for the next nine months.

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Concordia research station. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

A collaboration between the French Polar Institute and the Italian Antarctic programme, Concordia is one of only three bases that is inhabited all year long. Concordia is located at the mountain plateau called Dome C in Antarctica.

The four-month summer season is a busy period at Concordia, hosting around 70 researchers in various disciplines like meteorology, glaciology and astronomy. The Sun never sets, the bustling station is restocked, and the atmosphere is festive.

Now that the last flight out of Antarctica has departed, Concordia station is reduced to the core group of 12.

Dr. Stijn and co will spend the next nine months weathering some harsh conditions. As well as offering around nine months of complete isolation, Concordia’s location at 3233 m altitude means the crew experience chronic hypobaric hypoxia – lack of oxygen in the brain.

During the Antarctic winter, the crew also endure four months of complete darkness: the sun disappears from May and is not seen again until late August.

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See you in 9 months. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Temperatures can drop to –80°C in the winter, with a yearly average of –50°C.

As a station set in Earth’s harshest space, Concordia is an ideal stand-in for studying the human psychological and physiological effects of extreme cold, isolation and darkness.

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Nobody really knows what to think. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

Stijn will run experiments, coordinated by ESA and Concordia partners, that research how these conditions affect humans.

Read his previous blog post on coming to Concordia and stay tuned for more on life and science from the farthest reaches of Earth.

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Antarctic state of mind. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen

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ESA Concordia Base

Concordia research station in Antarctica is located on a plateau 3200 m above sea level. A place of extremes, temperatures can drop to –80°C in the winter, with a yearly average temperature of –50°C.

As Concordia lies at the very southern tip of Earth, the Sun does not rise above the horizon in the winter and does not set in the summer. The crew must live without sunlight for four months of the year.

The altitude and location mean that the air in Concordia is very thin and holds less oxygen. Venturing outside the base requires wearing layers of clothes and limits the time spent outdoors.

During the harsh winter no outside help can be flown in or reach the base over land – the crew have to solve any problems on their own.

In addition, Concordia sits in the largest desert in the world. The air is extremely dry, so the crew suffer from continuously chapped lips and irritated eyes.

No animals can survive in this region – even bacteria find it hard coping with the extreme temperatures. The nearest human beings are stationed some 600 km away at the Russian Vostok base, making Concordia more remote than the International Space Station.

In the great open landscape covered in darkness, colours, smells and sounds are almost non-existent, adding to the sense of loneliness.

The isolation and sensory deprivation can wreak havoc on crewmembers’ biological clock, making it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Despite all these hardships, up to 16 people spend around a year at a time living in Concordia in the name of science. Far removed from civilisation, the white world of Antarctica offers researchers the opportunity to collect data and experiment like no other place on Earth.

The base is so unlike anything found elsewhere in the world that ESA participates in the Italian-French base to research future missions to other planets, using the base as a model for extraterrestrial planets.

The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.