China’s Antarctic team returns after successful research base construction mission

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/25 19:53:39

A tug assists Xuelong as it approaches Shanghai after its 131-day scientific expedition. Photo: VCG

After a 131-day mission, the icebreaker vessel Xuelong (Snow Dragon) returned to Shanghai on March 12 with 126 members of China's 35th Antarctic scientific expedition team. 

The team collected data and made scientific observations, as well as delivering construction materials to Inexpressible Island, where China is building a new research station, which serves the long-term development of China's scientific program in Antarctica. 

The island, in the Ross Sea, will host China's fifth base on the icy continent, Taishan Station.

"It is not the time to depart, and the effort will be in vain if we go since the dock has been sealed by ice," Zhu Li, chief mate on Xuelong, told CCTV.

Xuelong had to anchor seven nautical miles offshore because the icebreaker draws too much water. 

A rubber dinghy and a platform carrier were used to transfer construction materials, including cement piers and thermal pipes, to shore for this second phase of construction on Taishan Station.  

In the morning, a team landed on the island by helicopter, and made a makeshift road and dock in the snow to enable transfer of the construction materials.

 After getting construction materials to the new base, the team had to dig out the equipment that had been left the year before from the frozen snow and get them operational. 

The rocky Inexpressible Island with several volcanoes sits near the enormous Ross Ice Shelf. The Ross Sea is regarded as the least altered marine ecosystem on the planet, providing rich opportunities for scientific research including the effects of climate change.

The team also installed a wind turbine generator with a capacity of 10KW and solar panels to provide a source of renewable energy, according to the People's Daily.

According to the plan, the 5,500-square-meter research base will be completed by 2022. It will be home to 80 people in summer and will have a team of 30 people in winter. 

Home for polar airplanes

In December 2018, a large blue ice sheet was discovered in the vicinity of the research station. The hard and pure ice sheet is an ideal material on which to build an airstrip, after making adjustments on the ice surface to add friction.

The discovery of blue ice sheet was a happy surprise, and building a blue ice airport for big airplanes is an exciting goal. For the 35th scientific investigation in the Antarctica, an urgent task was building a snow surface airport to serve polar planes.

Sun Bo, deputy director of the Polar Research Institute of China and deputy head of the team, said the construction of a snow surface airport is to provide a home base for China's fixed-wing aircraft the Xueying 601.

Sun said that currently the aircraft uses a Russia airstrip near China's Zhongshan Station. 

Members of China's 35th Antarctic scientific expedition appear on the deck of icebreaker Xuelong on its return to Shanghai on March 11. Photo: VCG

The biggest task in building a snow surface airport is to create runways on the snow, which must be leveled before being compacted, allowing aircraft with sleds attached to land.  There must be friction on the surface to bring the planes to halt, so a harrow drawn by a snowmobile roughs up the snow surface. Two straight runways were built in parallel, and tests showed they can support steady takeoffs and landings.

A mission of China's scientific investigation this time is completing an auxiliary system installation for the second phase of Taishan Station.

Different from the elevated disk-shaped main body, the second phase is "invisible," since it is under the snow surface to avoid the hazards of snow accumulation and to reduce impact from big temperature differentials.

The under-snow part is comprised of 13 standard containers and 12 non-standard ones for various modules such as new energy, power generation, heating, water processing and snow melting. In order to expedite construction, all the equipment can be installed quickly in modules.

The power system in Taishan Station uses a smart micro-grid combining wind power, solar power, diesel generator and batteries. The generator works in parallel with the new energy system, and can automatically adjust output based on the energy supply of the new energy system to reduce diesel consumption.
Newspaper headline: Icebreaker gets warm welcome

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