Thursday, March 06, 2008

Troubles at Black Island

I had one of those days yesterday at MacOps where things
seemed to happen from beginning to end. Things weren't
happening to me...just things happening during my shift.
While wrapping up the transfer of the Medical patient back
to the Nathanial B. Palmer, we received a call from the IT
department that the ventilation system had dropped at Black
Island and it was getting difficult to remotely operate
the equipment there. Almost immediately a Helo transport
was arranged for 1600 hours and when our friend Antz got
out there, it looks like he had to shut the system down to
begin fixing the problem. This caused us to lose communications
completely on the station except for Iridium phones and a
more difficult method of connecting through the NZ lines at
Scott Base.

"A satellite dish problem at Black Island has caused all
McMurdo Off-continent communications to fail".

My boss, the Site Manager, came to Mac Ops to call his
boss in Denver via Iridium to tell him all was well and
we were still here, albeit hard to contact. About an
hour later, comms was restored, but it sounds like they're
going to have to replace some equipment that helps them
run the Communications center via remote control.

Black Island is about 25 miles due south of McMurdo and
is fairly easy to reach (if you have a helicopter).
Otherwise it's a 7 hour drive over treacherous and
bumpy frozen ice, travelling over McMurdo Sound. On
a clear day, you can just see it as a tiny dot on the
horizon from McMurdo. It's one of the most important
facilities in the area though. Communications signals
from McMurdo bounce off the satellite dish at Black
Island and up to space, coming down in Australia.
This process is reversed for incoming communications.
This includes phone, several types of radio, television,
email, internet...the whole works. We are far enough
north that we can "see" the correct communications
satellites on the horizon, while the South Pole, which
is 800 miles farther south, is out of these satellites'
range. So when something goes wrong at Black Island,
it takes us back to the old days in a hurry.

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