Svalbard: indoor testing of the detector system

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

On day two of our time here in Ny-Alesund we have been making good progress. Much of the morning was taken up with further administration, covering both firearms training and coordination of the testing plans and media coverage of the activities taking place here at the NERC base. We did get time to conduct a small amount of testing or the response of two of our three metal detectors with meteorite surrogates, and the initial results were looking promising. We also undertook a significant amount of indoor vibration testing, which the system dealt with better than we had expected; this produced so much banging and crashing that the BBC Radio 4 Today team became curious of what was going on and stopped by for a brief interview.

When we resumed testing in the afternoon we experienced some difficulties in integrating the three detectors. It took a few hours but we managed to make the necessary software tweaks to get the hardware to behave properly. As we reach the end of the day we are at the stage where all three detectors are operational, and we have some initial configuration for outdoor testing of the system.

Tomorrow morning (Sunday) we intend to go out into the field to set up the test site, and all being well (after some further minor tweaks tomorrow afternoon) we should be heading out for some initial detector testing on Monday morning.

Svalbard field campaign 2019 begins

Our field campaign in Svalbard to undertake the final testing of our metal detector panels has kicked off.   Here is the first update from our University of Manchester electronic engineering team, who have arrived the British Antarctic Survey’s UK Arctic Research Station.

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Myself and fellow electrical engineers, John Wilson and Wouter van Verre arrived here in Ny-Alesund earlier this morning after a brief overnight stop in Longyearbyen. The flight from Longyearbyen was extremely smooth, and had its fantastic views of sea ice, glaciers and the rugged terrain that exists here in Svalbard. At one point in the the four flights it took us to get here, 3 out of our 5 bags were lost; against all odds all of our bags made it here in the end. None of us fancied conducting a field trial at –20 °C without the appropriate clothes to keep us warm, however, it would have been equally challenging without the equipment we were here to test.  

As is customary on arrival in Ny-Alesund there has been a lot of administration. Wouter was sent off to do the rifle training that is needed to keep us safe from polar bears, whilst myself, John and fellow scientist Arwen were dispatched to collect the 9 skidoos for the team, owing to the fact that we were the only people trained to use them having visited previously. It is quite a busy time to visit, as we are accompanied by a team from BBC Radio 4 Today show (who will be broadcasting from here all of next week), a microbiologist from Aberystwyth University, and staff from NERC and BAS — including our station leader Nick G — who is doing an excellent job of standing in for the the regular station leader Nick Cox.

For a while it felt like things were stacked against us when we found out that our two 12 V batteries (which are necessary to power our system) were discharged to a point very close to which they would be unchargeable, but thankfully it looks like we got here just in time to resurrect them. Since then things have been going a  lot better. We set up our equipment in the lab and have tested three metal detectors, and three coil panels and everything is working well. There is still some tuning needed to get the optimal sensitivity, however the response to our meteorite surrogates looks quite good and the system is showing excellent signs of resilience to vibration. The real acid test will be when we get the system outside on Sunday/Monday…

Field trials start indoors: detector panels in and electronic boxes our lab space in BAS’s Ny-Ålesund arctic research station. [Credit: Liam Marsh]

Answering some questions from Beth

Many thanks to Beth from class 6R at Nottingham Girl’s High School for sending in some great questions from her class and her teacher about the Antarctic meteorite field work we did this season to look for meteorites. I have tried to answer them below. Thanks for your interest Beth and your class, and hope that you get to visit and work in Antarctica some day in the future.

Best wishes,


P. S. There are some amazing women working at the British Antarctic Survey that I got to meet – from being a pilot, to an aircraft engineer, to a field guide, to being a base commander in charge of the station, a chef, being in charge of science cargo logistics, or a communications expert – there are lots of jobs to be done working at the research bases, on one of the ships, or out in the remote field. You can also find out more about some of BAS’s polar women scientists and what they do here.


1) What is your actual job title?

  • My job title – that is complicated as I seem to have a few! My university (the University of Manchester) calls me a Royal Society University Research Fellow as am funded by an organisation in London called the Royal Society to do scientific research. I am also called a ‘Reader’ which is sort of like a university teacher who also does research (sadly I don’t do as much reading as I would like though so the job title is a bit odd!). I would also call myself a lunar scientist as I mostly study the Moon, and a meteoriticist as I study meteorites from outer space. It shows you can have a few job titles being a scientist and not really know which one fits best.


2) What sort/how many meteorites did you find?

  • On our field trip to Antarctica this year we think we have found at least 36 meteorites, which is a good number to find. We will double check this when we get all the rock samples back to Manchester later this summer and can start to analyse them and check what type of samples they are. From some initial tests that we do in the field when we collect them I think that most are likely to have come from different types asteroids – but you never know, and when we have checked them more carefully I hope we might have one from the Moon or Mars.

One of the meteorites we collected on our expedition sitting in the snow. The rock is about 20 cm long. We know it is a meteorite as it has a black coloured exterior and we can see structures inside that look different from Earth rocks (Image: K. Joy).


3) Did you stay in the building on skis or just work there?

  • When we first get to Antarctica we stay in buildings that look more like normal houses (called Rothera) and then we traveled onto the building with skies (called Halley). These are both permanent research bases that are run by the British Antarctic Survey.
  • At Rothera research station, which is located on the Antarctic peninsula, there are about 120-160 people living and working there in the summer months (in UK winter time) and in the Antarctic winter (in UK summer time) there is about 25 people living there. There are several buildings including accommodation blocks (we share rooms between two people), a lovely big building with a cafeteria, a library and a TV room, a building with offices for people to work on their science projects and to monitor the Antarctic weather, an aircraft hangar so they can maintain and repair the planes we use, and workspace for waste disposal and recycling and for vehicle repairs.

Buildings and runway at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station (Image: K. Joy)


  • The station called Halley, which is the building with skies we visited, is a really cool looking structure – it is made up of several different modules that all have different functions – from a command centre and accommodation rooms, to a field work preparation zone, to an area with a table tennis area and some nice chairs to relax. The neat design is that when there is a lot of snow the whole structure can pick up its feet one by one and step itself up to a higher level to get out of the snow! It can also travel across the snow if it needs to, to move to a completely new area (it last did so in the year 2017).  This year we worked in the building to prepare our field equipment, and to speak to the people who predicted the weather forecast so that we could leave to fly out to our field site.

Colourful red and blue modules at Halley research station – you enter through an airlock like heavy door which makes you think you are entering a space station (Image: K. Joy).


4) What were the cabins like that you stayed in?

  • At Halley I stayed in a little cabin called a caboose – it was very cosy and warm and had four beds and a little table and chairs area. I was on the top bunk bed so had to climb up to get in and out which was quite interesting as I am not as good as climbing as I used to be!
  • When we were in the field doing our work to find meteorites we stayed in orange coloured tents with two people in a tent.

Little cabins called cabooses that are used for extra accommodation at Halley research station.

Our field tent home and camping equipment (Image: K. Joy)


5) Where exactly in Antarctica were you? Did you get to the Pole?

  • We visited an area about 600 km or so from the coast, at an altitude of 1100 m above sea level. It was quite a flat region, but we could see mountain ranges around to give a sense of scale.

The mountain range look close, but they were about 70 km away (Image: K. Joy).

  • On this 2018-2019 field trip I did not get to visit the South Pole – it was about 900 km south of where we were staying. However, on the last trip to Antarctica I did when I was helping out an American meteorite research team, I was very lucky and did get to visit the South Pole for a few days, which was really cool. At the South Pole there are actually two poles there which is odd – one is the real South Pole geographic location site and the other one is the ceremonial one they have surrounding by flags for good photo opportunities. I made sure that I walked around both of them for good measure to say I have been there. Incidentally, in November later this year people will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when women visited the South Pole for the first time (you can read more about this here).

Katie at the geographical South Pole back in in January 2013 when she was a team member of the American Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program (Image: KJoy/ANSMET)


6) What was the temperature during the day/night?

  • Most of the time in the daytime it was between about -5 degrees centigrade and -10 degrees centigrade, but a few times it got as chilly as -20 C. What made it worse was when the wind blew, and it felt a lot colder with ‘wind chill’ than the thermometer told us. At night when we were there it never really got dark, but it did get a few degrees colder as the light levels dropped.
  • You have to make sure that you are wearing enough layers in these temperatures to work for a long period of time – when I went out I had five pairs of trousers on (thermals, thick thermals, a fleece layer, thin down trousers, and thick salopettes), on my feet were very thick boots that had a protective plastic sole and a removable insulated liner, and on top I wore a vest, a thermal layer, a thick thermal layer, a thin down jacket, an insulated layer, a thick jumper and a big protective out layer), and I wore a face mask to protect my face from the wind and cold! I looked a bit like the Michelin man, but it kept me warm.

Katie wearing lots of warm layers, gloves and her protective facemask, with a meteorite on the ice (Image: K. Joy)

7) How close did you get to the penguins?

  • I got about 5 to 20 m away from the penguins. You cant get too close as you don’t want to disturb the penguins and we want them to stay relaxed in their home environment. Once I saw three penguins going for a walk along the plane runway which was pretty funny, although they loved across pretty quickly as I think they are used to aircraft traffic coming through!

Penguins having a walk at Rothera (Image: K. Joy)


8) Do you know what breed of penguins they were?

  • The penguins I saw were called Adele penguins – they are very cute at about 60 cm in height and are one of seven types that occur in Antarctica. I normally saw them in pairs, or in a group of three sitting alongside the coastline. Every time I saw one I still got excited – it doesn’t really ever get boring to spot one 🙂

    Adele penguins close to Rothera (Image K. Joy).

A note about field communications

Katie Joy | 06 Feb 2019

Now I am back in the land of the internet I just wanted to send a huge thanks to Andy Smedley who has worked really hard back in Manchester to do all the blog posts when Geoff and I have been out in the field.

The way things have (mostly) been working is that I would send Andy the blog words in a text file via our in-field Iridium Go satellite phone link along with a selection of photos. He then gets everything into the blog site for posting — so thanks very much to him for all his efforts as it can be a bit of a faff to get everything in place and I know he was working at weekends to get things live as quickly as possible.

Some of the twitter has been me from the field with direct updates (the magic of the sat phone again) and most other tweets have been from Andy.

It seems that the link has compressed down the resolution of most of the images I sent to save it bandwidth use, so at some stage I will put up some nice high resolution versions.

Many thanks also to those of you who have been following the blog, we appreciate your interest in the project and will keep on posting updates as we have exciting news stories to post over the next few weeks / months.

Back at Rothera and heading towards home

Katie Joy | 06 Feb 2019

A quick update to say that we arrived safely back at Rothera Research Station around 9 pm last night. Vicky put in an amazing effort to get us back from Halley on the Twin Otter all in one day with bad weather swirling around. Goodbye to Halley and the fab team of people who are working really hard there to wrap up the end of their season of work. Thanks so much to all for making our field season a success and for your hospitality looking after us so well.

Goodbye to Halley research station — now raised up on its legs higher than when we came through just before New Year.

The views on route as we winged our way west were amazing out of the window (when I wasn’t snoozing) and we got a great view of the mountains close to Fossil Bluff through the mist and also saw a glory in the mist layer (see photo and caption for more). On flights like this, you realise how big Antarctica is and how flat and white and expansive most of the landscape is — just miles and miles of sastrugi-covered snow surfaces, with the occasional crevasse or rocky nunatak to break the horizon.

Stunning mountain tops on route with long shadows as the austral summer comes to an end and some twilight starts to return
Fully circular “rainbow” seen from the plane in the mist layer — more properly called a Glory

Rothera has changed somewhat since we were last here, with the new wharf works ongoing, but there are a few seals swimming around in the bay. Today has been a day of sorting out shipping and items to get back home before I am due to fly back tomorrow on the Dash 7 back to Punta and then onto the UK over the weekend.

Weather waiting

Katie Joy | 31 Dec 2018

The waiting game continues and we need the clouds to clear further south before we can set off to the field. The Met team are sending over photos of the cloud cover to us along with a forecast each day, and things might possibly clear up in a day or to, so until then the Meteorite project is turning into the tea drinking project whilst we wait 🙂

Halley station has the amazing module setup that I posted a photo of before containing the operation and communication centre, a library and shared spaces along with science labs and field guide store areas. The station has many other smaller buildings and containers scattered around the vicinity — including the cosy container that is my accommodation I am sharing with field guide Julie and pilot Vicky. We are having our meals in the nearly Drewry Building, where others who work on site are living at the moment. This has network connections and a phone line where I can speak to people back home in the UK via a satellite link (the reception is amazingly better than I can get trying to call from my mobile in the village where I live close to the Peak District!).

In the meantime whilst we wait on the weather — Happy New Year from Halley to you all!

Our accommodation cabins at Halley – portable and comfortable.

Hanging out at Halley

Katie Joy | 30 Dec 2018

A quick update – the weather has closed in around our field sites south of the Shackleton mountains, which means low cloud and poor contrast on the landing areas. It is also pretty overcast at Halley as well so we wont be flying out today. In Antarctica the work we do is dominated by the weather, so not a lot we can do but sit back and get on with a few other work tasks. We have packed up all the kit into our plane loads so that as soon as the weather clears we are ready to load and go — if not tomorrow, hopefully in a couple of days time. Send us good weather thoughts!

Two person field kit for a four week field work plan (minus some additional skidoo fuel that will join us later on), loaded onto a large sledge ready to be dragged out to the skiway.

The plan of work for when we get into the field is to do a quick tour of several sites as a lightweight travel unit. We will return to a base camp each day, and in the day time head off with a skidoo each and a load of emergency kit in case of closing in weather conditions. After about a week or so we hope to do a longer traverse with all our kit piled onto three wooden Nansen style sledges , and head off to a different field area about 120 km away. This overland traverse is typically of BAS’s field team mobile work, and we will proceed as we access the terrain.

In terms of our field equipment — if you look back a few posts down you should see a photo of the pyramid style tents we will be using. A lot of the kit you can see in the photo above piled onto the sledge are items associated with the camp (boxes with a stove, cooking equipment, food supplies, field medical box, bags of camping kit including a sleeping bag and some nice mats to lie on in the tent) or skidoos (fuel, repair box). We will have a small generator so that we can generate power in the field to power our sat phones and GPS devices. We have some ice chippers and shovels for removal of snow and ice, and rescue equipment we will take with us each day in case of emergencies. And importantly we also have our science kit for collecting any meteorites we come across, and making sure they are bagged carefully.

It has taken a massive amount of logistical effort from many people at BAS to get us to this point — plane route flying and planning operations (and weather observation support), through to all the field guide planning and kit preparation, travel logistics, feeding me (!)  — an amazing amount of human hours and resources for which I and the rest of the meteorite project team back in Manchester and Cambridge are very grateful.

Inside the belly of the Twin Otter — our flight over from Rothera to Halley. Two passengers sit in the front of the plane, with the cargo strapped down in the back. The big green bags you can see are our P-bags (personal kit bags) which include a sleeping back and other tent items to keep us cosy if we need to stop for a night somewhere. On our runs out to the field, we will likely do three Otter round trips as we need to take two large skidoos with us in the field, which require one flight each to fit into the plane.