Svalbard Equipment Testing Mission, April 2018

Geoff Evatt | 04 Jul 2018

Antarctica is a long way to go to only to find out a essential piece of equipment does not work properly. To avoid (well, minimise) this risk, our Lost Meteorite team needed to find somewhere we could trial our metal detector design and system. And so at Easter 2018, we headed north, to the relatively near-by icy Norwegian island group of Svalbard (~79o N), to conduct our first set of field trials.

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Flying over Svalbard. [Image: G W Evatt]

This small, far-flung High-Arctic region is in fact rather easy to reach: Manchester to Olso, Oslo to Longyear; all via budget airlines (other more luxurious options do exist). The island hosts an annual jazz festival, ultra marathons, wildlife tours, and an eye wateringly large number of polar bears. Yet more relevant to ourselves, they host the UK’s polar science research base, run by the National Environmental Research Council. It is based in the World’s northern most habitation, Ny-Alesund, which is home to many a nation’s polar research station. Ny-Alesund is steeped in polar history, for it is where numerous North Pole-searching trips were launched in the 1920’s, including those by Admundsen and Nobile. Today the spirit of discovery still lives on there, although more in regards the understand of the Earth’s systems, rather than adventurism. (That said, upon taking the final short plane ride from Longyear to Ny-Alesund, one could be forgiven for thinking it still rather adventurous.)

The team members attending were the electrical engineers John (UoM), Liam (UoM) and Mike (BAS), plus experimental mathematician Andy  (UoM) and myself (head skidoo driver?). Fortunately we were not alone out there, for we were under the superb care and supervision of BAS’s Nick Cox, the base manager. Nick quickly showed us around the base, taught us how to drive skidoos, and found us glacial areas within 20 minutes of the base upon which we could test the panels in a controlled fashion. Yet before we could be set loose, Mike and I first had to attend a ‘Polar Bear & Weapon for Protection’ course.  I can’t say whether or not we felt safer before or after the live fire course, but it certainly did take the term ‘meteorite hunting’ to the next level.

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Team in the field in Svalbard testing the detector panel. [Image: A R D Smedley]

So, what were we out there to test? The first thing was to see whether or not the large plastic panels (each 2 m x 1 m) – which have the metal detector coils embedded inside –  could actually be towed by skidoo. And if they could, did they work and were they robust to inevitable impacts and undulations? Next, was to test whether or not the generally electrical system operated as we wished (i.e. data logging, cable connection robust, LED systems etc etc). Finally, we wanted to test whether or not we could actually locate sub-surface iron objects.

To conduct our experiments, we created a sort of run way on the Storvatna Glacier, in which we buried iron objects/ meteorites at different depths in the snow/ice, each spaced some 5 meters apart. We would then drive along the runway – directly over the top of the buried objects – collecting the data relevant to each point. We  conducted this for constants speeds, and then repeated the tests for increments of 5 km/s (from 10 km/s up to 25 km/s).

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Testing the technology – dragging our detector array along a test track. [Image: M C Rose]

Cutting to the chase, we found that our first two requirements (panel design and system design) worked without a single hitch. This was a great relief, for without these working we would have been almost out of ideas for alternatives! However we found the detection system was, initially, temperamental to temperature variations. For example, we would set up the system indoors, and could detect object down to ~50cm. But outside, well, we often got jibberish.

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Fixing the equipment in the field. [Image: M C Rose]

After much troubleshooting, the problem was identified and remedied by the ultra-hard-working and diligent John and Liam (which involved some very cold hands). Yet the lack of time left on base meant that a rush ensued, in which we gathered as much data as possible, late into the final day. Their hard work paid off, for we were able to obtain very useful detector results at the 11th hour; we certainly detected objects down to some 20 cm below the surface, and possibly deeper. Of course we need to hunt a bit deeper still, but now that we have initial data, we can tune the equipment accordingly to the target range – had we had another week out there, this would have been possible. Fortunately, we have another test mission ahead (for me and Mike) at Sky-Blu, Antarctica, this January, plus another possible Svalbard trip next Easter. This means we still have time on our side to optimise the sensitive of the detectors. And of course, with the panels and system working fine, much of the trip was a large success.

As for Svalbard itself? Well, it’s glorious. We saw seals on the sea ice, and had close encounters with Svalbard Reindeer and Arctic Foxes. In fact, we had issues with the Arctic Foxes digging out our buried meteorites! The island is trying to encourage more tourism, and travel out there you must. After all, it’s not every day you get chance to drink at the World’s northern-most pub. Thank you Svalbard/Ny-Alesund/Nick, we hope to see you again next Easter.

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Visiting scientist in Svalbard. [Image: G W Evatt]