Concordia – science at the edge of the world
By Anthony Wood
February 7, 2014
The Concordia Research Station, a joint interest between the French IPEV polar institute and the Italian PNRA Antarctic program, is by all accounts one of the most isolated and inhospitable locations available to humanity, requiring more time to reach than it takes to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The European Space Agency (ESA) takes advantage of the facility's unique location and conditions, conducting extensive research into the implications of long-term space flight on the human body. Read on as we take a look at the conditions at the station, and the importance of the research being carried out there.
Concordia is located in one of the most hostile and isolated environments on the planet. Situated in the Antarctic, temperatures around the base can drop to a frigid -80ºC (-112ºF). Due to its position at the southernmost tip of the planet, during the summer the sun never sets below the horizon and during the winter it doesn't rise for months at a time, meaning that the crew of the station must live without sunlight for a substantial period of the year.
The station resides some 3,200 meters (10,500 ft) above sea level where the air is thinner and holds less oxygen, meaning its inhabitants are suffering from a constant state of hypoxia (lack of oxygen).
These factors combine to produce an environment that is somewhat less than ideal for scientific endeavors, as simply venturing outside requires multiple layers of cold weather gear and a steely resistance to what most people would define as "unpleasant weather."
There are also significant logistical issues around maintaining a station in such a hostile environment. Whilst relatively small items such as fresh produce can be transferred directly to the facility's airfield via a Twin-Otter aircraft, all heavy equipment must be transported to the outpost by land, and when accessible it takes roughly 12 days to complete the 1,100-km (683.5-mile) journey.
In addition to coping with hostile Antarctic climate, the station's crew also works to maintain a series of scientific experiments. The instruments are arrayed around the station's two towers, and include a seismic vault that stretches 15 meters (49 ft) under the surface, providing deep access to the Antarctic ice itself.
The site's seismological detection equipment is part of a global system of such devices, and provides important stats that contribute to our understanding of how the Earth's core behaves. The station also lends itself to the study of the Earth's magnetic field. Due to the outpost's position near one of Earth's poles, the field impacts on the planet's surface almost vertically.
To boldly go
Due to this level of extreme isolation and the inhospitable Antarctic conditions that preclude even most forms of bacteria from living in the harsh environment, the ESA uses the outpost to research future missions to other planets or extended periods in outer space.
In many ways, the Concordia outpost is even more remote than the ISS. With the station's closest support base residing a full 600 km (373 miles) away (the ISS orbits at 322 km/200 miles), the station is truly cut off from the outside world. Unlike the ISS, which can be reached year-round, Concordia cannot be reached by land or air for six months of the year. No aircraft can approach and the land routes are completely inaccessible, in effect leaving the crew to fend for themselves.
The crew even face an adjustment period required upon reaching the station, just as is the case on the ISS. Adrianos Golemis, an ESA-sponsored doctor who recently arrived at the station for 2014, will spend the next year observing how the crew copes with the stressful, isolated conditions, similar to those that future astronauts will likely face.
In the Antarctic winter of 2012, an experiment was undertaken by the ESA, designed to better inform long-term space travel. The researchers worked to create an effective exercise regime for those living in a confined environment (for example that of the ISS), in order to counter the known effects of long term confinement, such as a degradation of mood and cognitive performance paired with the general deterioration of muscle strength due to environmental factors.
Even observing how the personnel of the station react to the prolonged period of oxygen deprivation is beneficial to gauging the viability of a mission to other planets. If there is a lower density of oxygen in the air of a spacecraft, there would be less atmospheric pressure and this in turn would make the ship easier to plan and engineer.
Concordia station is currently engaged in a changing of the guard. During 2014, it will be further increasing our knowledge of the risks inherent in manned space flight by carrying out a bed rest study, during which the participant is asked to lie with their heads below the angle of the horizon. This allows the researchers to study the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body.
With the recent plethora of proposed long-term manned space flights, the importance of Concordia will only increase as time goes on. You can learn more about the station in the video below.
Source: European Space Agency