Concordia Station is one of the most isolated -- and most important -- permanent scientific outposts on Antarctica. A joint project of French and Italian national research programs, with the involvement of the European Space Agency, Concordia has just completed its first "overwinter" mission and is now home to its second crew. Antarctic research, while interesting, isn't inherently worldchanging, but Concordia is special: its location, Dome C, is rapidly becoming the best spot for a variety of scientific missions on Antarctica; and this year's overwinter crew at Concordia has the assignment of prepping for a mission to Mars.
The Dome C location has several notable -- and nearly unique -- characteristics.
Dome C is well inland, and is isolated from the wind and moisture coming off the southern ocean. The air is so still, in fact, that a two-meter telescope (relatively small as professional 'scopes go) can see more than the Hubble telescope. As noted in September of '04, astronomers now want to build a massive 30 meter telescope at the Dome C site.
Dome C is at the top of 3,200 meters of ice, isolating researchers from the magnetic effects of the underlying bedrock, allowing for experiments possible in few other locations. This ice depth also allows for critical ice core research. EPICA, the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, recently pulled out ice reaching back nearly 800,000 years, giving us a glimpse at multiple climate cycles for comparison to our own artificial global warming.
Finally, the extreme temperature conditions (as low as -59° F in the summer and -120° F in the winter), coupled with the low air pressure (only 645 hPa/millibars) and extreme isolation (during the winter, it is quite literally impossible to get to the station), make an ideal setting for studying human biology under conditions similar to those on a trip to Mars.
This year's crew will study the psychological effects of being grouped together in isolation, as well as continue the ongoing research into building self-sustaining research environments in extreme conditions.
The two experiments, which are the first to be implemented in the coming season, look at psychological adaptation to the environment and the process of developing group identity; issues that will also be important factors for humans travelling to Mars. For this research the crew will complete questionnaires at regular intervals throughout their stay.
ESA's Mistacoba experiment, which already started a year ago when the first crew started living at the station, will also continue after the crew rotation. Starting from a newly built clean environment, samples are taken from fixed locations in the base as well as from crewmembers themselves. The Mistacoba experiment will provide a profile of how microbes spread and evolve in the station - an isolated and confined environment - over time.
Concordia currently operates some of the most sophisticated water-recovery systems available, testing ESA water capture and purification equipment while abiding by treaty requirements not to leave any waste on the continent.
In addition, the AASTINO project at Concordia, along with undertaking astronomical and atmospheric research, is a test-bed for both solar photovoltaic and Stirling engine power systems. The AASTINO website includes photos and performance data for the Stirling engines, known as "WhisperGen" systems.
The ESA's plan calls for Mars exploration by humans around 2030, which strikes me as reasonable. For now, experiments such as those conducted at Concordia serve multiple purposes: providing information for future space exploration; building our knowledge of the only remaining relatively unspoiled area on the planet; and establishing the requirements for life in extreme environmental conditions. Climate disruption is not likely to lead to Antarctic-like conditions anywhere but Antarctica (The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding), but the lessons we learn about building materials, sustainable energy, and group dynamics in isolation will be useful in other kinds of environments -- and extremely valuable when the conditions aren't simply tests.
There's a personal blog by one of the Concordia researchers at "http://www.gdargaud.net/Antarctica/WinterDC1.html
It's interesting for the day to day aspects of life on a research station and also for the number of dumb mistakes that were made. You'd think scientists would be smarter.