VSAT course, Aberdeen

My next outing was a trip to Aberdeen to for a few days, to learn all about the satellite system used to provide Rothera with its internet connection and public phone systems . In short, this is the most important piece of the communications jigsaw as far as most of the Rothera residents are concerned!

Although I was looking forward to this course, it started badly when the flight was delayed and got worse when I alighted from the aircraft in Aberdeen in my T-shirt to find freezing cold rain and a stiff breeze. This was compounded by arriving at the hotel to find that the enormous room bill hadn’t been paid up front as expected, and that they had stopped serving food a few minutes before my arrival. On the verge of a breakdown, I headed to the bar for a stiff drink and a bag of crisps, but the kindly bar manager saw my look of despair and generously headed off to the kitchen to put together a last-minute prawn roll. Things were starting to look up.

Happily, on this course there was another BAS employee joining me for the training. Jenny was a marine-biologist by trade, but was heading off to Bird Island (just off South Georgia) as an albatross counter and ringer. This earned her immediate respect in my book – I had previously thought about applying for this job myself, but had been daunted by the long contract and the small size of the base – during the winter months the numbers dwindle to just a handful of people. However, Jenny had a very relaxed attitude to all of this and turned out to be exactly the sort of likable, laid-back character that you’d want to want to be locked in a small room with for a few months. She had been nominated at random as the base technician – multi-tasking was an inevitability on a base that size.

We met up with Trevor, our instructor for the week and started learning all about the difficulties of using complex comms equipment in Antarctica. The course itself was fun and practical, though a bit heavy on long coffee-breaks – I ended up completely wired on caffeine by the end of each day. Jenny and I spent long hours learning how to point a huge heavy dish at a tiny satellite some 26,000 miles away – no mean feat, as it turns out. I’ll have more respect for the Sky TV engineers in the future! All of the time, Trevor hovered in the background to gently reassure us that there was genuinely a satellite up there, somewhere.

Once we’d got the hang of this, we started on the now-familiar fault-finding exercises, in which Trevor would cunningly emulate failure of one of the components and we’d have to diagnose and fix the fault. Fortunately, the dish at Rothera is fairly reliable. Being on a moving ice-sheet, Halley’s (one of the other BAS research stations) dish has to be equipped with a tracking system that can keep the dish pointing in the right direction, even when the ground moves underneath it – this is very clever, but has a tendency to go wrong every now and then. This system also means that whenever you are doing maintenance on the dish you have to be on the lookout for it suddenly deciding to re-point itself and knocking you out! We also had a quick look at the enormous 7m down-link dishes, that provide the UK end of the BAS satellite links, though sadly (but for obvious reasons!) we weren’t allowed to play with these ones.

That’s pretty much it for the technical courses – next stop is BAS HQ (after a quick holiday!) for some in-house training and the ground-to-air radio certificate.

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