21 February, 2008

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has signed a licensing deal with the Cambridge-based eXtreme Instrumentation Limited (Xi). The deal allows Xi to make and sell two innovative devices developed by scientists at BAS – a low power magnetometer (LPM) and a special power supply designed to cope with the extreme conditions encountered in the Antarctic.

According to BAS’s Mike Rose, who developed both devices: “This is good news for BAS, because Xi’s commercial know-how will help us manage demand for the equipment, allowing us to get on with what we do best – the science.”

Like the thermometer in other areas of science, the magnetometer is one of the most basic measuring devices in upper atmosphere physics. But although the Antarctic is an ideal place to take readings of the Earth’s magnetic field, running a network of magnetometers in the harshest and remotest place on the planet has been a major challenge until now.

What makes BAS’s LPM unique is a ‘technical trick’ that means it consumes less power than a single Christmas-tree light. By using solar power during the summer and storing excess power in batteries, it can operate unmanned during the long, dark, Antarctic winter when temperatures may reach -80oC. “The longest we have left an LPM completely unattended is 444 days. When you consider the complexity of the instruments, which include a computer to store data, this is pretty impressive,” Rose says.

The second device covered by the deal with Newton is the extreme conditions power supply. As well as being used to power the LPM, the device also has a wide range of applications, currently powering other remote instruments such as weather stations and cameras.

So far BAS has deployed a network of 11 magnetometers, most of which are high on the polar plateau more than 1,000 km from the nearest BAS research station. BAS has also sold nine of the devices to the Japanese, Chinese and Italian Antarctic programmes.

  • Magnetometers measure the Earth’s magnetic field. The data they gather help scientists predict space storms, which can damage spacecraft and disrupt power supplies and satellites.
  • All of BAS’s LPMs are named after characters from the BBC TV series Blackadder. The highest BAS LPM, Speckled Jim, is almost 11,000 feet above sea level and at 88o1’31’’, Lord Whiteadder is the nearest LPM to the South Pole.
  • The lowest temperature so far recorded by one of BAS’s LPMs was -78.8oC. Although some way off the lowest temperature ever recorded, which stands at the -89oC logged at Russia’s Antarctic base at Vostok, Rose believes that one of the BAS LPMs will eventually beat this world record.
  • The extreme conditions power supply currently powers the remote camera at Mars Oasis – a BAS study site on Alexander Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. The seasonal melting of snow at the site provides an important habitat for Antarctic organisms, so by continuously monitoring snow cover at the site, the camera provides valuable information on how these organisms are faring.