Research

No distance too far

Science is more than libraries, computers, laboratories. Even today, people still conduct research in remote and virtually inaccessible places – after all, the most exciting findings await in the unknown. Here are three stories from an isolated polar station, labyrinthine caves, and the depths of the ocean.

The physician Beth Healey spent the winter in the Antarctic for her research. (Image: ESA/IPEV)

The Telemedicine Specialist
Anyone who has survived a winter at the Concordia research station is entitled to immortalize themselves with a signpost. In the workshop, Beth Healey is carving "Hereford: 16,533 kilometers" into her sign. At this moment, the British woman is further away from her hometown than the ISS space station, in terms of both distance and the duration of the journey. The research station is located 1,000 kilometers from the coast of Antarctica, on a high plateau 3,233 meters above sea level. Originally it was built for ice drilling, which is used to explore earlier climates. But Healey is wintering here in 2016 on behalf of the European Space Agency. As a research physician, she looks after the other 12 crew members. Above all, however, she investigates the effects of extreme conditions and isolation on the body and psyche. Her findings should help to prepare Mars missions.

Concordia is sited in one of the most hostile places on the planet, the so-called "White Mars." During the winter, temperatures drop to minus 80 degrees Centigrade. In an emergency, no aircraft could bring help because kerosene already freezes at minus 50 degrees. At the beginning of May, the sun sinks behind the horizon, and not a single beam of light penetrates through to the researchers for 105 days. Due to the altitude, the air contains a third less oxygen than at sea level. Every short walk becomes a strenuous endurance run.

Healey monitors the crew's vitals using smart bracelets. She can also track who is sitting together in the common room – or isolating him- or herself even further from the others. She records her everyday observations on the mood of the team in video diaries. It quickly becomes evident that, even after a long time, human beings are hard put to adapt to the extremely low oxygen supply. The polar night is nerve-wracking: "The darkness is brutal. Only when the sun is missing do you realize how much it connects us to the rest of the world," says Healey. The sleeping rhythms of the crew are disrupted. "In the beginning, I was awake four nights in a row." Because everyone withdraws for their own research projects, participation in the common meals is mandatory. "While some were having breakfast, others were already eating their supper," says Healey. "And it always felt like we were eating pasta at 3 a.m." Appetites disappear, everyone loses weight, becomes paler. "I felt like my body was falling apart."

The psychological stability of the team and its members can make the difference between life and death during a real space mission. In an emergency, crews are then dependent on telemedicine specialists who can initiate not only physical but also mental healing. Healey wants to conduct further research into diagnosis and treatment from a distance, and advance telemedicine. Not only because she dreams of flying into space herself at some point: "On Earth, many people live far removed from medical care. Our research can also improve their living conditions."

Just a regular workplace for Keneiloe Molopyane, but inaccessible to most others: the Rising Star caves in South Africa. (Image: Mathabela Tsikoane)

The Biological Anthropologist
Anyone who wants to research the family tree of humans usually relies on fossils remains. From these, one can infer the height, brain volume and lifestyle of our distant relatives. However, complete remains of pre- and early humans are rarely excavated. Often only a tooth or skull fragment is found. All the more unique is the treasure trove housed in South Africa’s Rising Star caves. More than 1,500 fossils have been unearthed here, some 50 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. They are the bones of at least 15 individuals of a previously unknown species that was baptized Homo naledi. Among them is even a six-year-old child whose fragile skull has miraculously been preserved for 250,000 years.

Keneiloe Molopyane need not travel far to reach the two chambers where Homo naledi was discovered: only about 100 meters. "Usain Bolt runs this distance in less than 10 seconds," says the South African biological anthropologist. "We need at least 45 minutes and we have to be utterly concentrated all the time." The way into the depths is exhausting and nerve-wracking. Apart from Molopyane, only a handful of people make it through the cave labyrinth at all. When the University of the Witwatersrand put together the first team in 2013, the ad read: "Excellent paleontologists with experience in caving. People must be fit and as short and thin as possible. They must not be claustrophobic. Experience in climbing is a bonus." To this day, it is predominantly women to whom all these criteria apply: the Underground Astronauts.

Deep in the cave, they have to squeeze through a crevice known as the "Superman crawler": they can only navigate it if they crawl forward on their stomachs for minutes, holding one arm close to their body, and stretching the other upward on the side of their head – like Superman in flight. Later, a 12-meter-deep, nearly vertical slide leads into the fossil chamber. The pitch-dark gap is peppered with rocky outcrops and narrows to an 18-centimeter opening. "I've often gotten stuck," says Molopyane. A lapse in concentration, a lack of momentum when entering, too little grip on the slippery rock, and “you already feel like you’ve been stuck for hours." Together, the team then tries to find a solution. "Most of the time it helps to inhale at the right instant and use the tiny momentum of exhalation to inch out a little." It is clear to everyone that those who injure themselves must remain underground until they recover. A rescue would be riskier than providing care in the cave.

Once they have finally arrived, the Underground Astronauts work six-hour shifts in the excavation chamber. Sometimes they even bring fragile fossils back with them to the Earth's surface, where they can be further studied. To this day, for example, researchers do not yet know how Homo naledi entered the cave 250,000 years ago, and why. "It used to be the rule to keep everything to yourself," says Molopyane. “But then we would just be boiling up our own ideas and outlooks, over and over again. Science lives off fresh perspectives." So all the findings are made available to other researchers. As inaccessible as the site is, the knowledge gained about it should be as accessible.

Victor Vescovo. (Image: Discovery / Atlantic Productions / Tamara Stubbs)

The Deep-Sea Diver
6,000 meters below sea level, an unknown world begins. Only one percent of the oceans extends further, down to a realm named after the Greek god of the underworld: the Hades Zone. It is a place of eternal darkness under the pressure of kilometer-thick masses of water. It was not until 1960 that researchers succeeded in reaching the lowest point on earth: the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, 10,928 meters below sea level. To date, fewer people have made it there than to the moon. Even the surface of Mars is better measured than the bottom of the oceans. Yet data on the deep seas are becoming increasingly important: for research into climate change, for coastal protection, for the extraction of energy and raw materials.

To explore the deep sea, you need money, state-of-the-art technology and courage. The American Victor Vescovo has it all. And he has tapped it to realize his dream: the former naval officer was the first person to travel down to the deepest points of all five oceans. For the "Five Deeps" expedition, he sailed around the world for two years, cruising a total of 87,000 kilometers between the Arctic and Antarctic with his 30-strong team, and diving in waters notorious for their perilous weather conditions.

For the mission, the team had developed an ultra-safe Triton submersible made of titanium, the "Limiting Factor." It can transport two into the depths, but often Vescovo did the dives alone. "It's a very intense experience that I enjoy," he explains. "Then there is only me, the machine and my surroundings." He spends up to 13 hours in the narrow capsule, limited only by the battery charge and his own physical endurance. "You certainly can't be claustrophobic," he says. "And you need to dress warmly; it gets freezing cold in the capsule."

The three hours that Vescovo can spend down on the seabed are an exercise in wonderment, in being amazed, for example, by the creatures that have adapted to this lightless, nutrient-poor environment. Vescovo has discovered some 40 new species during his dives. "In my opinion, some living creatures are a better fit for an alien planet than Earth," he says. High-resolution cameras film the environment nonstop, and three robotic probes collect water and soil samples. "The more we collect, the greater the chance that we will find something remarkable in the analyses later." However, what caught his attention most was a sad find: on the floor of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of almost 11,000 meters, he discovered waste. "Of course I was incredibly disillusioned. But what worries me even more is what I couldn't see: microplastics are in every ocean, at every depth, in every food chain."

With his spectacular expeditions, Vescovo promotes an awareness of the fact that the oceans are vulnerable. He makes all the data he collects available for research. His team continues to explore tens of thousands of square kilometers of the deep sea every month, supporting the "GEBCO 2030" project. His goal: to completely map the ocean floor.


Stefanie Hardick is a freelance journalist specializing in scientific and historical topics.

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