New Zealand’s remotest outpost is now just a video call away with Antarctica New Zealand installing Starlink at Scott Base to improve connectivity.
The aim is to give scientists access to modern digital software tools while they are working at the Ross Island research station, some 3800km from New Zealand. The increased capacity and speed of the connection means the experience should be similar to working from home.
Antarctica New Zealand’s chief scientific advisor Jordy Hendrikx says the Starlink trial is a significant step up in communications capability for scientists that work from the base, opening up access to data, large files, organisational communication and collaboration tools, as well as WiFi and mobile phones.
“It’ll be a different world.
“This could be a new era of real-time collaboration for Scott Base, with new levels of interaction for inter-disciplinary teams and analysts, both in New Zealand and around the world,” Dr Hendrikx says.
“While most people think that a good connection means being able to stream a movie, scientists think about whether they can move data quickly and regularly. Until now, connections at Scott Base have been limited, they’ve been slow, this is one way to open up the throttle. It could create new opportunities to increase the frequency and access to remote data collection, rather than being limited to annual data collection and in-person downloads.
“It’ll be nice to be able to stream a movie too, though who would want to when the beauty of Antarctica is outside? But the data, that’s a really exciting possibility.”
Research teams will be briefed on the system’s performance ahead of their 2023/24 deployment, and its performance will be reviewed at the end of each research season.
Starlink was installed in March, and Antarctica New Zealand’s IT and engineering teams have since been working to understand how it best works in Antarctica, and how to set it up so that it provides the best view of the satellites that pass overhead.
The crew of 17 overwintering at Scott Base are making the most of an improved connection with the world. A big plus is video calls with family back at home, and being able to take care of ‘life admin’ from phones and laptops.
Winter Base leader Greg Kukutai says it brings a welcome sense of normality to working in such a remote location, boosting morale and reducing isolation. It also meant the vagaries of screen culture had arrived and, within a couple of weeks, the team had voted to make mealtimes a phone-free zone.
“Everyone eats together at Scott Base and it’s an incredibly important time to share information and check in with each other, which doesn’t happen to the same extent if people are glued to their phones. Choosing to not have phones at the table was a no-brainer.”
Antarctica New Zealand’s Chief Digital Officer, Crispin Deans, said communications at Scott Base previously relied on geo-stationary satellites in high orbits, which restricted the speed of critical network connections and limited the ability to operate in a modern web-based environment.
“Starlink will supplement those existing systems, providing resilience for off-continent communications. It has the potential to improve the connection speed at Scott Base by about a factor of ten, which will make it easier for people to do their jobs.
“As always, Antarctica presents its own challenges – there are currently only a small number of Starlink satellites in the skies around the base. We’re monitoring the reliability of the service in the Ross Sea region, and expect improvement but not perfection.”
Scott Base’s first data connection to the outside world came in 1992 when Telecom NZ, in partnership with then Antarctic division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), completed the installation of a satellite earth station at nearby Arrival Heights. Before that, it was high frequency radio and letters. Until now, movies were watched on DVDs.
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