JOHANNESBURG – A team of Spanish scientists returned from a 52-day expedition to the Antarctic using an innovative and environmentally friendly WindSled, a vehicle with large kites that use polar winds to travel, where they collected data for a range of projects such as NASA space missions to Mars, the team told EFE on Saturday.
The “Unexplored Antarctic 2018-2019” expedition started its journey home with a first stop in Cape Town, South Africa, after extensive data collection and analysis in the South Pole for a variety of projects including geo-location of the Galileo system for the European Space Agency and testing of sensors that were created for a Nasa space mission to Mars, Ramon Larramendi, designer of the Inuit WindSled, an agile eco-vehicle that can travel efficiently across immense icy plateaus, told EFE.
“To be in deep Antarctica is the closest thing to going on a journey to another planet, the closest thing to going to the Moon,” Larramendi said.
“We were totally isolated in absolutely extreme conditions. You feel the solitude, the purity, there is space all around you, the horizon infinite,” he added.
Joining Larramendi on the polar expedition were Ignacio Oficialdegui, Hilo Moreno, Manuel Olivera and some 2 tons of equipment which mostly belonged to the structure of the WindSled.
The one-of-a-kind vehicle uses a system of multiple sails that are up to 150 square meters (492 square feet) large and capable of extending up to 200 meters high, allowing the drivers to make the most of winds depending on their intensity and direction.
This sophisticated system is the first in history that can travel across the Antarctic in an entirely clean way with no polluting emissions. As well as being a vehicle it has an integrated mobile infrastructure in which the explorers and scientists can run tests and collect data.
The WindSled is also considerably cheaper to run than other, more traditional, missions which normally rely on building a base and maintaining it.
“It is an obligation to operate within the Antarctic in a clean way,” Larramendi continued. “The Antarctic Treaty (which entered into force in 1961 and regulates international relations in the Antarctic) establishes that impact has to be minimal and there are environmental protocols which would be considered absolutely extreme if you were to compare them to those of another location.”
“Within this environment, which is the last area of virgin land on Earth, this (WindSled) is the first zero-emissions system that exists,” he said.
“With the sled you don’t need a piece of infrastructure, there is barely any maintenance involved and you have access to millions of square kilometers. Conceptually, it is totally different to anything else out there and it has enormous potential,” Larramendi added.
The cutting-edge vehicle-come-laboratory presents so many advantages that Larramendi hopes this last visit, his third with the WindSled but first expedition to collect scientific data, could be the seed for an official and regular Spanish Antarctic program.
WindSled’s latest mission completed a 2,538-kilometer circular route in an area in inland Antartica that has barely been explored to date.
The vehicle was modified for this trip as it was forced to travel with much more weight than in previous explorations, it still performed brilliantly with no glitches or accidents.
“Even though we had high hopes for it (WindSled), it has surprised us,” the Spanish explorer said.
“It is in great condition after the trip, to the point it could head off on another Antarctic mission tomorrow.” Larramendi continued.
The Antarctic winds dragged the team all the way to Dome Fuji, a mammoth ice dome on the East Antarctic sheet that sits 3,810 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level.
“We were totally depleted of oxygen, but what we did prove was that we were able to ascend with WindSled,” the Spaniard added.
During the expedition, the team braved temperatures of up to -42 degrees C, and there were days they were paralyzed due to a lack of winds.
When describing the experience of being in the vast expanse of snow and ice Larramendi compared it to an extra-terrestrial experience: “In truth, you get the feeling you are on another planet, you know one day you will return but you are in another reality in which you are incredibly fragile,” he said.
“You also have to be extremely cautious in order to survive because this isn’t an environment that was made for man and any mistakes come at a high price,” he added.