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Tragedy Strikes South Pole Station

16 May 2000 6:00 pm
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Antarctic loss. The death of Rodney Marks (left) leaves the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory without a specialized scientist at hand.

A young astrophysicist has died at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Rodney Marks, 32, was the sole operator of the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory (AST/RO). The loss has devastated the staff of 49, who are cut off from the outside world until November, as planes can't land in the frigid conditions. The nine remaining scientists at the base will try to put AST/RO back into operation.

On 12 May, Marks was walking from a research building back to the main station when he began to have trouble breathing. He checked in with the base's doctor, who consulted by satellite with medical experts, but his condition worsened. After several hours, his heart stopped and he could not be revived. Marks had passed all physical exams before he headed to the pole last October, and had spent a winter at the pole once before, in 1998. It won't be possible to determine the exact cause of death until after the station becomes accessible.

The same delay raised tensions last year, when the previous base physician, Jerri Nielsen, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was evacuated as soon as a ski-equipped jet could land (ScienceNOW, 6 October 1999) and is now writing a book about her experience.

It is the extremely cold, dry atmosphere of the South Pole that makes it ideal for observing submillimeter wavelengths. AST/RO, which is part of the University of Chicago's Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, uses a 1.7-meter telescope to measure the spectra of atomic carbon and carbon monoxide in the Milky Way.

Before he died, Marks had been fixing a tricky problem with one of the telescope's receivers, which must be chilled to near absolute zero. "Rodney was doing a really superb job," says AST/RO project manager Adair Lane of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was also the only one at the pole trained to work with AST/RO. "We don't yet know how hard it will be for others to put things back into working order."

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