During a "Live from the Poles" TV special, middle school students in the U.S were able to interact with scientists at the South Pole using a video and audio link developed at Berkeley Lab.

Science Notes: Live From the South Pole

by Paul Preuss
Winter was already setting in at the South Pole, but it was a wet spring in Berkeley when members of the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) gathered around computer screens last April to exchange greetings with their colleagues at the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

"We have a long list of new and interesting things to ask you to do," said AMANDA's Buford Price, kicking off the first of many planned working sessions over the first-ever multicast video and audio link to the South Pole. Using internet technology to communicate, AMANDA researchers are planning experiments with probes suspended thousands of meters deep in boreholes in the polar ice.

Multicast Backbone technology— MBone for short—is a method of Internet connection far less expensive than any other means of exchanging real-time sound and pictures between remote locations. Instead of sending massive amounts of data to individual routers, MBone distributes and replicates the data stream only as needed, making efficient distribution of data packets without congesting any single router.

Van Jacobson of the Information and Computing Science Division (ICSD), one of MBone's principal creators, and Steve McCanne, now at UC Berkeley, developed the videoconferencing tools. The South Pole hardware, including miniature cameras, sound pick-up gear, and circuit boards, was delivered to the Amundsen-Scott Station by AMANDA's Douglas Lowder early in 1998. Deb Agarwal of ICSD configured and installed the MBone connections from the Lab end.

Agarwal worked with Maria C. Perillo-Isaac of the Nuclear Sciences division. Perillo-Isaac is interested in the educational potential of the new medium —a potential realized when a real-time interaction between students in the United States and scientists at the South Pole via MBone was featured on "Live From the Poles," an hour-long national television special that aired April 28, produced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's "Passport to Knowledge" project.

Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist who is active in the Hands-On Universe education project, calls Agarwal and Perillo-Isaac "the first two women to the Pole—via MBone computer connection." Although MBone is still somewhat experimental, Pennypacker hopes the South Pole link will be "a prototype for the schools." He hopes the incentive for schools to acquire the new technology will make live science on the MBone—from the deep oceans to outer space, and everywhere in between—only a matter of time.

"We were delighted to cooperate with the MBone team," says Geoff Haines-Stiles, who produced "Live from the Poles," "to show that new technologies can literally take students to the end of the world . . . or anywhere else their scientific curiosity might lead."

Research Review Fall '98 Index | Berkeley Lab