Antarctic explorers use satellites to navigate safely

A century after Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott reached the South Pole on sled dogs, satellites are supporting a modern wave of Antarctic exploration.

When New Zealand researchers crossed the unfriendly terrain of the Ross Ice Shelf in October, it was like trekking through a minefield.

Hidden underneath the ice are deep, treacherous crevasses. The safe way through was guided from high above, by a satellite capable of seeing 16m below the surface. 

The expedition, led by Dr Daniel Price of the University of Canterbury, was the first New Zealand traverse of Antarctica since Edmund Hillary and his tractors in 1958.

Kiwi scientists are working on drilling into the ice in the study of climate change.

It was a long way from the very first expeditions in 1911 and 1912, when Roald Amundson and Robert Scott famously reached the Pole on sleds.

Dr Price says space technology, particularly satellites, are "absolute game-changers" for contemporary Antarctic operations.

"These days we can look ahead and plan the journey in detail from satellite imagery. So, with the traverse that we've just done, we were able to literally weave in and out from crevassed areas."

It took Dr Price two months to mark out a safe track for the scientists, and he travelled over 3000km.

"The way the world seems to be going with automation and advancement of technology, in that sense is pretty incredible," he says. 

"So we could see, in the future, traverses that don't even require humans anymore." 

Without satellites in space, his work would have been extremely dangerous.

There is now a new competition for scientists to push the technology further.

The New Zealand Space Challenge is offering a $15,000 cash prize for a new innovation that helps Antarctic research from space.

There's a strong connection between the two. The icy continent's hostile environment is as close as Earth comes to resembling space, says Antarctica New Zealand CEO Peter Beggs.

"It gets very cold, up to minus 80degC, and of course wind speeds of up to 300km an hour, and some of those conditions are the things you find out in space."

New Zealand has proved we continue to lead the way when it comes to Antarctica.