Tough job site conditions can’t get much tougher than the South Pole. During the winter, the South Pole receives no sunlight; during the summer, the sun is always low in the sky. This makes for one of the coldest climates on earth – but not too cold for Mantis telescopic boom crawler cranes. Four Mantis cranes are currently working at the South Pole, one of which has been there almost 20 years. The telescopic boom crawlers, manufactured by MANTIS Cranes, Franklin, Tenn., have been used to construct the new elevated South Pole Station, as well as assemble the South Pole Telescope.
In November 2006, a group of scientists, technicians, and engineers began building the largest telescope ever deployed at the South Pole. Completed in February 2007, the telescope gives astronomers a powerful new tool to explore dark energy, the mysterious force that may be causing the universe to accelerate, according to the project’s website. The team that built and now operates the enormous telescope is made up of a group of scientists and engineers from several universities across the United States, including the University of Chicago, University of California-Berkley, University of California-Davis, and the University of Colorado-Boulder, among others.
The first crane at the South Pole was a Model 3010 crane with 15-ton capacity at a 10-foot radius. Shipped in 1987, the unit is still in service today. The other three machines, which are Mantis Model 8012 cranes, started out rated at 33 tons at 10-foot radius. MANTIS Cranes worked with Raytheon Polar Services to re-rate their capacities to 40 tons at a 12-foot radius to increase their utility.
Raytheon Polar Services provides support to the United States Antarctic Program with science support, operations, information technology and communications systems, logistics, and facilities engineering and construction for three year-round U.S. stations, two research vessels, and numerous field camps. The cranes are operated by certified crane operators employed by Raytheon Polar Services and have been used for any necessary lifting jobs during the construction of the massive telescope. “The ability of the crane to pick and carry is its strongest feature,” said James Lamb, executive vice president of special projects and customer support for MANTIS Cranes.
Lamb visited the South Pole in 2003 to check in on the cranes. Although MANTIS Cranes had been involved in providing support and spare parts, “We’d never laid eyes on them,” Lamb said. He was sent to assess the cranes’ useful life and see how the units were working in the extreme environment. Lamb said that during his stay, the average temperature was -42º F, with a wind chill average of -65ºF. With little humidity, freezing temperatures, and an altitude of about 10,500 feet, physical exertion of any kind is taxing, Lamb said. Although the weather is tough on humans, the cranes have had no problem keeping up on the jobsite. “It’s always a job to keep those things running in that kind of temperature, but the cranes have fared very well,” he said. The equipment runs on JP-8 turbine fuel and operates very well under these climatic conditions, according to Lamb.
With years of use on the South Pole already, the cranes won’t be heading back to warmer climates any time soon. Lamb said the use of the cranes is indefinite, and they will probably spend the rest of their useful lives working at the South Pole. As long as parts are replaced and routine maintenance and engine work are done as needed, the structures of the machines should last for years to come.