A group of Chinese scientists and engineers is set to embark on a trek to the bottom of the world aboard the Xuelong, an icebreaking research vessel, early next month to kickstart the nation’s 35th Antarctic exploration mission.

They plan to conduct a survey and likely lay the foundation for a permanent airstrip atop a polar ice sheet some 28 kilometers from the nation’s Zhongshan polar research and exploration station in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay in East Antarctica.

Chinese papers said one of the major technical hurdles was site selection, and Chinese geologists spent a year monitoring ice sheet dynamics on a number of possible locations on major glacial bodies near the Zhongshan station.

The meteorological team has also installed automatic weather stations to collect data.

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A multi-purpose building at the Zhongshan station in Antarctica. Photo: Xinhua

Heavy machinery like purpose-built compactors, rollers and snow blowers will then be ferried all the way from China for soil, snow and gelisol compaction to form the base of a runway, which will be 1,500 meters in length.

Xinhua said the future airstrip would be key to strengthening China’s logistical support for its four stations scattered across the southernmost continent.

Chinese scientists have been using a Russian facility to transport samples, supplies and equipment, and the nation has only one fixed-wing plane, the Xueying 601, or Snow Hawk, retrofitted from a C-47 transport plane, that can fly in the polar regions using airfields operated by Russia and the UK.

China has previously built two temporary airfields in Antarctica, in addition to two permanent stations, Great Wall and Zhongshan, and two seasonal stations, Kunlun and Taishan.

Construction began in February on a fifth research base in the Ross Sea, allegedly not far from McMurdo Station, a US facility that is the biggest in the Antarctic. The Chinese base, due to be completed in 2022, aims to be a year-round facility.