China has identified a huge chunk of a permanent “blue ice” sheet at the heart of the Antarctic for the nation’s first airport on the continent.

And there has been talk about using the People’s Liberation Army’s strategic airlifter Y-20 to haul cargo and scientific equipment from China all the way to the southernmost continent.

The site was recently chosen by China’s 35th Antarctic research expedition team, and it lies about 10 kilometers from the team’s base, Zhongshan Station in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay in East Antarctica.

Drills and sensors were placed by surveyors to gauge the thickness of the ice sheet. Meteorological data of the site have also been collected by previous expeditions.

Blue ice is exposed in areas of the Antarctic where there is no net addition or subtraction of snow. That is, any snow that falls in that area is counteracted by sublimation or other losses. These areas have been used as runways because of their hard surface, which is suitable for aircraft with wheels rather than skis.

“Blue ice has good bearing capacity, impact resistance and stability,” Xinhua quoted Sun Bo, the leader of the expedition team, as saying.

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China’s Zhongshan Station. Photo: Xinhua
The PLA's Y-20 airlifter. Photo: Handout
The Y-20 airlifter is currently the largest aircraft in service with the PLA. Photo: PLA Daily

China has no permanent airfield to serve its five Antarctic stations. There are currently eight blue-ice airports operated by other countries across the Antarctic.

The PLA’s Y-20 transport aircraft and Airbus and Boeing long-range commercial passenger planes can all take off and land on a blue-ice runway without modifying their landing gears, Sun said.

He said another form of Antarctic airstrip, the skiway, based on snow rather than ice, needed constant maintenance, and an aircraft must be equipped with sled landing gear to take off and land. Larger airlifters like the Y-20 cannot use a skiway.

Dong Yue, a research fellow at the polar research institute of the Qingdao-based Ocean University of China, said deploying the chubby Y-20 would be a must as China would need to transport more personnel and supplies to its five stations across the Antarctic, and researchers also would need to take samples back to China.

But the Y-20 may need to be refueled midway, in Malaysia or Australia, before touching down at China’s future Antarctic airport. The maximum operation range of the Y-20 with full payload of 66 metric tons is 4,500 kilometers.

Chinese expedition teams previously used Russia’s Progress Skiway, but the 35th Antarctic research expedition team is building an experimental skiway near Zhongshan Station, according to Xinhua.

Also, a total of 1,605 tons of supplies have been transported from China’s research icebreaker Xuelong to the five stations.

Read more: China plans airstrip near one of five bases in Antarctica

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