Two NASA PistenBullys, like the once shown here, will be making a nearly 500-mile trek around the South Pole to document the landscape’s ice cover and elevation. (Credit: NASA)

At a time when most thoughts are of Santa Claus and the North Pole, NASA is instead looking in the opposite direction: the South Pole.

Two snow machines began the nearly 500-mile Antarctic trek yesterday. The expedition will last two to three weeks, in a barren landscape where temperatures may plunge below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the agency.

The unexplored terrain’s elevation and ice sheets are going to be measured by the “ground truth” mission. The dynamics of the continental changes to ice and elevation will be measured by a satellite to be launched next year, the Ice Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2).

“ICESat-2’s datasets are going to tell us incredible things about how Earth’s ice is changing, and what that means for things like sea level rise,” said Kelly Brunt, a leader on the team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is also a researcher at the University of Maryland. 

Brunt is leading the four-person expedition. She will be joined by Tom Neumann, deputy project scientist of the ICESat-2 program, and a mechanic and deep-field mountaineer.

The quartet will drive the machines, called PistenBullys, which will tow huge plastic sleds that are 60 feet long carrying tents, food equipment and fuel reserves.

Their route will take them through areas where sastrugi– sand dune-like ice formations– may at times block their path.

“The team will leave the South Pole along an established traverse line between the southernmost station and McMurdo,” said NASA in a statement. “Just after they reach 88 south, they will turn and follow the latitude line for about 186 miles. Then, they’ll turn back to the pole– creating a route like a misshapen piece of pie.

“At a pace of 30 to 45 miles a day, it will take at least a couple weeks to complete,” NASA added.

Measurements of the snow density will be taken along the way.