From Antarctica to the Outback

Antarctica provides a clear view of the heavens

CHINESE ASTRONOMER XUEFEI GONG STANDING IN FRONT OF THE ENGINE MODULE FOR THE DOME A ROBOTIC OBSERVATORY. CREDIT: JOHN STOREY, UNSW.
CHINESE ASTRONOMER XUEFEI GONG STANDING IN FRONT OF THE ENGINE MODULE FOR THE DOME A ROBOTIC OBSERVATORY. CREDIT: JOHN STOREY, UNSW.

Robotic observatories designed and built in Australia to operate unattended throughout the polar winter have laid the groundwork for the future development of astronomy in Antarctica.

Known as PLATO (PLATeau Observatories), they generate their own heat and power from solar energy in summer and small, highly efficient diesel engines in winter, and house scientific instruments to analyse the surrounding environment with respect to making astronomical measurements. The data they have gathered confirms that Antarctica contains some of the best observing sites on Earth.

“It is very cold, very dry and very high,” says Professor John Storey of the University of New South Wales where PLATO was conceived and pioneered. “Antarctica also has very, very clear skies with good transparency. The atmosphere is stable, and there is no artificial light pollution or radio interference. In the terahertz range, for instance, the viewing conditions are ten times better than Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. That’s a staggering advantage.”

The work has been enough to convince China to begin construction of an observatory costing more than $25 million at Dome A in the centre of the continent, the highest point of the Antarctic plateau, an altitude of more than 4000 metres. It will be equipped with two 2.5-metre and three 0.5-metre telescopes. Japan and Europe are putting together plans to follow suit elsewhere on the central plateau. And US researchers are already working at the South Pole, where they have installed a ten metre diameter radio telescope and IceCube, a particle detector for neutrinos that extends over a cubic kilometre.

Australia is hoping to collaborate with the Chinese on key research projects looking at the early universe, the structure of dark matter and the structure of dark energy, says John, who is also the current head of the international body that co-ordinates astronomical research in Antarctica.

PHOTO: CHINESE ASTRONOMER XUEFEI GONG STANDING IN FRONT OF THE ENGINE MODULE FOR THE DOME A ROBOTIC OBSERVATORY. CREDIT: JOHN STOREY, UNSW.

Department of Physics, University of New South Wales
Professor John Storey, Tel: +61 (2) 9385 4578, j.storey@unsw.edu.au, http://mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au/~plato/; http://mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au/~plato-f/

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