The ‘coolest’ place for astronomy

High on the Antarctic Plateau, in one of the coldest places on Earth, a group of telescopes are peering through stellar dust clouds into the heart of our galaxy.

The cold helps counteract interference from the telescopes and surrounding equipment, which can hinder our ability to see relatively
‘cool’ objects in space, such as asteroids, young stars, and interstellar gas.

The skies above China’s Kunlun Station, based in the Australian Antarctic Territory, are not only cold, but dry, calm, and free of
light pollution. This makes it the perfect place for infrared telescopes, which can also see through dust.

Setting up equipment in Antarctica is not easy: it needs to work through the dark of a long winter and temperatures as low as -80°C. But for more than a decade, Australian and Chinese astronomers have been combining their expertise to overcome these challenges, demonstrating the value and viability of Antarctic astronomy.

PLATO-A (Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Their success has led to a solid consortium of Chinese-Australian researchers, with plans to expand their exploration of the skies— including a $70 million telescope similar in size to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Kunlun ‘KDUST’ Dark Universe Telescope will use optical and infrared light to search for Earth-like planets, probe dark matter, and study the formation of the first stars. KDUST builds on the successful AST3 pathfinder telescopes installed by China at Kunlun.

“Both countries have made what can only be described as heroic efforts to ensure that equipment is delivered on time and made to operate at Kunlun Station,” says Professor Michael Ashley of the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He was part of the original Australian team that began working with Professor Lifan Wang, Professor Ji Yang, and colleagues from Purple Mountain Observatory and other Chinese institutions in 2004.

“The plans to install new state-of-the-art telescopes at the best observing site on the Earth’s surface are a tribute to the expertise and trust that each country has brought to the consortium,” says Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt, co-chair of the consortium.

The collaboration began in 2004, when a Chinese expedition travelled over 1,200 km, and carried with them a small telescope built at UNSW to monitor the cloud coverage during the Antarctic winter. China then established a research base, Kunlun Station, at Dome Argus (a massive ice dome that rises 4,000 metres above sea level), followed by the first automatic observatory, (PLATeau Observatory), and its upgrade, PLATO-A, which were both designed and built at UNSW. PLATO has hosted eight instruments from five countries, looking for planets and supernovae, mapping the Milky Way, and measuring atmospheric distortion and the brightness of the sky.

The collaboration is supported by the Australian-ChinA ConsortiuM for Astrophysical Research (ACAMAR) with the support of the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Australian Government, Astronomy Australia Limited and various universities.


The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder in the
West Australian desert (Credit: Neal Pritchard)

The Square Kilometre Array, now under construction in Africa and Australia, will comprise thousands of receiver dishes. It will help in the search for dark energy; look back to the Big Bang; and seek out Earth-like planets. A Chinese-led consortium is developing SKA dishes and revealed a prototype in February 2018.

A natural basin in the Guizhou mountains is now home to the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is using radio receivers developed by CSIRO that can simultaneously capture and process 19 different radio signals from space. In 2017 FAST made its first discovery when it found two pulsars which were then confirmed by Australia’s Parkes Observatory.

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Header image: Kunlun Research Station (Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences).