Exploring the Heavens From Antarctica's Highest Point

COLLEGE STATION, Texas, February 6, 2008 (ENS) – A team of scientists representing six international institutions has established a unique robotic astronomical observatory at Dome Argus on the highest point of the Antarctic Plateau.

Two weeks after arriving January 11 at “Dome A” for only the second time in history, the expedition team led by the Polar Research Institute of China, PRIC, completed installation of a revolutionary fully robotic observatory that Texas A&M astrophysicist Dr. Lifan Wang predicts will result in new insights into the universe once possible only from space.

Scientists from the United States, the UK, Australia and China contributed to the project. Wang is the link between the Texas and the Chinese parts of the team. The physics professor at Texas A&M University is also head of the Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy.

Dr. Zhou Xu of the National Astronomical
Observatory of China at Dome Argus,
Antarctica. January 18, 2008. (Photo
courtesy UNSW)

“Dome A is believed to be the best site for ground-based astronomy,” explains Wang, one of the leaders of the scientific planning phase of the expedition.

“Unlike the stormy Antarctic coast, the plateau is a very quiet place with very low wind speed. It is the coldest and driest place on Earth. These are critical conditions of a good site at which to build an observatory,” he said.

On January 26, the PRIC team buttoned up their instruments and the PLATeau Observatory or PLATO, within the snug confines of the newly installed ground station.

They then boarded their snow tractors for the 18 day, nearly non-stop return trip to the coast of Antarctica, leaving PLATO and their telescopes behind for an 11 month period, expecting that they will make astronomical history.

“This permanent facility marks the culmination of centuries of effort to find the best location on the planet from which to observe the universe,” Wang says. “With a telescope at Dome A, it is possible to achieve near-space quality images at a much lower cost than launching a telescope into space.”

Built by the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, PLATO is designed to operate on its own for up to 12 months at a time while sending back data via the Iridium satellite network.

Powered by an array of solar panels during summer and small, high-efficiency diesel engines through the darkest winter months, it will be efficient as well as environmentally friendly, according to its developers.

“By minimizing the need for human support, robotic facilities such as PLATO will play an important role in the future of Antarctic research,” says the Dr. Jon Lawrence from the University of New South Wales, who led PLATO’s development.

A global team of scientists will be contributing PLATO’s instruments as part of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year.

Thousands of scientists from more than 60 nations are conducting 200 projects examining a range of physical, biological and social research topics as part of the International Polar Year.

PLATO’s site-testing instruments include cameras that will measure the darkness of the sky, an acoustic radar to measure atmospheric turbulence and a monitor for very short microwave astronomy.

Seven telescopes – four from China, two from the California Institute of Technology, and one from the University of Arizona and the University of Exeter that is partially funded by the National Science Foundation – will take unique images of the heavens toward the South Pole.

One of the most important experiments is a set of four telescopes built at Purple Mountain Observatory, Nanjing, and the Nanjing Institute of Astronomical Optics Technology.

Each of the 14.5 centimeter diameter telescopes is equipped with a different filter so that each can observe the sky in a different color or wavelength. The telescopes can view a large field of the sky toward the South Pole area. The system will generate continuous movies of the sky lasting four months.

“This is a scientific study that can only be done in Antarctica,” Wang explains. “We will be able to study the variability of the stars and search for planets around those far-away stars.”

The 17 person PRIC team began its trek to Dome A in November 2007, leaving Shanghai aboard the Xue Long icebreaker and sailing to Fremantle, Australia.

There, they were met by the seven ton PLATO observatory, which had made the 4,000 kilometer journey across the Nullabor Plain from Sydney by road.

After a further 18 days crossing the Southern Ocean, the Xue Long arrived at Zhongshan station, adjacent to Australia’s Davis Station on the Antarctic coast.

At this point, PLATO was loaded onto a sled and filled with the 4,000 liters of jet fuel that will power it throughout the winter.

PLATO at Dome Argus, Antarctica’s highest
point. It is now observing on its own
and the scientists who set it up have
departed for warmer climates.
(Photo courtesy) UNSW Sydney [mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au]

The six-tractor caravan then covered the 1,300 kilometer overland traverse from Zhongshan to Dome A in just three weeks. They arrived at the historic site on January 11 for the first time since a PRIC team made the initial journey three years earlier to install an automatic weather station and evaluate the site’s suitability for a permanent station.

Built to withstand some of the most extreme conditions on Earth, PLATO must endure temperatures that drop to minus 90 degrees Celsius in winter as well as air pressure barely half of that at sea level.

The facility must operate completely unattended until the Chinese expeditioners return in January 2009, as there will be no human being within 600 kilometers (400 miles) of Dome A now that the traverse team has departed.

During the next few years, China will spend more than US$25 million constructing a permanent station at Dome A. Already there are plans to build an array of large, wide-field telescopes there to generate additional movies of the sky.

Astronomers now are working on the construction of the Antarctic Schmidt Telescopes, or AST3, a system of three, half-meter telescopes expected to find planets around other stars about the size of Earth, hundreds of supernovas useful for cosmological studies and many other variable objects.

To find out more about upcoming International Polar Year activities, visit http://www.ipy.org [www.ipy.org].

To view a complete log of the traverse, photographs and related information, visit http://mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au/~mcba/plato/ [mcba11.phys.unsw.edu.au].

To learn more about Wang and his research, click here [www.physics.tamu.edu].

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