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AAO Press Releases

Thursday, 21 January 1993

Australian Antarctic astronomy

Australian astronomers are looking to the Antarctic as a possible site for a major astronomical observatory. Preliminary research has shown that the Antarctic Plateau has great potential as an astronomical site. The extreme cold, high altitude and the incredibly dry air of the Plateau all combine to make it a superb site for astronomical observations from infrared to millimetre wavelengths. These exceptional observing conditions will allow astronomers to undertake areas of research not possible from other ground based telescopes.

An agreement has recently been made to work with US scientists at the South Pole to explore the suitability of the Antarctic for infrared astronomy.

This agreement, between the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), the University of New South Wales and the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA), based at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, USA, will enable scientists to collaborate on a project which will ultimately determine the suitability of the Antarctic Plateau as a site for a major astronomical observatory.

The best potential site is the highest part of the Plateau, Dome A. It lies within the Australian Antarctic Territory, over 4,000 metres above sea level, and may be many times better than the prime sites currently used by astronomers for their observatories, high mountain summits in deserts or volcanic islands.

The next phase of the project is to determine exactly how good the Antarctic Plateau is for astronomy &emdash; to do this scientists need to measure the brightness of the sky at infrared wavelengths. For all astronomical observations the fainter the sky the better, and at infrared wavelengths the sky brightness is related to the temperature. The extreme cold of Antarctica (sometimes 90°C below zero) means that the infrared sky brightness will be very much lower than any site within the Australian continent.

The "Infrared Photometer Spectrometer" (IRPS), an instrument built by the Anglo-Australian Observatory, is uniquely capable of these measurements.

The IRPS is being refurbished by staff at the AAO, and scientists from the University of New South Wales are developing software to run the instrument from a portable computer. In mid 1993, when these initial stages are completed, the instrument will go to Yerkes Observatory in the USA to be modified to tolerate the extreme climate of the Antarctic, and for tests on a new telescope CARA is modifying for use at the South Pole.

In December 1994, the IRPS is scheduled to be transported to the Antarctic to commence a program to measure the brightness of the infrared sky. To take advantage of existing infrastructure, these initial tests will be carried out at the South Pole. The data will be transmitted electronically back to the University of NSW for analysis.

This information will allow astronomers to gauge exactly how good the conditions are for astronomy. If they are as good as expected, the next step will be the construction of an observatory at the South Pole, followed by the investigation of other sites on the Antarctic Plateau, including Dome A itself.

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Roger Bell
01 Jan 1998