Good news, everyone! Astronomers have determined the best place on Earth to study the stars. But if you are an amateur astronomer who hopes to take advantage of this astronomically sweet place, you will have to bond, as it is in the heart of Antarctica, one of the coldest places on the planet.
Dome A – the tallest ice dome in the Antarctic Plateau – allows the clearest views of the starry sky at night, according to the new research published this week in Nature. Ice domes are the uppermost parts of the ice sheets, rising high above the frozen terrain. Dome A of Antarctica, although an ideal place for stars, is one of the best the coldest places on Earth, with a temperature such as low as –130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius). It’s close night time on Mars,,
So while the new document offers an optimal place to perform astronomy, the remote location of Dome A, also known as Dome Argus, presents some significant challenges. Scientists hoping to set up camp in this place, in addition to dealing with the severe cold, will have to travel 740 miles (1,200 kilometers) inland Antarctica.
Light pollution is a problem for both professional and amateur astronomers, but it has a clearer view of the night sky than avoiding street lights and skyscrapers. Atmospheric turbulence, by giving stars their characteristic moments, can interfere with clear views of space. Medium-latitude and high-altitude telescopes, such as those in Hawaii and Chile, are ideal in this regard, as these observatories take advantage of the weaker turbulence found in these locations.
Astronomers have a metric called a visible number to denote the quality of the view of the night sky, which they measure in arcs. The smaller the number, the lower the turbulence and thus the better the view of stars, galaxies, nebulae and many other astronomers hope to see. In Hawaii and Chile, the number of sightings is about 0.6 to 0.8 arcs.
In Dome C, another ice dome located on the Antarctic Plateau, this number is between 0.23 and 0.36 arseconds, highlighting the frozen continent as an ideal place to explore the night sky. Here the boundary layer – the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere – is extremely thin, which leads to less turbulence.
Dome C is great, but as the new paper shows, Dome A is probably better. An international team from China, Canada and Australia made night measurements at this place, which has not been done before, finding an average number of views 0.31 arcs and low of 0.13 arseconds.
The researchers also made a comparative analysis of the two sites in Antarctica. Measurements from dome A at 8 feet were much better than measurements made at the same height at dome C. In fact, measurements from dome A at that height were equivalent to measurements taken at 66 feet (20 meters) in Dome C, revealing the former as a superb place.
“A telescope located in Dome A could perform a similar telescope located on any other astronomical object on the planet,” explained Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study, in a statement to SBC. “The combination of high altitude, low temperature, long periods of continuous darkness and an extremely stable atmosphere makes Dome A a very attractive place for optical and infrared astronomy. The telescope located there would have sharper images and could detect paler objects. “
Not surprisingly, the cold had a detrimental effect on the instruments used in the study, as the researchers’ equipment was at a disadvantage from freezing. An undeveloped station equipped with a differential motion monitor tracks the Antarctic sky for seven months, with temperatures dropping to –103 degrees Fahrenheit (-75 degrees Celsius) at times. In a press release, Bin Ma, the study’s first author and scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said: “This is a technological breakthrough in itself.” A solution to the frostbite problem could improve viewing by 10% up to 12%, according to the study.
In addition to astronomy, Dome A “is a natural laboratory for studying the formation and dissipation of turbulence in the boundary layer,” the authors wrote in their paper. “Future measurements of the weather, visibility and turbulence profile at low altitudes could contribute to a better understanding of the Antarctic atmosphere.”
It is clear that building an observatory on the Antarctic Plateau would be huge logistical endeavor. Supplies and staff will have to be involved, while the structure itself will have to withstand extremes stud and probably even shifts in the ice. Climate change is likely to be additional complications.
Scientists have finally determined the best place on Earth for astronomy, but will they actually do so? We are glad to find out.