February 13, 2008

Loneliest Observatory in Antarctica Looks to the Stars

A new
robotic observatory at the highest point of the Antarctic Plateau will
continuously survey the skies on its own for almost a year.

The coldest
and driest place on Earth makes an ideal location for stargazing without much
in the way of clouds or bad weather — not to mention Antarctica's four months of complete darkness.

taking 10-second exposures of the sky for four months," said Lifan Wang, a Texas A&M astrophysicist who
compared the hoped-for final results with "a movie of the sky."


Getting the
(PLATO) to Antarctica
required international cooperation among scientists from more than 60 nations.
Wang helped organize the first meetings in Beijing, China, where scientists identified an
Antarctic site called Dome A as the perfect place for an observatory. However,
the frigid and isolated site also presents a challenge to keep the observatory
running smoothly.

PLATO will
power itself with solar
during the Antarctic summer and switch to high-efficiency engines
that consume a total of 1,057 gallons (4,000 liters) of jet fuel during the
long winter months, when the sun does not shine.

one barrel of fuel to Dome A costs nine barrels of fuel," Wang noted, giving
credit to the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) for stepping up to fund
the operating costs and the expedition that installed PLATO.


PRIC-led team picked up the 7-ton PLATO observatory in Fremantle, Australia, before sailing to Antarctica on the Xue
Long "Snow Dragon" icebreaker
. Upon arrival at Zhongshan station on the
Antarctic coast, the team set out in six snow
to cross 800 miles and reach Dome A. They arrived three weeks
later on Jan. 11, marking only the second time that humans have reached the
summit of Antarctica.

scientists and engineers finished installing PLATO before the end of January,
using silicone glue and steel cut from cans to repair oil leaks in the diesel
engines. Their departure means the observatory will now operate remotely until
another Chinese expedition returns in January 2009.

"Most of
the equipment was built without moving mechanical parts," Wang said, ensuring
that PLATO is "reliable and robust enough to function on its own for a year"
with little human support.

eyes consist of seven telescopes, including four from China, two from Caltech and one from the University of Arizona and the University of Exeter. Built and operated by the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, the observatory will beam data back via satellite to

The four
telescopes from China — built by the Purple Mountain
Observatory in Nanjing and the Nanjing Institute of
Astronomical Optics Technology — will view more than 8,000 stars through
different colors and wavelengths during the Antarctic night. Wang hopes to
study the changes in stars as they grow brighter or dimmer, and also to detect
some supernovas.

More to

China will spend more than $25 million in
the next few years to build a permanent station at Dome A, along with an array
of wide-field telescopes to take more movies of the sky.

astronomers from the United States, China and Australia are working on 1.6-foot Antarctic Schmidt Telescopes (AST3)
that can find Earth-sized planets around other stars, supernovas and many other
changing objects in the sky.

expects the new telescopes to be installed at Dome A two years from now. The
ability for PLATO to continuously scan the Antarctic night sky for months will
give Wang and other astronomers the chance to discover hundreds of supernovas
and Jupiter-sized planets, as well as perhaps a few Earth-sized cousins.

loneliest and most alien
will thus continue to serve as a natural observatory for
astronomers to peer out into the new space frontier.

"Antarctica provided this excellent opportunity
for us to [be on the] forefront [of] science," Wang said.