Good news, everyone! Astronomers have determined the best place on Earth to study the stars. But if you’re an amateur astronomer hoping to take advantage of this astronomically sweet place, you’ll have to get in touch, like in the heart of Antarctica, one of the coldest places on the planet.
Dome A – the highest ice dome on the Antarctic Plateau – allows you to make the clearest views of the starry sky at night, according to the new research published this week in Nature. Ice domes are the highest part of the ice cover, rising high above the frozen terrain. The dome of Antarctica A, although an ideal place for starfish, is one of them the coldest places on Earth, characterized by the temperature as low as –130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius). It’s like night time on Mars.
So while the new document offers an optimal place for 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 fighting the extreme cold, will have to travel 740 miles (1,200 kilometers) to the interior of the Antarctic continent.
Light pollution is a problem for both professional and amateur astronomers, but for a clear view of the night sky is more than avoiding street lamps and skyscrapers. Atmospheric turbulence, giving stars characteristic flicker-flicker, can interfere with clear views of space. In this regard, medium-latitude and high-altitude telescopes are ideal, for example, in Hawaii and Chile, as these observatories take advantage of the less turbulence found in these locations.
Astronomers must denote a metric called the number of visions the quality of the night sky view, which they measure in arcs of a second. The smaller the number, the less turbulence, and therefore the better view of stars, galaxies, nebulae and everything else that astronomers hope to see. In Hawaii and Chile, the number of visions is about 0.6 to 0.8 arcs per second.
On Dome C, another ice dome located on the Antarctic Plateau, this number ranges from 0.23 to 0.36 seconds, highlighting the frozen continent as an ideal place to view 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 document shows, Dome A is probably the best. An international team from China, Canada and Australia conducted night measurements at the site, which had not been done before, finding an average number of visions. 0.31 arc second and a low 0.13 arc second.
The researchers also conducted a comparative analysis of the two Antarctic areas. Measurements from Dome A at 8 feet (26 meters) were much better than measurements made at the same height on Dome C. In fact, measurements from Dome A at that height were equivalent to measurements made at 66 feet (20 meters) on the Dome. C, revealing the former as the best place.
“A telescope located on Dome A may be ahead of a similar telescope located at any other astronomical location on the planet,” explained Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study, in a UBC press release. “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 clearer images and could detect weaker objects. “
Not surprisingly, the cold had a detrimental effect on the tools used in the study, as the researchers’ equipment was depleted of frost. An unscrewed station equipped with a differential image motion monitor tracks the Antarctic sky for seven months, while the temperature drops to –103 degrees Fahrenheit (-75 degrees Celsius) sometimes. In a press release, Bin Ma, the study’s first author and scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said: “This in itself is a technological breakthrough.” Frostbite solution can 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 scattering of turbulence in the boundary layer,” the authors wrote in their work. “Future measurements of weather, visibility and altitude profile of turbulence may contribute to a better understanding of the Antarctic atmosphere.”
It is clear that the construction of an observatory on the Antarctic Plateau would be huge logistics company. Supplies and personnel had to arrive, while the structure itself had to go to extremes cold and may even shift in the ice. Climate change is likely to cause additional complications.
Scientists have finally determined the best place on Earth for astronomy, but will they really do it? We are glad to learn about it.