South Pole Diaries 1999/2000    

   


This summer astronomers from the University of New South Wales are commissioning a suite of instruments for their AASTO observatory at the South Pole.  The AASTO, or Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory, is a self-powered laboratory capable of running a series of experiments autonomously through the long Antarctic winter. It will make measurements which will enable us to quantify exactly how good Antarctica will be for a future observatory.

Leading the expedition is Professor John Storey, making his sixth visit to the South Pole.  With him will be two experienced Antarctic campaigners, Andre Phillips and Paolo Calisse, with first hand experience of the Australian, British, Italian, New Zealand and US programs between them.  Three students are accompanying them.  Rodney Marks, having recently completed his PhD Thesis on the astronomical seeing in Antarctica, will be wintering over for a second time.  First year graduate student Jill Rathborne and honours student Jessica Dempsey will be venturing south for the first time.  They will become the first female Australian scientists to work at the South Pole.  Finally, Jon Everett, professional officer within the group, will also be making his first trip south.   Three scientists from the Australian National University will be accompanying them.

The team is deploying a suite of instruments which are capable of measuring the atmospheric conditions that affect the conduct of astronomy across the optical, infrared and sub-millimetre parts of the spectrum.  It is the most ambitious set of instrumentation to be taken south yet for the Antarctic astronomy program.  The instrumentation will operate autonomously over the winter of 2001, gathering data on the site conditions.  It is then planned to re-deploy the instrumentation to Dome C, one of the high points of the plateau in 2002.

 

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Diary entries for 1999/2000
 

Astronomy on the Antarctic Plateau

The unique combination of cold, dry and tenuous air makes the Antarctic Plateau the premier location on the Earth for the observation of light from distant stars and galaxies. The harsh Antarctic environment has till now prevented astronomers from utilising the great potential that the Plateau offers for the advancement of our knowledge of the Universe. Australian astronomers are leading international efforts aimed at constructing an observatory at the highest points of the plateau, in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Antarctica is not only the highest, driest and coldest of the continents, but on the plateau it is also the calmest place on Earth! The howling gales that are often associated with Antarctica are purely a coastal phenomenon! The Antarctic plateau is half way to space, and the performance of a telescope there would be second only to one in space. Constructing a large telescope in Antarctica, while undoubtedly a major engineering challenge, is however vastly cheaper than constructing it in space.

The AASTO

The AASTO is a mobile laboratory, capable of being deployed anywhere on the Antarctic plateau by ski-equipped Hercules aircraft.  It is being used to assess the potential of Antarctica for a future international astronomical observatory.  It is currently at the South Pole for integration with a variety of experiments.  It runs autonomously over the Antarctic winter, while providing its own power from low-pollution generators.  Once their operation has been verified, the AASTO will be re-deployed to the highest parts of the plateau, Domes A and C, lying in the Australian Antarctic Territory.  Here they will gather the data which will enable us to compare the relative merits of these sites for astronomy and, we hope, lead to the establishment of an international observatory on the pre-eminent site on the Earth in the first decade of the new millennium.

The AASTO project is being run by JACARA, the Joint Australian Centre for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica.  It is supported by the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University and the Australian Research Council, with seed money provided by the Australian Antarctic Foundation.  The total cost is $1 million.  The project is a collaboration with CARA, the US Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, who are funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation).  Their logistic support, valued at approximately $1 million, is provided free to us as part of this collaboration.

Australia and the Antarctic Plateau

  • Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia.  Some 42% of the continent comprises the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT).  Australia's presence in Antarctica, however, is confined to three coastal bases.
  • The USA, Russia and France / Italy operate bases in the vast inland Antarctic plateau of the AAT.  Here the unique climatic conditions enable new scientific programs to be undertaken.  Among these is the establishment of the ultimate Earth-based astronomical observatory.
  • Australia is leading international efforts to exploit the potential of the high Antarctic plateau for astronomy.  We are pioneering a new method of doing science, by developing an autonomous, mobile observatory which operates with minimal environmental impact, called the 'AASTO'.  The AASTO is now at the South Pole.  It was opened by Senator Robert Hill, Minister for the Environment, in January 1997.
  • The Australian Antarctic astronomy program has, over the past 6 years of effort at the South Pole, demonstrated the viability of the Antarctic plateau for astronomy and also shown that constructing and operating an observatory in the harsh environment is achievable.
  • It has also contributed to national prestige, as a flagship project for both our national Antarctic and astronomical programs.
  • It has established Australia's presence on the Antarctic plateau, where the bulk of the Australian Antarctic Territory lies.
  • It is funded from current budgets, with principal support from the Australian Research Council, and two major universities (UNSW and ANU).
  • A US consortium has now proposed the US$15 million AIRO, a 2-m size telescope for infrared astronomy at the South Pole.  The objectives for this telescope are based firmly upon exploiting the particular advantages of Antarctica that our program has pioneered.
  • The AIRO proposal is currently before the US National Science Foundation.  Australia is a member of the proposal, but only in name.  We are providing no financial contribution, merely our expertise and credibility to the program, and have no ownership or control.
  • Australia's Antarctic astronomy program is now at a cross-roads.  While its successes have paved the way for current international developments, unless we can move to a new level of commitment we will be unable to participate in the opportunities now before us.
  • Dome C, or even Dome A (sometimes called Dome Circe and Argus, respectively), both in the Australian Antarctic Territory, provide for the ultimate astronomical observing site on the surface of the Earth and will undoubtedly become a major focus for activity in the next millennium.
  • Australia has proposed the Douglas Mawson Telescope, a 2-m size telescope for infrared astronomy, to be constructed at Dome C.
  • Australia is in a position to play a leadership role in such development, both in the setting of policy and objectives, and in the return through scientific discovery and technology development.
  • However in order to assume this leadership role Australia needs to find a way to fund such activity.  The costs for major new facilities need to come from outside the traditional sources that support research activity.
  • Ultimately the return to Australian industry will be high.  Antarctica is an environment that provides a platform to develop aerospace technologies for a fraction of the cost of doing the same thing in space.  It is an investment in our future as an advanced technological nation.

 

Team Members

Visiting South Pole in January 2000
Name Position Dates at Pole
Professor John Storey  Head, School of Physics 12/1-26/1
Dr Andre Phillips Research Scientist  06/1-29/1
Mr Paolo Calisse Research Scientist 22/1-12/2
Mr Jon Everett Research Scientist 04/2-12/2
Mr Rodney Marks Graduate Student Wintering
Ms Jill Rathborne Graduate Student 12/1-21/1
Ms Jessica Dempsey Honours Student 06/1-15/1