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This is the best place in the world to watch stars – if you can handle it

A differential image motion monitor that scientists used to observe possible turbulence in the Antarctic sky.

A differential image motion monitor that scientists used to observe possible turbulence in the Antarctic sky.
image:: Zhaohui Shang

Good news everyone! Astronomers have found the best place on Earth to study the stars. But if you’re an amateur astronomer who wants to take advantage of this astronomical sweet spot, you’ll need to band together because it’s in the heart of Antarctica. one of the coldest places on the planet.

Dome A – the highest ice dome on the Antarctic plateau – offers the clearest view of the starry sky at night research published this week in Nature. Ice domes are the uppermost parts of the ice sheet that rise high above the frozen terrain. Antarctica’s Dome A is an ideal place for stargazing, but one of the coldest places on earth, with temperatures as low how –130 degrees Fahrenheit (-90 degrees Celsius). It is similar Night on Mars.


While the new paper suggests an optimal location for astronomy, the remote location of Dome A, also known as Dome Argus, poses some significant challenges. Scientists who hope to be able to camp at this location will have to travel 1,200 kilometers inside the Antarctic continent in addition to coping with the extreme cold.

Light pollution is a problem for both professional and amateur astronomers. However, a clear view of the night sky is more than avoiding street lights and skyscrapers. Atmospheric turbulence, while giving the stars their distinctive sparkle, can obstruct a clear view of space. Mid-latitude and high-altitude telescopes such as those in Hawaii and Chile are ideal in this regard because these observatories take advantage of the weaker turbulence at these locations.

Astronomers have a metric called a visual number the quality of the night sky view, which they measure in arc seconds. The lower the number, the less the turbulence and thus a better view of stars, galaxies, nebulae and everything else that astronomers want to see. In Hawaii and Chile, the visual number is between 0.6 and 0.8 arcseconds.

In Dome C, another ice dome on the Antarctic Plateau, this number is between 0.23 and 0.36 arcseconds and underlines the frozen continent as an ideal place to look at the night sky. Here the boundary layer – the lowest part of the earth’s atmosphere – is exceptionally 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 carried out night measurements at this location that had not been carried out before and found a medium number of people 0.31 arcseconds and a low of 0.13 arcseconds.

The researchers also carried out a comparative analysis of the two Antarctic locations. Measurements of dome A at 8 meters were much better than measurements of dome C at the same height. In fact, measurements of dome A at this height corresponded to measurements of 20 meters. in dome C, the former being disclosed as a superior location.

“A telescope in Dome A could outperform a similar telescope that is in a different astronomical location on the planet.” explained Paul Hickson, 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 exceptionally stable atmosphere makes Dome A a very attractive location for optical and infrared astronomy. A telescope located there would have sharper images and could detect weaker objects. “

Not surprisingly, the cold had a detrimental effect on the instruments used in the study, as researchers’ equipment was disadvantaged by frost. A station equipped with a differential image motion monitor tracked the Antarctic sky for seven years Months with temperatures dropping up –103 degrees Fahrenheit (-Sometimes 75 degrees Celsius). In the press release, Bin Ma, first author of the study and scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said: “In and of itself, this is a technological breakthrough.” A solution to the frost problem could improve the display by 10% until 12%according to the study.

In addition to astronomy, Dome A is “a natural laboratory for studies on the formation and derivation of turbulence within the boundary layer”, the authors wrote in their work. “Future measurements of weather, vision and turbulence profile at a low altitude could help to better understand the Antarctic atmosphere.”

It would be clear that the construction of an observatory on the Antarctic Plateau would be enormous logistic company. Supplies and personnel would have to be flown in, while the structure itself would have to endure the extreme cold and possibly even shifts in the ice. Climate change would likely represent additional complications.

Scientists have finally found the best place on earth to do astronomy, but will they actually make it? We are happy to find out.

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