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Scientists will determine the best place on Earth to see the universe at night



Aurora and stars as seen from the US station Amundsen-Scott South Pole in July 2020

Aurora and stars as seen from the US station Amundsen-Scott South Pole in July 2020

Geoff Chen

To get the best possible view of the stars down here on Earth, you need to prepare for a long journey to the coldest place on the planet. About 650 kilometers inland from the eastern edge of Antarctica, you will find yourself on an untouched white plateau that extends to the horizon: Dome A.

A new study by Chinese scientists at the research station at House A, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, suggests that astronomers could be the best place to explore the sky. But you have to get there first.

The road to dome A is intense.

You must first get to Antarctica. It’s not that hard these days, but you have to take an icebreaker to leave you on the East Antarctic coast. The helicopter will take you from the ship to the icy continent and then the real journey will begin. From here you can get across the ice in a transport container vehicle, towed by a tractor at a speed of about 10 kilometers per hour. It takes about two weeks to reach the finish line.

Only then can you start setting up your binoculars on an 8-meter-high platform in the middle of the icy desert.

This is exactly what the team of scientists did during the summer of 2018-1919, and they report that the weather conditions are so good that their views of the night sky are different from those found anywhere else on Earth.

“This experience was unique and exciting,” says Zhaohui Shang, one of the scientists who was part of the expedition and co-author of the study. “We finished very intensive work, we only had about 3 weeks in House A in the summer.”

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Dome A. Location

Google Maps

Immaculate sky

Dome A has long been considered a great place to watch the stars. But what makes the coldest place on Earth especially good for seeing the universe?

“It’s atmospheric turbulence,” explains Michael Ashley, an astrophysicist at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the study.

“If you go somewhere in a good dark place, you’ll see the stars twinkle and the twinkle is bad.”

The blink, as Ashley says, is caused by the Earth’s atmosphere and is not useful to astronomers trying to view the universe. But there is very little turbulence in Antarctica because it is so flat and the winds that move around this area are extremely light.

“If only the wind blows over the dead surface of the snow, it is not possible to generate turbulence,” he explains.

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The ice I see you: a telescope built in House A.

In addition, water vapor can cause astronomy confusion because it absorbs light, especially at infrared wavelengths. However, Antarctica is very dry – the water freezes – and this is a huge advantage for those who want to study the sky. Especially if you want to study the universe in the millimeter wavelength, as the Atacama field in the Chilean desert does.

“We took a terahertz telescope there and got some amazing data,” says Ashley.

“In terms of web conditions, we are much better than Atacama.”

The observations from the telescopes in House A are about two and a half times better than what you could see at some of the best observatories on Earth in Chile or Hawaii.

China plans to build another infrared optical telescope at the site known as the Kunlun Dark Universe Survey Telescope, KDUST. It’s been in the works for about a decade, and you could see China placing binoculars in place, almost twice as big.

“Something is currently suspended in the evaluation,” says Ashley. “I think they are very careful. And I think this nature conservation document should go some way to push it a little. “

Recent Chinese scientific efforts extend beyond the Earth. Last week the country launched the Tianwen-1 missionThe spaceship, which has three robotic explorers, is on the way to Mars and is expected to arrive there in February 2021.


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