Scientists point to the best place on Earth to see the universe at night

Aurora and stars seen from US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in July 2020

Geoff Chen

If you want to get the best possible view of the stars from below on Earth, then you need to prepare for a long trip to the coldest place on the planet. About 650 miles from the eastern edge of Antarctica you will find yourself on an ancient-white plateau, which extends to the horizon: Dom a.

A new study by Chinese researchers at the research station located in Dome A, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, suggests it may be the best place on Earth for astronomers to survey the sky. But you have to get there first.

The trek to Dom A is intense.

First of all, you’ve got to Antarctica. It’s not hard these days, but you need to get an icebreaker so that you can be dropped on the East Antarctic coastline. A helicopter takes you by ship on the icy continent, and then the actual journey begins. From there, you make your way across the snow in a vehicle like a shipping container, pulled by a tractor at about 6 miles (10 kilometers) per hour. It takes about two weeks to arrive at your destination.

Only then can you start setting your telescope on an eight meter high platform in the middle of the ice desert.

That’s exactly what the team of researchers did during the summer of 2018-19 – and they report that atmospheric conditions are so good that their views of the night sky are unlike anything else on Earth.

“The experience was unique and exciting,” says Zhaohui Shang, one of the researchers who was part of the expedition and co-authored the study. “We had a lot of intense work to do, with only 3 weeks in the summer at Dom A.”


Location of Dom a.

Google Map

Immaculate skies

Dome A has long been considered a great place for star-gazing. But what is the coldest place on earth to see the universe?

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

“If you go to a nice dark place, you see that the stars are flickering and the twinkling is bad.”

This is not helpful for astronomers, says Ashley, because of the Earth’s atmosphere and creating the image of the universe. But in Antarctica, there is very little turbulence, as it is very flat and winds are very light throughout the region.

“If you simply have winds blowing on the surface of a dead-flat ice, there is no chance of disturbance arising,” he explains.


Snow to see you: telescope set up in Dome a.

In addition, water vapor can play havoc with astronomy because it absorbs light, especially in infrared wavelengths. But Antarctica is very dry – the water freezes – and it is of great benefit to those who study the sky. Especially if you want to study the universe in millimeter wavelengths, as does the Atacama array in the Chilika Desert.

Ashley says, “We’ve taken the Teratz telescope there and got great data.

“And we are much better than Atacama in terms of site conditions.”

Observations from binoculars in Dome A are almost two and a half times better than you can see at some of the best Earth-based observatories in Chile or Hawaii.

China is planning to build another infrared optical telescope on a site known as the Kunlun Dark Universe Survey Telescope, KDUST. It has been in operation for nearly a decade and will give China a telescope, nearly twice as large as the location.

“At the moment, it has stalled in a review,” Ashley says. “I think they are watching it very closely. And I think this nature paper should do a lot to push it a little bit.”

China’s recent scientific efforts are even ahead of the earth. Last week, the country Tianwen-1 mission started. A spacecraft carrying three robot explorers Route to mars And is expected to arrive there in February 2021.

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