An Antarctic ice dome may offer the world’s clearest views of the night sky

A spot in East Antarctica could be an ideal place for an optical observatory, researchers say

Milky Way from the Antarctic Peninsula

Antarctica offers some pretty spectacular views of the night sky, like this image of the Milky Way taken on the Antarctic Peninsula. Now, researchers have found that a high-altitude site in East Antarctica may offer the world's clearest views of the celestial sphere.

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An observatory in the heart of Antarctica could have the world’s clearest views of the night sky.

If an optical telescope were built on a tower a few stories tall in the middle of the Antarctic Plateau, it could discern celestial features about half the size of those typically visible to other observatories, researchers report online July 29 in Nature. The observatory would achieve such sharp vision by peering above the atmosphere’s lowermost layer, known as the boundary layer, responsible for much of the undulating air that muddles telescope images (SN: 10/4/18).

The thickness of Earth’s boundary layer varies across the globe. Near the equator, it can be hundreds of meters thick, limiting the vision of premier optical telescopes in places like the Canary Islands and Hawaii (SN: 10/14/19). Those telescopes usually cannot pick out celestial features smaller than 0.6 to 0.8 arc seconds — the apparent width of a human hair from about 20 meters away.

“But in Antarctica, the boundary layer is really thin,” says Bin Ma, an astronomer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, “so it is possible to put a telescope above.”

Ma and colleagues took the first-ever measurements of nighttime atmospheric blur from the highest point in East Antarctica, called Dome A. From April to August 2019, instruments on an 8-meter-tall tower at China’s Kunlun research station tracked how Earth’s atmospheric turbulence distorted incoming starlight. A nearby weather station also monitored atmospheric conditions, such as temperature and wind speed. Using these observations, researchers characterized the boundary layer at Dome A and its effect on telescope observations.

Kunlun research station
From April to August 2019, instruments atop an 8-meter-tall tower at China’s Kunlun research station in East Antarctica observed how the local atmosphere distorted light from celestial objects.Zhaohui Shang

The boundary layer was, on average, about 14 meters thick; as a result, the light sensors at the top of the 8-meter tower were completely free of boundary layer blur only about one-third of the time. But when these instruments were above the layer, atmospheric interference was so low that a telescope could pick out details on the sky 0.31 arc seconds across, on average. The best recorded atmospheric conditions would let a telescope see features as small as 0.13 arc seconds.

“One-tenth of an arc second is extremely good,” says Marc Sarazin, an applied physicist at the European Southern Observatory in Munich who was not involved in the work. This is “really something you rarely achieve in Chile or on Mauna Kea” in Hawaii.

Researchers have found similarly excellent visibility above the boundary layer at another spot on the Antarctic Plateau, known as Dome C. But the boundary layer there is around 30 meters thick — making it more difficult to build an observatory above it. An optical telescope planned for construction on a 15-meter tower at Kunlun could take advantage of Dome A’s stellar views above the boundary layer, Ma says. Such crisp telescope images could help astronomers study a range of celestial objects, from solar system bodies to distant galaxies.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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