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Despite Chill Antarctica Offers Heavenly View To Astronomers

On site at Dome C.
by Guy Clavel
Concordia Base (AFP) Antarctica, Feb 9, 2007
To be perched under pollution-free, open skies on the Antarctic Plateau 3.2 kilometers (10,400 feet) above sea level is a professional stargazer's dream come true, even if the cold is deep enough to freeze your blood. Armed with a small telescope and a photometer to measure light intensity, Herve Trinquet, from the University Astrophysics Laboratory in the southern French city of Nice, gazes out on an unblemished celestial vault.

With other colleagues from France and Italy, Trinquet is assessing the optical qualities of the Antarctic sky.

It is part of the groundwork for the AstroConcordia Observatory, the toughest yet possibly the most rewarding place on the planet from which to view the cosmos.

At the Franco-Italian base of Concordia, also called Dome C, atmospheric turbulence which muddies the view from most other spots on the planet is reduced to a minimum.

"It's at a height of about 30 meters (100 feet) in winter, which is unique in the world," says Trinquet.

What's more, he adds, 90 percent of that turbulence is near ground level, rather than distributed in several different layers ascending toward the heavens.

Besides the purity of the atmosphere, Dome C is also well suited for an infrared telescope, which collects long-wave radiation emitted by faint celestial objects.

Djamel Mekarnia, from the French Center for Scientific Research's observatory in the Cote d'Azur, is observing a star with a pair of 30-centimetre (12-inch) optical telescopes, one on the ground, the other on a platform eight meters (25 feet) high.

As the Antarctic summer subsides, Mekarnia has a telescope trained on the never-setting sun. In the looming winter, when night will descend for three months, he will target the Moon. Next year, he will power up by several magnitudes, with a new telescope that he hopes will be able to detect planets outside the Solar System.

Nearby, Italian teams are installing six telescopes to detect light in the infrared and millimetric part of the energy spectrum.

Antarctic's forbiddingly hostile temperatures are both an advantage and an impediment.

Average temperatures ranging from -30 C (-22 F) in summer to -60 C (-76 F) in winter make for clear viewing to due lowered thermal emissions.

But they can also frost up the mirror in the telescopes and make for arduous working conditions. Contact lenses are banned, and just to place your ungloved hand on naked metal will cause agonising frostbite.

The big goal is to build something called the Keops Project, a network of 36 telescopes with 1.5-meter (60-inch) mirrors, spaced evenly in a circle one kilometer (1,400 yards) across. It could be in place in 2008, Trinquet says. The light will be combined by an instrument called an interferometer, to produce a cleaner, sharper and wider image than could be achieved by a single telescope.

The task faces a twin logistical challenge of transporting tonnes of material across a vast frozen wasteland, and building a world-class observatory on a sheet of ice thousands of kilometers (miles) from the nearest natural human habitat.

The French first set up a scientific base at Concordia in 1992. In the summer months of November through March, the station -- a pair of snow-white three-storey cylinders connected by a passageway along with several technical structures -- can accommodate more than 30 scientists and staff.

But they can only reach the base by an arduous voyage, through wave-tossed seas full of icebergs, aboard the supply ship Astrolabe, and then overland by helicopter and snow tractor. In the Sun-deprived winters, with their long days of 24-hour darkness, the population plummets to 16 or fewer.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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