The Best Place on Earth

By Phil Plait | September 3, 2009 2:30 pm

… well, to observe astronomically, that is. It’s been found, and it’s not exactly your backyard: it’s in Antarctica, and moreover in a fairly remote spot.

Universe Today has more details. I love the idea that this spot has the best atmospheric conditions on Earth yet found, but I wonder 1) how they’re gonna build a big observatory there, and b) who will winter over to staff it?

And actually, c) will they stock a flamethrower?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (41)

  1. Mark AH

    a) MONEY, lots and lots of money.
    b) I’ll do it. As long as I have a good internet connection :)
    c) YES, or the whole thing is off…

  2. dhtroy

    HA! The Thing reference was classic Phil.

    Phil. Phil?!?! That is you … right …

  3. Becca Stareyes

    I presume some of it can be done observing remotely — I’m a grad student at Cornell, and our radio astronomers regularly do Arecibo observations from the building. (Granted, if given the choice between Ithaca and Puerto Rico, I’d choose Puerto Rico it I could.)

    I suppose the communications would be tricky — there aren’t many satellites that fly over 80°S.

  4. Robert E

    In response to c), the original 1951 version was much better.

  5. DavidHW

    Adam and Jamie of Mythbusters made a boat out of ice; why not a telescope mirror? :-)

  6. Paul Clapham

    So, okay, the seeing is good. But from there you can only see half the sky, right? Whereas from places like the Atacama desert you’re much closer to the equator and you can see much more of the sky.

  7. adam

    I seen a clip on The Colbert Report the other day on using weather ballons to lift telescopes into the upper atemosphere to do observations.

    Is this a viable alternative over a ground institution there?

    I’d imagine with it moving around in the wind you’d have a difficult time doing any imaging.

  8. Gary

    Is there really such a thing as a NON-remote spot in Antarctica? 😉

  9. Old Geezer

    While it would be good from an atmospheric standpoint, wouldn’t the view be more or less limited to things in the southern sky? IANAAstronomer so I don’t know these things, but just how far north in the sky could you see from there?

    Also, how does the “hole in the ozone” relate to clarity of view?

  10. I’ll work there!

    Working in Antarctica has actually been a dream of mine for a while. Pity I’m not an astronomer, but I’d gladly do IT support for the observatory. 😉

  11. Brian Schlosser

    @Robert E: Politely, sir, you are totally and 100% WRONG! BLASPHEMY! :-)

    “I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”

  12. Brent

    @Gary haha, may be McMurdo? I dunno, it’s only 1,258 people at most and I’m sure it’d still be considered remote…I mean they still have supplies shipped in to survive and it’s still pretty damn cold

  13. Brian Schlosser

    Seriously, though, wouldn’t building a base there kinda screw up the things that make it a good site? Light, humidity, vibrations?

  14. Brent

    @Joshua shoot I wish I had the link handy, I’m fairly sure there’s an IT on-site team somewhere in Antartica. I think they get their high-speed internet from GOES 8 or something like that. The link was an interview of the IT lead talking about what he does…I think it was a NY Times article, but I’m not sure. I read it like 6-12 months ago and it sounded like they had tours of like 1-3 years so there’s probably a job opening

  15. MadScientist

    Gee, they could have at least changed the map projection so that Antarctica doesn’t look like 30% of the planet.

    One problem is that the telescope and instruments need to be designed for cryogenic temperatures. I wonder if a Coude room would be practical – you’d need an extraordinary optical window. The latitude also precludes observations of much of the northern celestial hemisphere. Given the cost, absolutely nightmarish logistics for transporting people and goods, the isolation (extremely bad for most humans) etc, I’d say stick with the Chilean observatories.

  16. MadScientist

    @Becca: Communications is not a problem at 80S. Well, at least it’s not a technical problem – as long as cost isn’t an issue. But to be honest, communications costs would be a small fraction of the maintenance cost of such a facility.

    Find an excuse to visit the site at Arecibo! I like to tease the astronomers who never see the instruments they use. 😛 Well, except for the spaceborne instruments – it’s just not practical to visit them. Otherwise the high altitude observatory sites are all pretty awesome and the Arecibo telescope is a favorite in pop culture.

  17. 2. Becca Stareyes Says: “I suppose the communications would be tricky — there aren’t many satellites that fly over 80°S.”

    In the 1970’s the Air Force had the same problem in reverse. The communications with the POGO tracking station in Thule Greenland were dismal. It was mostly short wave and microwave relay stations. Since a Clarke orbit style comm-sat by definition has to be at zero inclination (thus right on the horizon causing all sorts of atmospheric signal distortion), they had to do some out-of-the-box thinking. The project was called “Bent Pipe” and consisted of (at least) two satellites in highly inclined, highly eccentric orbits.

    The inclination was somewhere around 80°, IIRC, and the the eccentricity put the perigee at a normal 100 miles or so, but the apogee at several thousand. The satellites would thus whip around the southern part of the globe very quickly, then lazily spend several hours over the northern hemisphere where they could keep both Thule and Sunnyvale in sight. With two satellites they both spent most of their time over the northern end of the orbit and communications would only be interrupted for the time it took to slew the antenna between them.

    – Jack

  18. RE: Who Goes There AKA “The Thing”.

    Having read the original story long before seeing either version, the latter one was the more faithful to the story.
    The thing (pun intended, naturally, this is BA’s blog after all) about the first version was having James (Marshal Dillon) Arness as the ‘carrot creature’, as some called it.


  19. Keith Harwood

    It might be a while before city lights cause significant damage to the seeing.

  20. Brian

    Having done a very limited amount of this kind of thing (polar work), it’s doable but difficult and expensive. I’m pretty sure you cannot completely automate the installation.

    Having astronomers work remotely is great but you need maintenance and support staff on site. Mechanical systems and everything else have a lot of problems at 40 below (and in Antarctica, even colder). However the most difficult problem is keeping the on-site staff sane, healthy, happy and productive.

    Most remote work sites (Arctic, oil rigs, etc.) deal with the problem by flying the employees in and out on a regular basis. That implies that civilization is accessible and regular flights are possible. These are challenging in Antarctica. Also you need good food, regular contact with the outside world, and a system of keeping people busy. Finally, you pay a premium wage for their isolation and the risks they run simply by being there.

    Now, if you were compare the costs and difficulties of running a lunar observatory to those of one in the Antarctic, that would be interesting. Very interesting indeed.

  21. Remote? Meh. Australia, the US and NZ have regular flights to their bases now (in Summer). Then there are the dozens of supply ships. At any one time now there are probably 1000 people living on the continent. I’ve even been there as a tourist. A week spewing my guts up to get there though*. Not to the Peninsula either. All the tourists go there. We went to the bit below Australia – Mawson’s Hut at Commonwealth Bay. We met some of the guys and gals that winter over and they love it. Some had been on multiple tours. From sparkies and chippies to scientists. All sorts of professions and trades. They have the intertoobs too nowadays. I’d do it in a minute.

    *Darn Southern Ocean and her big loooong swells. The worst bit is the old hands told me it was the smoothest crossing anyone could remember.

  22. Doug

    pretty much all of the proposed telescopes you put on dome C, etc, have to be designed to be fully robotic as you’ll only have about 2 weeks each year to have humans on site servicing them. All of these sites are well away from the established bases, so there will not be anyone wintering over. Much like the space observatories, if your telescope has a problem that can’t be fixed remotely, you lose the use of the telescope. Unlike the space observatories, you will have an opportunity to fix it during the next antarctic summer, for a cost far less than launching someone into space (although still expensive compared to fixing your telescope at Kitt Peak).

  23. T.E.L.

    As it turns out, there is some experience already with automated telescopes in remote parts of Antarctica. There’s a telescope on the plateau at Dome A (called PLATO) that only needs annual servicing. Data are transacted via Iridium satellites.

  24. Rob

    If they’re stockin’ flame throwers I’m SO there!! *looks up changing last name to MacReady*

    PS: For those that haven’t heard – A remake of John Carpenter’s version is in “the works”.

  25. Papa Surf

    I guess for half of the year they’d use it as a solar observatory?

  26. Ummmm, Phil, I’ll go… based on this:

    These people get more action than I have ever had…. sadly

  27. Jeremy

    Anyone else ticked off that Google Earth doesn’t have 3D topography of Antarctica?

  28. Haymaker

    Very interesting! I’m sure there would be no shortage of people willing to brave the -70c temps… on second thought…

    “Childs, we’re going out to give Blair the test. If he tries to make it back here and we’re not with him… burn him.” – MacReady

  29. 21. Rob Says: “For those that haven’t heard – A remake of John Carpenter’s version is in “the works”.”

    So Hollywood’s creativity well has run so dry that they have to start remaking their remakes? Well, it’s not unprecedented. There are now four versions of “Body Snatchers” out there.

    – Jack

  30. Tortorific

    1 B and C, then a reference to classic horror movies I love this blog

  31. Andrew

    It would not be the first telescope in Antartica, although I am not sure there are any optical ones currently – the existing ones look at radio, millimetre, neutrinos, etc.

    Balloon-borne telescopes usually observe wavelenths that don’t pentrate the atmosphere very well – gamma rays, X-rays, infrared, etc. NASA has a Balloon Program Office – – which operates on a shoestring.

  32. JohnW

    “And d) what would this do to the world’s condom supplies-”

    Damn, beaten to it by MichaelL!

  33. Spirula

    “No dogs make it a thousand miles through the cold! No, you don’t understand! That thing wanted to be US!”

  34. Ken

    I wouldn’t worry about the Thing so much as Elder Things. Or maybe even the Things that the Elder Things feared…

  35. Bill Nettles

    At 80 deg S, you will have 24 hours of daylight between Oct. 15 and Feb. 24 and bright twilight/dawn for a week or so at each end. No nighttime visual observations, and that’s when all the flights can occur.

    Daylight and nighttime occur Feb. 24 to April 15 (+/- 1 or 2 days) and August 25 to Oct 15, and 24 hours of nighttime from April 15 to August 25. But it’s winter, the staff is stuck (emergency flights only) and not many of them. It’s like frozen-mercury cold. There are mechanical motorized mount issues to deal with. If you have a heated building there are thermal expansion/contraction issues when you open the dome. Snow—lots of it. There are some problems that aren’t worth the money for the solution.

  36. T.E.L.

    Bill Nettles Said:

    ” Snow—lots of it.”

    Not in the region where this is all proposed. The big selling points include that precipitation and cloud cover are almost non-existent.

  37. T.E.L. is correct. Antarctica is the driest and, on average, highest continent. Perfect viewing conditions. It is also windy and bloody cold so wear an extra pair of socks.

  38. coolstar

    Quite a bit of astronomy has been going on at the Cordordia site at Dome C for quite a while.
    Ask Dr. google or google scholar (or astro-ph) and you can turn up lots of things pretty quickly (including the first published astronomy paper using data from Dome C ).
    The site has been “wintered-over” for a few winters now. The Chinese site at Dome A may turn out to be better, but as someone mentioned, there have been only annual long treks to set up and monitor site-testing equipment there, so far, as it’s even more inaccessible than Dome C.
    Oh, winter temperatures reach around -80 C at Dome C.
    I don’t think anyone has mentioned it, but “picrete” might actually be a very good and economical building material at both sites (you heard it here first, maybe…..).
    For lots of very good science, these sites are almost as good as being in space, but maybe 100x (or more) cheaper.

  39. Santoki

    Pretty funny that the photo in the article shows an overcast, snowy scene. You can’t even see the sky D:


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