Melbourne, November 21 : An unmanned observatory built at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) will be sent on an 8,000-kilometre journey to Antarctica this weekend to determine whether or not the white continent is the best place on earth for stargazing.
The Plateau Observatory (PLATO) will carry a fibre-optic spectrometer called Nigel, which will help measure the darkness of the sky. It will also carry telescopes from China and the US.
The solar-and-battery-powered observatory will first be trucked to Fremantle in Western Australia, from where researchers at the Polar Research Institute of China will collect it to be transported to Antarctica.
PLATO will be towed to a site in the Australian Antarctic Territory called Dome A, 1300 kilometres from the coastline and 4100 metres above sea level.
Led by Dr. Zhu Zhenxi of the Purple Mountain Observatory in China, a 17-member team will install seven telescopes in the observatory. The researchers also have plans to build a 30-metre high instrument tower on top of the observatory, but it will be done only if time allows.
Dr Jon Lawrence, the observatory's UNSW project leader, has revealed that their project is aimed at testing conditions at Dome A.
An acoustic radar called Snodar installed in the observatory will help measure turbulence in the lower ground atmosphere. The observatory will also collect data on other atmospheric conditions like weather temperatures, wind speed and direction and sky emissions.
Dr. Lawrence says that PLATO, which will be controlled remotely from Sydney, will send back snapshots of data via a low-bandwidth satellite network. However, most of the information will be retrieved during a servicing visit in 12 months, he adds.
The researchers believe that PLATO can look up to 10 times further into deep space than any land-based telescope, including the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth. The pictures it will send back are also expected to be up to four times sharper than any previously achieved snaps.
Dr. Lawrence had earlier shown that Dome C at the French-Italian Concordia Research Station was two-and-a-half times better than any alternative land site for viewing the stars.
He now believes that Dome A may be an even better observatory site than the Dome C site because it is almost 1000 metres higher and completely isolated.
"It's very much a guess at this stage. But we expect Dome A to be much, much better in terms of atmospheric transparency because it will be drier and colder (than Dome C)," ABC Science Online quoted Dr. Lawrence as saying.
One of the main challenges before the researchers is to protect the instruments from the extreme weather that plunges from a summer temperature of minus 30 degree Celsius to minus 80 degree Celsius in winter.
Dr. Lawrence, however, says that PLATO is heavily insulated with 200 millimetres thick walls. He also revealed that one half of the observatory held a 4000 litre fuel tank and six diesel engines, which would keep it running through winter.
The system will be powered by solar panels for the six months of summer. (ANI)
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