Dome Argus, the highest point on the Antarctic Plateau, is now home to a robotic half-meter-long telescope called AST3-1, one of three planned for the Plateau Observatory or Plato-A. The combination of three telescopes will give astronomers the ability to hunt for planets about the size of Earth around other stars , find supernovaes useful for cosmological studies and other future discoveries in astrophysics.
The AST3-1 has a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera of 110 megapixels – an unprecedented size for a single-piece detector.
Professor Michael Ashley, head of the University of New South Wales team responsible for PLATO-A, said:
“This is an astounding achievement. A stand-alone telescope in the pristine environment of Antarctica can conduct scientific research that would otherwise only be possible from space, but at a few percent of the cost.”
The observatory will be completely autonomous, and has a computer on-site to analyze the vast amounts of data provided by the telescopes and pick up transient events such as supernovae and gamma ray bursts.
A joint effort between UNSA, Texas A&M University and the Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy, the telescopes must withstand the most difficult environment on earth. Prof. Xiangqun Cui of the Nanjing Institute of Astronomical Optics Technology (NIAOT) describes the challenges:
“The winter temperature can be as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius, and the air pressure is barely half that of sea level. It has to be able to prevent ice from building up on mirror surfaces and the telescope support structure.”
But team members say data collected thus far from PLATO-A confirms that Dome Argus, with its cold temperature, incredibly dry air and stable atmosphere, is likely the best site for establishing ground-based astronomical observatories.