Two telescopes sitting at the south pole bask in the glow of the Milky Way. The telescopes see perpetual darkness during the southern winter (the summer months in the northern hemisphere), providing around-the-clock views of the heavens. The red lights provide illumination for operators based at the American south pole station but don't interfere with the telescopic views of the sky. [NSF]
A list of qualities that make a perfect site for a telescope would go something like this: It needs to be remote to avoid city lights and air pollution; dry, to provide a clear view of the heavens; high, to overcome the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere; and cold, to provide a good view of the infrared sky.
In other words, it would be a lot like the high plateaus of Antarctica. And in fact, astronomers are taking greater advantage of Antarctic skies all the time. They’re placing more telescopes there, which view the skies in many different ways.
The South Pole Telescope, for example, looks at wavelengths of light that reveal the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. Its observations help astronomers probe the early universe.
A telescope known as Ice Cube consists of strings of light detectors buried in the ice. They look for the phantom-like particles known as neutrinos, which come from stars and other sources.
And China is building a set of three visible-light telescopes to hunt for exploding stars, as well as planets in other star systems. The automated telescopes will operate at a remote site that sees few human visitors.
Most of Antarctica is bathed in constant sunlight right now, so some of the telescopes can’t do much observing. So this is when astronomers and engineers visit the continent to set up new instruments and service the existing ones — to get ready for the gloriously cold, dark skies of the Antarctic winter.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
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