By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – Astronomers from Australia and the United States plan to build a large telescope atop an icy plateau near the South Pole, and predicted on Wednesday that such an observatory would provide the best images yet seen from Earth.
In a paper to be presented to a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney on Friday, the Anglo-Australian Observatory’s Peter Gillingham says a recent easing of political tensions might allow the Soviet Union to participate.
He says the facility “would be an ideal precursor to the Moon-based observatory which is now being discussed (and) bound to be established early in the 21st century.”
Gillingham told Reuters a small-scale polar facility was already planned by a group of U.S. universities.
Talks began this week between astronomers from the two countries on the possibility of building a larger observatory about 600 km (373 miles) from the pole within Australia’s territorial claim in the Antarctic, he said.
Professor John Storey, an astrophysicist at the University of New South Wales, said the planned site would be “better than anywhere else in the world” for many types of research.
“The advantages are great,” Storey said of the plan. “The atmosphere (there) is very stable and very thin, and star images are very sharp. There are long periods of darkness during which astronomers could study stars over several weeks.”
The planned site, some 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) above sea level, would provide images with a clarity equal to that of a telescope aboard a plane at high altitudes, Storey said. It could also study the effects of global warming on the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The telescope would be remotely operated via satellite by astronomers in Australia and the United States, and require only periodic maintenance visits, he said.
The joint facility would likely cost between A$30 and A$50 million (US$24 and US$40 million), and could include a large optical telescope or a radio telescope dish coupled with other instruments to measure infra-red and ultraviolet radiation.
A fully-fledged outpost with all the trimmings could cost A$100 million (US$79 million), he said. Construction could start in late 1992.
Ironically the hole in the ozone layer recently discovered above Antarctica would allow astronomers to collect data, especially at ultraviolet wavelengths, that could not have been attained elsewhere on Earth, Storey said.
“It would not be as good as a satellite observatory, but it’s cheaper. And we’ve already seen with Hubble what can happen to space-borne observatories,” Storey said, referring to the recently launched U.S. space telescope which malfunctioned in orbit.
Gillingham said a better site would be near the Soviet Union’s Vostok research station, which is closer to the South Pole and at a higher altitude. He said Australian groups plan to open talks with the Soviets within the next few months.