Washington, Feb 3 : An International team of scientists have established a unique astronomical observatory at Dome Argus (Dome A), the highest point of the Antarctic Plateau, from where new insights into the universe can be made.
The expedition team, which has scientists from six international institutions, was led by the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), which completed installation work on the revolutionary fully robotic observatory dubbed as PLATeau Observatory or PLATO.
According to Texas A and M astrophysicist Dr. Lifan Wang, the observatory will result in new insights into the universe once possible only from space.
"Dome A is believed to be the best site for ground-based astronomy," explains Wang, one of the leaders of the scientific planning phase of the expedition.
"Unlike the stormy Antarctic coast, the plateau is a very quiet place with very low wind speed. It is the coldest and driest place on Earth. These are critical conditions of a good site at which to build an observatory," he added.
According to Wang, this permanent facility marks the culmination of centuries of effort to find the best location on the planet from which to observe the universe.
"With a telescope at Dome A, it is possible to achieve near-space quality images at a much lower cost than launching a telescope into space," he said.
Built by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, PLATO is designed to operate autonomously for up to 12 months at a time while sending back data via the Iridium satellite network.
Powered by an array of solar panels during summer and small, high-efficiency diesel engines through the darkest winter months, it will be efficient as well as environmentally friendly, according to its developers.
"By minimizing the need for human support, robotic facilities such as PLATO will play an important role in the future of Antarctic research," said UNSW's Dr. Jon Lawrence, who led PLATO's development.
A global team of scientists will be contributing PLATO's instruments as part of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year that will see thousands of scientists from more than 60 nations conducting 200 projects examining a range of physical, biological and social research topics.
PLATO's site-testing instruments include cameras that will measure the darkness of the sky, an acoustic radar to measure atmospheric turbulence and a monitor for very short microwave astronomy.