Good Observations Sites in Antarctica

Antarctica: High and Dry (and Cold and Calm)

What makes a good observing site? Nearly every kind of astronomical telescope benefits from a site that provides clear, dry, and dark conditions. While the stormy weather on the Antarctic coast is legendary, the high plateau in the center of the continent is quite the opposite. It lies at the eye of the storm; it is a calm, clear polar desert that offers space-like observing conditions while comfortably standing on terra firma. Thus, siting a telescope at the summit of the Antarctic plateau has significant advantages over essentially anywhere else on Earth:

Characteristic Ridge A advantage
Clear No clouds >80% of the time
High >13,000 ft elevation for 100 miles
Dry Super-dry polar desert (winter PWV is 0.1 mm)
Cold Winter temperature -100F, mid-summer a balmy -30F.
Clean Cleanest air on Earth, few aerosols, little scattering
Dark Almost 6 months of continuous darkness
Good atmospheric seeing ~0.2 arcsec above a ~15m ground layer
Stable climate No prevailing weather, seemingly constant
Minimal lightning What’s lightning?
Low wind throughout atmosphere No jet stream, calm surface winds (4 knots avg)
Low seismic activity Seismically quiet
Accessible Land a plane right next to your telescope!
Continuous observing possible Most southern astronomical objects are circumpolar


Relief map of Antarctica, showing the location of Ridge A No aerosols make for nearly zero scattering. Would you believe that the Sun lies behind that finger? Credit: Geoff Sims Late January summer temperatures of -42C and only 55% of the atmosphere at sea level make for a challenging work environment. MPG video of 1 month of all-sky video thumbnails, showing the benign, almost constant conditions at Ridge A, from 23 January to 23 February 2012.

In particular, one’s ability to do infrared, submillimeter-wave and terahertz astronomy hinges on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, since water molecules absorb this light very effectively before it reaches the ground.

Really! In the summer, there is enough moisture in the air at most midlatitude locations on Earth, at the frequency of the ionized carbon line (1900 GHz), light can only travel 10-50 meters before it is mostly absorbed by the intervening water vapor.

This effectively forces such astronomical observatories to the highest and driest sites where this atmospheric absorption is minimized. The bitterly cold air holds no water vapor, and what little remains freezes out into tiny ice crystals. This makes the summit of the Antarctic plateau the driest place on Earth.

Atmospheric transmission (fraction of light reaching the telescope from space) through the terahertz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Ridge A has the highest mean transparency of any established site on Earth, opening entirely new frequency windows to observation from the ground!

We selected the Ridge A site from satellite data to be the best location for an astronomical observatory on the Antarctic plateau, and indeed, anywhere on Earth. It is located on the summit ridge of the ice plateau at 81:40:25 South latitude and 72:42:58 East longitude at a physical elevation of 13,260′ (4040 m) with a typical pressure altitude of 15,200′ (4650 m). It constitutes the origin of the continent’s famous katabatic winds and is perhaps the calmest place on Earth, with typical winds of 4 knots (2 m/s). Even more important for infrared and terahertz telescopes is the extreme cold. Winter temperatures routinely drop below -100F (-70C), providing for a very dry, stable, clear atmosphere. The extremely low amount of water vapor that results allows observations to be routinely performed here that cannot be done reliably anywhere else on Earth. While it is perhaps the most remote site on the planet, it is nevertheless still accessible by aircraft or ground traverse.


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