The Douglas Mawson Telescope will be equipped with the world’s most technologically advanced instrumentation, and located at the world’s best observing site: the high antarctic plateau.
Humankind has always yearned to understand the universe. Our search for answers has led astronomers to build larger and larger telescopes, and to stretch the frontiers of engineering, detector technology, and computing. The search has continued to surprise us with new insights into the most fundamental questions that we can ask.
Australia has had a prominent role in this journey of discovery. Worldwide, billion-dollar investments in astronomical facilities are being made. Australia maintains its international prominence through expertise in carefully chosen areas of instrumentation and technology. Astronomy is the science in which Australia has the greatest impact on the world stage.
Australia also has a long and proud tradition of exploration and discovery in Antarctica. Douglas Mawson was perhaps the earliest antarctic astronomer, having discovered the first meteorite in Antarctica in 1912 and realising its significance for science.
Interestingly, there is a natural reason to combine Australia’s strengths in astronomy and antarctic exploration and to place a telescope in Antarctica
As we look further out into the universe, the light from the galaxies is red-shifted into the infrared—it becomes “heat radiation”. Consequently, to see the faintest galaxies, our telescopes, and the sky they look through, have to be as cold as possible.
The best location on the Earth’s surface for infrared astronomy is Antarctica. We have proven this through eight years of a joint Australian-US site-testing program at the geographic South Pole. The sky at the Pole is between 20 and 100 times darker in the infrared than at any existing ground-based observatory.
Furthermore, the exceptionally stable atmospheric conditions on the antarctic plateau result in sharper images across a wider field of view than is possible at temperate-latitude observatories.
An ideal site on the antarctic plateau, in terms of observing conditions and logistical support, is Dome C at an elevation of 3250 metres. Dome C lies 1600 km from the South Pole, directly inland from Australia’s Casey station. Dome C is the site of a major new French-Italian scientific base, Concordia Station, currently being completed. During winter, the temperature drops to -80°C, while the wind remains very low, averaging just 2 metres per second.
The Douglas Mawson Telescope, sited in Antarctica, will exceed the performance of any existing ground-based telescope for the types of science that we are proposing. It is an opportunity for Australia to be at the forefront of a field, rather than duplicating facilities that exist elsewhere, or playing a minor role in an international consortium
The Douglas Mawson Telescope will be used to investigate the origins of planets, stars, and galaxies in the Universe. These problems can not be addressed using traditional optical telescopes because of the effects of obscuring dust around the stars and red-shift.
The Douglas Mawson Telescope will be complementary to future space-based telescopes such as SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility) and NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope).
Operating a telescope in Antarctica has similarities with a space mission—the harshness and remoteness of the environment leads to the necessity for robotic operation and computer control.
Through eight years of experience at the US Amundsen-Scott Station in Antarctica, Australian astronomers have developed the skills to solve these problems. The Douglas Mawson Telescope will be remotely operated from a Science Centre in Australia.
Why hasn’t it been done before?
The advantages of Antarctica have only become evident in the last few years. Large telescope projects can take a decade or more in the planning stages.
Furthermore, the infrastructure necessary to support an observatory on the antarctic plateau is only now coming into place, through investments by the US, France, and Italy.
Australia has pioneered the site-testing work in Antarctica, and for a modest expenditure we can continue to play a leading role.
The construction of a state-of-the-art telescope in Antarctica will involve challenging engineering. There is at least one Australian firm with the necessary technical skills to be considered as the prime contractor. The Australian Antarctic Division also has a wealth of expertise in deploying, operating, and maintaining sophisticated instruments in the harsh polar conditions. In addition, astronomers at the University of New South Wales and the Australian National University have almost a decade of engineering experience working on the high antarctic plateau.
A key component of the telescope will be a wide-field infrared camera. Australia has a proven reputation in the construction of advanced astronomical instrumentation, with particular centres of strength located at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the Australian National University.
Logistical support for Dome C is principally through Hobart. The development of the Douglas Mawson Telescope will lead to new opportunities for Australian companies to contribute to the supply and support of the station at Dome C.
The international connection
The Douglas Mawson Telescope will be a joint venture with support from France, Italy and the USA.
This proposal comes from the Department of Astrophysics at the University of New South Wales.
Professor John Storey
ph +61 2 9385 4566
Dr Michael Burton
ph +61 2 9385 5618
A/Professor Michael Ashley
ph +61 2 9385 5465