Argentina builds remote-controlled observatory in Antarctica | Polarjournal
Only the framework and the base of the new observatory on the Belgrano II Antarctic Station are yet in place, but the telescope is scheduled to be installed as early as 2022/23 and put into operation soon thereafter (small image). Picture: CONICET / UNAHUR

Antarctica offers excellent research opportunities for numerous branches of science. Space exploration is also one of them. Thanks to the meteorological and atmospheric conditions of the white continent, scientists can enjoy a relatively undisturbed view of the vastness of space from here. Argentine researchers will now also have the opportunity to further advance space exploration. Because soon a remotely operated space telescope in Antarctica will offer them the opportunity.

The planned “Argentine Antarctic Robotic Observatory” ORAA will be available for space research from the Argentine station Belgrano II. The foundations and the platform have already been installed on the station. This season the building itself and its motorised system, developed at the National University of Hurlingham UNAHUR, will now be erected and tested for a winter to see how it works. The telescope itself will then be installed in the coming 2022/23 summer season. The telescope will then be controlled from Buenos Aires, while station personnel will provide logistical support and ensure that the sensitive equipment remains protected from the climatic influences.

The observatory is part of the National Antarctic Plan of the Argentine government and is jointly operated by the Argentine Antarctic Institute, the IAFE and the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research CONICET. “One of the main motivations for this project is to explore a research niche where Argentina has an undeniable relative advantage due to its geographical location and history of Antarctic exploration,” explains project leader and astrophysicist Dr Mario Melita. “The observatory site is an ideal location because of its climatic conditions: little wind, low temperatures that favor the reduction of “noise” in the detectors.” In addition, months of observations are possible both in the darkness of the polar night and on the completely bright polar days. “This will allow us to study astronomical phenomena such as binary stars or exoplanets, as we will get constant data over longer periods of time rather than observations that can only be made eight hours a day further north,” Dr Melita continues.

Scientists from the National University of Hurlingham are responsible for the technical implementation of the observatory. They are developing the plant, which will have to withstand the extreme climatic conditions in the coming years. Image: UNAHUR

The climatic conditions, which are the advantage of the location, are also the greatest challenge for the technical implementation of the plant. This is because temperatures at Belgrano II station vary from +1°C in summer to -25°C in winter, while temperatures as low as -58°C also are possible. In addition, the proximity to the coast ensures a rather humid climate with snowy days. The wind can also be a problem, as it can reach top speeds of up to 200 km/h from the inland ice. The Ritchtey-Chretien telescope is indeed a device designed for extreme climatic conditions. But the observations and measurements are enormously susceptible to disturbances and therefore the facility and the building had to be planned accordingly. The rotating observatory building was constructed of polyethylene fibers, the base is made of galvanized steel. Station personnel will maintain the engines and ensure that the system remains watertight.

While telescopes for space exploration are not uncommon in Antarctica. The southernmost is at the South Pole itself (pictured). But there are only three that are used for direct observation of celestial bodies. Image: US Antarctic Program

For project leader Dr. Melita, the advantages of such a telescope are obvious: lower costs. “This observatory will give us more opportunities to observe specific stars and exoplanetary systems by referring to what we already know and to data from satellite missions, for example the TESS mission. This site will allow us to produce data with a time base similar to that of satellites, but with much lower comparative costs.” Additionally, Melita says there are only two other sites with comparable telescopes, one at the Chinese Kunlun station and one at the French-Italian Concordia station. Moreover, the observatory is also a test case for the Argentine researchers, as Dr Melita points out. If the project is successful, there are plans to build a larger, fully autonomous observatory. The biggest obstacle, however, is the supply of energy. “On a continent where the vast majority of energy is generated by fossil fuels, we know that to operate in a remote or isolated location where it also gets night for several months, we need to think about wind energy,” says Dr Melita.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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