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Photon Astronomy Era starts late 1970s

High Energy Era starts mid 1950s

Background: NGC6334 PAH’s in IR by Burton et al. / SPIREX

The History of Astrophysics in Antarctica

B.T. Indermuehle 1 , M.G. Burton 2 , S.T. Maddison 1

(1) Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University

(2) University of New South Wales


We examine the historical development of astrophysical science at the bottom of the world from the early 20th century until today. We find three temporally overlapping eras with each having a rather distinct beginning. These

the high energy era of particle detectors and the astrogeological era of meteorite discovery. The

are the photon astronomy era of microwave, sub-mm and infrared telescopes, sidelined by a few optical niche experiments,

favourable atmospheric and geophysical conditions are briefly examined followed by an account of the major experiments and a summary of their results. A scientific effectiveness analysis of the various projects is presented


of the various projects is presented quantitatively. Quality of the atmospheric window Site testing instruments

Quality of the atmospheric window Site testing instruments have measured the 1.25 - 14 micron sky brightness and recorded the incidence of clear skies suitable for astronomical observations. About 50% of all nights are found to be of good quality. Precipitable water vapour is very low and atmospheric models and testing have confirmed the conditions to be ideal 1 . In the near and mid infrared, the best window is located between 2.3 and 2.45 microns. Residual emission in this window is thought to be coming from airglow at altitudes above 38 km and interestingly, no correlation is observed between mid infrared sky brightness and auroral activity. At longer wavelengths (in the L and M bands), advantages are even greater since at warmer sites throughout the world the infrared arrays rapidly saturate due to the high thermal backgrounds. Background brightness is higher at other sites by almost a factor of 50. In the N band from 8 - 13 microns, the sky brightness is between a third and a tenth that of other sites. At wavelengths shorter than 2.3 microns, the gains are fairly modest because the sky brightness is dominated by OH airglow rather than thermal emission. Airglow is still half as bright as in lesser suitable locations. Since the quality of the observing conditions at wavelengths longer than 3 microns depends principally on temperature, good observing conditions extend well beyond the boundaries of the polar night. Fig. 1: Precipitable Water Vapour


Atmospheric Window Comparison 1 0.9 0.8 0.7 0.6 Antarctica 0.5 Mauna Kea Siding Spring 0.4
Atmospheric Window Comparison
Mauna Kea
Siding Spring
Wavelength [nm]

Fig. 2: Atmospheric window

Data from 1

Photon astronomy is further subdivided into several regions of atmospheric windows for our purpose of astrophyiscal experiments in Antarctica: Microwave, sub-millimetre, infrared and optical. Of those, optical astronomy has mainly been employed for site testing and evaluation. During the winter over operations in 1964 for the cosmic ray observatory at South Pole, a semi-quantitative analysis of the stellar and solar observation conditions was made with a small 3.5" aperture telescope and the results were very promising. The advantages of Antarctica for astronomy at infrared wavelengths stem directly from its dark skies, cold temperatures, stable atmosphere, and the ability to observe objects continuously throughout the long winter night. The sky at the South Pole in the thermal infrared is darker than in any other ground based site, by as much as two orders of magnitude and thus dramatically reducing photon noise and minimizing the effects of changes in sky brightness. Atmospheric homogeneity further reduces the variability of the sky emission above the polar plateau. The strong temperature inversion at the South Pole helps cooling the telescopes to a colder temperature than the mean atmospheric temperature. The limit set by the atmospheric emission can thus easily be reached and instrument noise is minimal. In the High-Energy spectrum, the earth magnetic field normally shields or at least deflects a significant amount of the heavier particles travelling through space. At the poles, the magnetic field lines almost vertically enter the surface of the earth, thus creating a port of entry for charged particles. The other advantage is found in the vast amount of ice available to create a natural Cherenkov radiation detector.

available to create a natural Cherenkov radiation detector. 1964 Seeing evaluation at South Pole with an


Seeing evaluation at South Pole with an optical telescope.


First scientific project: Fossat, Grec and Pomerantz coupled a sodium vapour cell to a small telescope and obtained an unbroken run of over 120 hours of solar observations measuring solar oscillations. The data they returned allowed hundreds of solar eigenmodes to be discovered. 2


SPOT (South Pole Optical Telescope) Measurements were taken during austral summer and evaluated the seeing conditions in the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum 3 .


Italian CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) experiment in Terra Nova Bay at an angular scale of 1.3°.


White Dish, the first in a series of CMBR experiments, starts at South Pole.


Python was a 0.75 class meter telescope producing CMBR Maps (See Fig. 3)


SPIREX (South Pole Infrared Explorer) mainly produced images of PAH’s with the Grim and Abu imagers until its decomission in 1999.


Argentinian researchers evaluate the UBVRI skies from the General Belgrano station using a C11 telescope and found only 3.8 arcsec skies, completely unsuitable for any kind of astronomy in the UV to IR bands. 4


Viper replaced Python with a 2.1 meter off-axis telescope optimised for CMB observations.


AASTO (Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory) was comissioned to evaluate the atmospheric window from UV to sub- mm. The AASTO package consists of a suite of instruments such as the Near-Infrared Sky Monitor (NISM), the Mid-Infrared Sky Monitor (MISM) (both instruments are used to monitor sky brightness in the respective wavelengths), the Antarctic Fibre-Optic Spectrometer (AFOS) which is used to measure atmospheric transmission in the UV to about 800 nm, a Sonic Radar (SODAR) used to measure the height of the turbulent atmospheric boundary layer and the Sub-millimetre Tipper (SUMMIT) used to monitor 350 micron radiation.


DASI (Degree Angular Scale Interferometer) specifically complemented Viper in its sub-mm and mm capabilities.


Boomerang (Flight 1) provided a much improved CMB map. (See Fig. 4)


ACBAR (Arc minute Cosmology Bolometer Array Receiver) was a 16 element 300 mK bolometer array designed specifically for observations of CMB anisotropy and the Sunyaev-Zeldovich Effect (SZE) and was mounted on the Viper platform.

Effect (SZE) and was mounted on the Viper platform. Fig. 3 Python CMBR Map From:

Fig. 3 Python CMBR Map


3 Python CMBR Map From: Fig.4 Boomerang CMB Map From: “Improved Measurement of the

Fig.4 Boomerang CMB Map

From: “Improved Measurement of the Angular Power Spectrum of Temperature Anisotropy in the CMB from Two New Analyses of BOOMERANG Observations”, Ruhl et al. Dec 2002

In 1952, the first Antarctic astrophysical project was started when the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) proposed to execute a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period from July 1957 to December 1958. This was to be called “The International Geophysical Year” (IGY) 5 , and it was modelled after the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933. The intention was to allow scientists from all over the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. The United States among other projects supported a cosmic ray detector which was to be located at McMurdo station. A second detector was built at the South Pole in 1964 and many others were commissioned at most of the various national research stations in Antarctica. Today, cosmic rays with energies above 50 TeV are being captured by SPASE 4 , the large area air shower array established at the geographic South Pole. At these energies, the flux of events is too low to measure on considerably smaller short duration balloon flight experiments or more expensive satellite missions. The array is situated in the “dark sector” (a region where anthropogenic interference is minimal) near the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and just on top of where the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) 6 is located today.

And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) 6 is located today. 1955 Muon Detector installed at Mawson 7


Muon Detector installed at Mawson 7


Cosmic Ray detector installed at McMurdo


Second Cosmic Ray detector operates at South Pole


SPASE-1 (South Pole Air Shower Experiment) operated for 10 years (until SPASE-2) and consisted of 16 1m 2 scintillator detectors at 14 locations on a 30 meter triangular grid. The primary purpose was to search for point sources of ~100 TeV gamma radiation. 8


AMANDA (Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array) consists of widely spaced photomultiplier tubes (PMT’s) which are placed into holes in the South Polar ice cap ranging from several hundred meters in depth to 3 km. High energy neutrinos coming up through the earth will occasionallyinteract with ice or rock and create a muon which in turn emits Cherenkov light when passing through the ice which is detected by the PMT’s.


Chile executes cosmic ray measurements at Marsh Base on King George Island 9


RICE (Radio Ice Cherenkov Experiment) detects ultra high energy electron neutrinos through their interactions with ice molecules in the Antarctic icecap based on the principle of “radio coherence”. The Experiment has determined upper EeV neutrino flux limits. 10


SPASE-2 consists of 120 scintillator modules spread over an area of 16000m 2 working in coincidence with AMANDA.


AMANDA II will contain roughly a third more PMT’s and will operate 90% of the time with at least 600 PMT’s operative, thus makingit the world’s most active neutrino detector.


IceCube will be a 1 km3 array opening up the PeV energy region where the Universe is opaque to high energy gamma rays originating from the edge of our galaxy.

Until today, thousands of meteorites have been retrieved from Antarctica. It remains one of the most important sources on earth for the dryness and cold lessens erosive forces on the meteorites and the mechanisms explained in Fig. 5 contribute in accumulating them in one place for easy collection.

in accumulating them in one place for easy collection. 1912 Mawson finds the first meteorite in


Mawson finds the first meteorite in Adelie Land. It’s a stony meteorite (OC/L5) measuring roughly 13 x 9 x 6 cm. This was a complete chance find by F.H. Bickerton, one of Mawson’s sledging party leaders on discovery tour in a western direction from Cape Denison. 11


Russian geologists discover several meteorites of different kinds in the Lazarev region. 12


A Japanese group of geologists undertakes the first formal meteorite search program based on geological and glaciological theories which explain why such a heterogenous accumulation of meteorites are found on one place and in such great quantities (see Fig. 1). They successfully retrieved many different kinds of meteorites (enstatite chondrites, hypersthene achondrites, type III carbonaceous chondrites and bronzite chondrite).

Fig. 5 (image courtesy NASA/JPL) Astrogeological Era starts 1912
Fig. 5
(image courtesy NASA/JPL)
starts 1912


1 Burton et al. “The Scientific Potential for Astronomy from the Antarctic Plateau”, PASA 1994 11/(2) 127-50

2 Grec, G., Fossat, E. & Pomerantz, M., 1980. “Solar oscillations: full disk observations from the geographic South Pole“. Nature, 288, 541 - 544

3 Oliver, J.P, His personal Website,

4 Mosconi, M.; Recabarren, P.; Ferreiro, D.; Renzi, V.; Ozu, R. “Reporte de actividades de la Estación Astronómica Polar ``J.L.Sersic’’”, Boletín de la Asociación Argentina de Astronomía, vol.42, p.67-69

5 Archives of the NSF,

6 University of California Berkeley, 2002,

7 M. Duldig et al. “ANARE Research Notes 102”, pp. 57 – 60, 2000

8 Bartol Research Foundation, “South Pole Air Shower Experiment”, 2002,

9 Cordaro, E. G.; Storini, M.Cosmic-ray measurements inAntarctica during the international Solar-Terrestrial Energy Program”, Nuovo Cimento C, Serie 1 (ISSN 0390-5551), vol. 15 C, no. 5, p. 539-545, 10/1992

10 Private communication with Dr. Christian Spierig of DESY, Fall 2002 []

11 P.G.W. Bayly, F.L. Stillwell, „The Adelie Land Meteorite”, Scientific Reports SeriesA, Vol. IV, Geology,A.J. Kent, Sydney 1923

12 Complete Listing of Antarctic Meteorites in the U.S. Collection,

Quantitative display of publications based on science results of antarctic telescopes In the process of collecting information on the various observatories, the amount of published papers has been compared to the number of years a given observatory or instrument remained in service and the divisor of these two figures resulted in a “Papers per Year” or PpY number that may help determining the scientific impact any given instrument had. Fig. 6 illustrates this for all of the instruments portrayed here.

Science Statistics 1989 - 2002
Science Statistics
1989 - 2002

Fig. 6: Quantitative Analysis Papers per Year