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This is the best place on Earth to watch the stars, but it’s freezing

Published Jul 30th, 2020 11:14PM EDT
best telescope location

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  • Scientists have pinpointed the best place on the planet to stick a telescope, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
  • The highest ice dome on the Antarctic Plateau would provide the best view of the cosmos of any spot on Earth.
  • Unfortunately, constructing and utilizing a high-powered observatory at such a location poses its own challenges.

Skywatching is a hobby enjoyed by countless amateur astronomers across the globe, and everyone knows that if you want to get a good view of the cosmos you need clear skies. Light pollution and weather are two of the biggest factors affecting attempts to gaze at distant objects in space, but a new study has pinpointed a place where those two things are rarely an issue. The catch? It’s ridiculously cold there.

The international team of researchers published a study in Nature where they describe how they came to the conclusion that the tallest ice dome on the Antarctic Plateau is the perfect place to stick a telescope if you want a clear view of the universe.

When you’re trying to look into space from the middle of a city your view is hindered by light pollution from the surrounding infrastructure. There’s no way to fight it, other than heading out and finding a spot where lights aren’t such a problem. As for the weather, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature wherever you might be on the planet. The Antarctic Plateau, however, is ideal because of how predictable both of those factors are.

“A telescope located at Dome A could out-perform a similar telescope located at any other astronomical site on the planet,” UBC astronomer Paul Hickson, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “The combination of high altitude, low temperature, long periods of continuous darkness, and an exceptionally stable atmosphere, makes Dome A a very attractive location for optical and infrared astronomy. A telescope located there would have sharper images and could detect fainter objects.”

As an added bonus, perching a telescope in Antarctica offers a view of the sky through atmosphere that is particularly stable. When viewing space from most other locations on Earth, an unstable atmosphere can affect observations. As the researchers note, it’s why stars appear to twinkle even on the clearest of nights. That’s bad for science, but it’s less of a problem on the Antarctic dome identified by the researchers.

The problem, of course, is that nobody really wants to build a high-powered telescope in a location as hostile as Antarctica is for most of the year. The remote location offers benefits for science, but nobody wants to actually work there. Remotely-operated telescopes are a possibility, but even then, issues with frost and telescope maintenance would be a challenge. For now, the hypothetical “best” place on the planet to place a high-powered telescope will remain without one.