South Pole Telescope
America’s New Planet X Tracker
Jacco van der Worp
Foreword by Marshall Masters
The Internet is currently abuzz
with interest for what is fondly called Planet X. Whether Planet X is nothing but wild speculation or the subject
of serious investigation, if you know what to look for, chances are you will
find it. The debate about whether it
exists at all or not continues to rage.
Yet, most scientists in need of research funding will stay clear of
going against accepted theory; when asked, they will proclaim the official
dogma: "There is no such celestial body.
If there were, we would have observed it by now. We have not; therefore, it cannot be there (Quod
erat demonstrandum -- which was to be proven)."
Coming from the mouths of reputable astronomers, this
usually kills any debate before it even starts. Or perhaps it does not quite kill it totally; in spite of
vehement denial by almost everybody connected to the astronomical society, the
Planet X debate simply refuses to die off.
Better yet (or worse, depending on your point of view), it grows
stronger almost day by day.
Thanks to the continuing stream of mission and project
announcements that, on the surface, seem to defy logic altogether, this debate
lives on. We will look at one of these
seemingly logic-defying projects in this article.
We see a strong indication that something is afoot indeed,
something quite big.
A Telescope on
The above title should have
raised at least your eyebrows if you keep up with the news and know a bit about
international politics. But it is true;
a telescope, a rather large one at that, is under construction on Antarctica,
which is the South Pole continent. Most
people would not want to be found dead on that barren, frigid world, and
chances are you would end up frozen to death if you go there. The continent is a cold and lifeless hell;
it is no place for any human activity, for sure.
Nevertheless, the University of Chicago, together with those
of Berkeley, Case Western Reserve and Illinois, and the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Society are working on a project to build a telescope on
Antarctica, at a stone’s throw from the geographical southernmost tip of the
Latest news, March 2006
This month Airborne
Composites, The Netherlands, will complete the manufacturing of the Back up
Structure for the South Pole Telescope (SPT) at their Ypenburg, The Hague
premises. Early 2005, Airborne was selected
as contractor for the delivery of this 10 meter diameter carbon fiber dish by
General Dynamics VertexRSI in San Jose, USA.
Each component is designed so
that it can be broken into parts that will fit in an LC-130 aircraft, which can
carry about 11 metric tons and has a maximum cargo bay width of 3 meters. The installation window on the South Pole is
only 2 months due to the severe weather conditions. The SPT is planned to be ready for operation in 2007.
The ready-to-assemble parts are
being built right now in places around the world and will soon be flown to
Antarctica to be assembled on-site.
South or Into Space
The project website states
they want to look at Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, in order to help
determine the structure and age of the universe and to confirm whether the
expansion of the universe is actually accelerating.
South Pole Telescope
A new 10 meter diameter
telescope is being constructed for deployment at the NSF South Pole research
station. The telescope is designed for
conducting large-area millimeter and sub-millimeter wave surveys of faint, low
contrast emission, as required to map primary and secondary anisotropies in the
cosmic microwave background.
Remarkable progress has been
made in the characterization of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB)
over the last several years. It was
nearly 30 years after the initial discovery of the CMB by Penzias and Wilson in
1965 before small differences in its intensity were measured by COBE and its
spectrum was shown to be a blackbody to high precision.
Yet, this statement does not
explain why the telescope needs to be in such a remote, inhospitable location
as near the South Pole.
offers equally dark night skies and a stable atmosphere too; it has almost
equally cold winters, and it is much more easily accessible from the US and
Europe, the origins of the construction parts of the telescope and the places
the crews come from.
You're Not Alone! Join with Like-minded
Others on the Planet X Town Hall
When you take a look at the
total cost in terms of money and effort of transport, construction and
maintenance of a telescope on the South Pole, putting a similar telescope into
a space orbit could well be cheaper than placing it on the South Pole. One cannot help but think there is an
additional reason to build it on Antarctica.
The US Senate must have found at least one, because funding for the
construction and operation, while the process is anything but cheap, quietly
passed the vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Most of the extra cost the
operating crew will encounter on Antarctica will result from the extreme
weather conditions there. No matter how
quiet and cold the weather may get, the atmosphere always shows some degree of
activity, due to turbulence, density variation or pollution.
All these factors influence an
image obtained with the telescope and degrade the image, but it is possible to
compensate for this degradation by using optical techniques. A simple example is to take five pictures of
a steady object in a noisy environment and average the pictures out. The noise is random and will cancel out to
nearly zero. This will increase the
signal to noise ratio of the resulting image, which leaves the image with much
better contrast and quality.
In this particular case, a new
technique will be employed called adaptive optics. Adaptive optics will be used to compensate for the atmospheric
disturbances to the image obtained from a ground-based telescope. The adaptive optics for this telescope have
been developed in a $20 million project that started at the end of the 1990’s,
a project in which 27 partner institutions have joined. A major role in this development went to the
University of Chicago.
University of Chicago, 12 August, 1999
will play major role
in Adaptive Optics Center
The University will play a key
role as one of UCSC’s 27 partner institutions through the Chicago Adaptive
Optics System Laboratory, which will be led by Edward Kibblewhite, Professor in
Astronomy & Astrophysics, and in related Midwestern education and outreach
through the Space Explorers Program, led by Randall Landsberg, Director of
Education and Outreach for the University’s Center for Astrophysical Research
Adaptive optics will enable
ground-based telescopes to resolve objects 10 times smaller than is possible
today, Kibblewhite said. Earth’s
atmosphere distorts light from stars and galaxies in much the same way shimmering
heat from a road distorts distant objects.
This distortion has limited the resolution attained by astronomers for
the last 300 years.
But adaptive optics techniques
can remove the effect, permitting astronomers to observe everything from the
weather on Neptune to exploding stars at the most distant reaches of the
universe. The technique has more
earthly applications as well.
Kibblewhite began developing
such a laser in 1989 with $4.8 million in NSF grants. He plans to install the laser next year on the 3.5-meter
telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The system would give the telescope the same resolution in
infrared wavelengths as the Hubble Space Telescope, he said.
As part of the Center for
Adaptive Optics, Kibblewhite will attempt to develop a versatile laser for use
by any observatory. He also will
attempt to develop the mathematical techniques needed to use adaptive optics on
visible-light telescopes and for wider fields of view.
The last few sentences
certainly raised some eyebrows.
Development of the adaptive optics technique centers on both the
infrared and the visible light wavelength range. These are interesting ranges of observation if you are looking
for something specific.
The need for these adaptive
optical techniques in the meantime does increase the cost of using this
telescope considerably; again, the question of why governments are putting the
telescope on Antarctica rather than into orbit jumps up into our faces.
Race against Time
We must consider the limits
placed on human activity on Antarctica as well. The white continent must remain as pristine as possible;
international treaty only allows small-scale scientific research at the
"bottom of the world.” A larger
telescope, especially with dozens of building, maintenance and operating crew
members stationed there on a semi-permanent basis to assemble and run it, will
more or less upset the ecology and break the treaty. The strangest aspect to all of this has to be the short amount of
time from the start of this project until expected completion.
The construction of the
telescope started in November 2004.
This telescope is planned to be in operation in 2007. It has to be delivered in parts and sections
by a fleet of C-130 cargo aircraft and assembled on-site with only approximately a two-month per year window of
opportunity in the harsh weather to safely construct and install all of the
components. What is the hurry with this
project? What is so compelling in the
sky above the South Pole that anyone would need to rush to see it? Why this murderous schedule of a total of
six months of construction to assemble a fairly large telescope? Is there a deeper goal to this project?
A closer look at the project
web page might shed some light on that.
The South Pole Telescope construction started in November of 2004. Its goal, as stated above, is to observe
space in the sub-millimeter range. At
first, it doesn't look like anything spectacular, but taking a closer look, it
appears that this will be an infrared telescope mainly.
Infrared Astronomy is the
discipline of astronomy studying the skies for wavelengths that range from 1
micron (one millionth of a meter) to 1 millimeter (one thousandth of a
meter). The shortest wavelength in the
infrared band is just beyond visible light.
Red laser light from a ruby laser has a wavelength of 694.3 nanometers
or 0.69 micron. From 1 micron to just
above 1 micron is called near-infrared; the 10-100+ micron range is called far
infrared. Humans can't see infrared
radiation, but we can feel it.