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Sky Watchers Build Antarctic Base

Observatory at South Pole will afford an especially clear view for scientists testing theories

By Robert NaeyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 1992


SURROUNDED by a vast frozen wasteland that stretches for nearly 1,000 miles in every direction, a small group of astronomers and engineers have just finished the first three months' construction of a state-of-the-art observatory at one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth: the South Pole. They now face a bone-chilling winter with six months of perpetual darkness.

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When the observatory is complete, a few hardy scientists will brave winter temperatures that plummet to minus 100 degrees F. to test theories about how the universe evolved from the ashes of the Big Bang and how matter is distributed in the galaxy.

The South Pole's 2,835-meter (9,300-foot) altitude, combined with an atmosphere containing virtually no water vapor, produces some of the clearest skies on the surface of the earth. The minimal atmospheric distortion will enable the polar astronomers to detect celestial objects 100 times fainter than those observable from temperate latitudes.

"The opportunity to build these telescopes is very exciting because of the potential dramatic increase in sensitivity," says D. A. Harper, an astronomer at the University of Chicago. Dr. Harper will detail the progress of the observatory at the April 20 meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C.

Harper directs the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA), located at the Amundsen-Scott Station, a United States scientific research facility established at the South Pole in 1957. A consortium of nine institutions, led by the University of Chicago, teamed up to develop the center, which will be running at full speed by 1994.

The center will operate three projects. Two of them will attempt to unravel one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in astronomy: how and when galaxies formed.

Astronomers place the birth of galaxies a few billion years after the Big Bang, the explosion most scientists believe created the universe. But the first infant galaxies are located near the edge of the observable universe, so far away that telescopes have not been able to detect them.

One experiment now under way will seek clues to their origin by making a map of the primeval structure of the universe, says project co-leader Jeffrey Peterson of Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

Peterson's group will use sophisticated telescopes to look for subtle variations in the cosmic background radiation, a faint microwave signal that bathes the universe with equal intensity in every direction. Most astronomers assume that this radiation was created moments after the Big Bang spewed matter in every direction.

The discovery of this radiation in 1965 provided crucial support for the Big Bang theory. But recent satellite observations have shown the background radiation to be more uniform than the theory predicts. Astronomers had expected the satellite to reveal slight variations in the radiation's smoothness, representing regions where gravity caused matter to clump together into proto-galaxies.

Surprisingly, the satellite did not find any variation. The South Pole detectors, which will be 30 times more sensitive than the satellite detectors, should be able to find them.

Once the full array of detectors has been put in place in November 1993, Dr. Peterson predicts, "We will see the process of galaxy formation in its early stage with our telescopes."