Testing began in January of an unmanned astronomical observatory at the US station at the South Pole. The remotely controlled facility was developed by a research consortium consisting of the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia), which is the coordinating institution, Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA), and the Australian National University (Canberra, Australia). All three schools are providing instrumentation for the Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory (AASTO). The project is geared toward possible future development of a large, remotely operated Antarctic observatory, in addition to acquiring astronomical images.
The South Polar test site is nearly 8000 ft above sea level, placing it above most atmospheric turbulence and infrared-absorbing water vapor. The AASTO control module is connected via fiberoptics to three telescopes: a 300-mm optical telescope, an infrared telescope to penetrate cosmic gas and dust clouds, and a submillimeter telescope to image background long-wavelength radiation attributed to the Big Bang. Infrared and longer wavelength observations are used to help determine cosmic evolution and the distribution of matter and energy throughout the universe.
An AASTO Skymonitor, supplied by Carnegie Mellon University, measures sky opacity in the microwave and far-infrared wavelengths. The instrument, which includes a chopper and filter wheel (left) and elevation scan mirror (right), determines which wavelengths can best be used.
The AASTO will undergo testing at the base for two years to confirm the robustness of its systems under severe conditions. After this accessible shakedown period, it will be flown to a site 1250 miles distant from the Pole for a one-year completely automated operational assessment. Data from the distant site will be relayed by satellite to the University of New South Wales.