ann14031 — Announcement

Antarctica High Plateau
4 November 2014
International Antarctic Observatory Proposed

At the biennial meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) in Auckland, New Zealand, in August 2014 the construction of an Antarctic Plateau International Astronomical Observatory (APIAO) was proposed [1].

The APIAO would carry out carefully chosen projects that could not be afforded by individual groups or countries, but will require international collaboration for their success. The international community would cooperate in designing, building and operating the best facilities at the most appropriate locations in Antarctica — based on site conditions and logistical feasibility — to deliver the best scientific results.

The high, almost flat, Antarctic plateau provides a unique location for conducting observational astronomy. Having the driest, coldest and most stable atmospheric conditions on Earth, new spectral windows are opened, and precision measurements of incident cosmic radiation are possible.

The IAU has been examining the prospects for conducting astronomy from Antarctica since 1991, when a Working Group was established at the General Assembly in Buenos Aires. Triggered by the success of the IAU Symposium, Astrophysics from Antarctica, in Beijing in 2012, the members of SCAR’s Astronomy & Astrophysics from Antarctica (AAA) scientific research programme discussed the next steps needed to create an observatory in Antarctica [2].

To minimise running costs and reduce the required manpower there would be an emphasis on robotic observatories, able to gather data with only a minimal on-site human presence. The APIAO would perform science that can be conducted more efficiently from Antarctica compared to other sites; whether they are at temperate latitudes or in space.

Building an observatory on the Antarctic plateau is, of course, challenging. Although access is easier and cheaper than to space, there are the same demands for reliability and autonomous instrumentation with redundancies. Despite the challenging environment, astronomical facilities in Antarctica have so far been driven by national programmes and aimed at providing telescopes for particular bases. SCAR’s AAA proposal on the other hand focussed on how international cooperation might be facilitated and duplication minimised.

The APIAO would tackle five broad science themes, for which the special conditions of Antarctica provide particular advantages. The scientific themes are currently envisaged as follows:

  1. Understanding what happened in the first second after the Big Bang.
  2. Searching for light from the first stars, born at the end of the Dark Age of the Universe.
  3. Following the galactic carbon trail to trace the life cycle of the Milky Way.
  4. Imaging exoplanets to search for analogues of Earth, including signatures of life.
  5. Discovering the origin of the highest energy particles in nature.

SCAR itself has recently undergone an horizon scan exercise to define future priorities for all Antarctic science and to guide national Antarctic programmes by setting priorities. Observing Space and the Universe is one of six themes that arose from this process. The AAA scientific research programme has the mission to develop the concept of the APIAO over its next term and propose it to national programmes and funding agencies. It seeks help from the international astronomy community to do so. If you are interested in contributing please contact Michael Burton or John Storey to discuss how this might best be possible.


[1] SCAR is a body of the International Council of Science (ICSU), with the IAU being one of its members.

[2] Find out more about SCAR AAA at the corresponding exhibitor booth at the IAU XXIX General Assembly in Hawaii.



Michael Burton
Chair, AAA Science Working Group
University of New South Wales, Australia
Tel: +61 02 9385 5618

John Storey
Chief Officer of AAA, and IAU representative to SCAR
University of New South Wales, Australia
Tel: +61 2 9385 4578

Lars Lindberg Christensen
IAU Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 320 06 761
Cell: +49 173 38 72 621

About the Announcement



Antarctica High Plateau
The HEAT telescope