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Exceptional astronomical seeing conditions above Dome C in Antarctica

Abstract

One of the most important considerations when planning the next generation of ground-based optical astronomical telescopes is to choose a site that has excellent ‘seeing’—the jitter in the apparent position of a star that is caused by light bending as it passes through regions of differing refractive index in the Earth's atmosphere. The best mid-latitude sites have a median seeing ranging from 0.5 to 1.0 arcsec (refs 1–5). Sites on the Antarctic plateau have unique atmospheric properties that make them worth investigating as potential observatory locations. Previous testing at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station has, however, demonstrated poor seeing, averaging 1.8 arcsec (refs 6, 7). Here we report observations of the wintertime seeing from Dome C (ref. 8), a high point on the Antarctic plateau at a latitude of 75° S. The results are remarkable: the median seeing is 0.27 arcsec, and below 0.15 arcsec 25 per cent of the time. A telescope placed at Dome C would compete with one that is 2 to 3 times larger at the best mid-latitude observatories, and an interferometer based at this site could work on projects that would otherwise require a space mission.

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Figure 1: Comparison of turbulence profiles obtained from similar instruments at Dome C and Cerro Tololo.
Figure 2: Dome C atmospheric coherence time, isoplanatic angle and seeing data as a function of time.
Figure 3: Histograms and cumulative distributions of the atmospheric seeing and the isoplanatic angle.

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Acknowledgements

The AASTINO project is supported by the Australian Research Council, the Australian Antarctic Division, the French and Italian Antarctic research programs (IPEV, PNRA) and the US National Science Foundation. The Dome C MASS is a collaboration between UNSW, CTIO and JPL. We thank J. Storey, A. Moore and C. Bonner for contributions during Dome C deployments; J. Storey, M. Swain, J. Lloyd, and J. Everett for intellectual input into the Dome C MASS project; S. Kenyon for assistance with data analysis; and V. Kornilov and N. Shatsky for software support of MASS. We also thank P. Gillingham for his encouragement over the past decade to demonstrate the existence of exceptional seeing from the Antarctic plateau.Authors' contributions J.S.L. and M.C.B.A. designed and operated the Antarctic MASS instrumentation and co-wrote this Letter. A.T. provided the MASS sensor in collaboration with V. Kornilov et al. and assisted with the data analysis. T.T. assisted with the SODAR data and installation of MASS at Dome C.

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Correspondence to Michael C. B. Ashley.

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Lawrence, J., Ashley, M., Tokovinin, A. et al. Exceptional astronomical seeing conditions above Dome C in Antarctica. Nature 431, 278–281 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02929

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