Reader response: cold calculations
28 Oct 2013|

While it’s good to see ASPI writing about Antarctica and pointing out some obvious areas where further investment would pay dividends, I think it undersells some existing scientific efforts. It’s true that Australia’s Antarctic program is supported by aging infrastructure and has mostly remained focused on the coastal strip and the marine environment. But there have been efforts further inland as well. Through the development of series of autonomous laboratories, there’s been an Australian presence over the plateau of the Australian Antarctic Territory for the past two decades.

These are capable of controlling advanced experimentation at unmanned sites through the harsh Antarctic winter, while communicating via the Iridium satellite system with a home base back in Sydney—so allowing a complex experimental program to be conducted. Three generations of these laboratories have now been designed and built by Australia. First there was the Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory (AASTO) at the South Pole in the mid 90’s. Then came the Automated Astrophysical Site Testing INternational Observatory (AASTINO) at Dome C in the early 00’s. Most recently it has been the PLATeau Observatory (PLATO) , now operating at Dome A, Dome F and Ridge A—all summits of the Antarctic plateau, and the coldest and driest locations on our planet. Aside from Dome F, all of these sites lie within the Australian Antarctic Territory.

These laboratories have arisen from collaborative programs with a series of international partners. First it was the USA at the South Pole, then France and Italy at Dome C. With the PLATO program it has been China at Dome A, Japan at Dome F and the USA at Ridge A. A fourth generation PLATO is now being discussed as a possible means of providing the power and control for the observatory planned by China at its new Kunlun station at Dome A. The science here is space—the summits of the Antarctic plateau provide the best locations on the surface of our planet for measuring the faint signals from distant objects in the cosmos across large portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our partners have provided the logistics and infrastructure to bring the laboratories to the high plateau. Australia has designed and built them, together with much of the advanced instrumentation that they control.

Australia is leading the developments in this arena, is active in the international partnerships and has influence with its collaborators. This is frontier science and Australia is internationally respected for its contributions and its leadership. But the program is being run by the University of New South Wales and isn’t a part of a national program conducted by the Antarctic Division (AAD). Funding support comes primarily from the university system, and the national bodies that support university research, such as the Australian Research Council, as well as astronomy research such as Astronomy Australia Ltd. There’s also some support through the AAD’s Antarctic Science Program ($20K/year), but Australia lacks the logistic and infrastructure capability to directly support this work through its national Antarctic program. For that support, the program has relied on the generosity of the international partners, who have provided logistic support worth over $10 million to date. That they’re prepared to contribute such resources is testament to the Australian contributions to the pioneering of these programs.

But while our scientific contribution is good, Australia’s contributions are otherwise thin on the ground. The resources a university can call upon to work in Antarctica are limited. Australia’s lack of a logistic capability to access large areas of its Antarctic territory means that ultimately its influence in these partnerships will diminish as the infrastructure at the new high plateau stations continues to grow. Yet this also remains an opportunity, for currently Australian expertise and vision is driving the plans to develop many new science programs. It provides a means by which Australia can demonstrate that it is indeed the lead nation in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Michael Burton is in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales. He has been chair of the International Astronomical Union’s working group for the Development of Antarctic Astronomy. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.