for National Geographic News
Astronomers have a new eye on the sky from what may be the best observatory location on Earth—the desolate Antarctic Plateau.
An international expedition led by the Polar Research Institute of China has assembled a fully automated observatory known as PLATO (PLATeau Observatory) at Dome Argus on the plateau's highest point.
(See an interactive map of Antarctica.)
The observatory site is so remote that humans have visited it only twice—fewer times than they've walked on the moon.
But Dome Argus is thought to offer the best view of the heavens available anywhere on the planet.
Operating in Extremes
PLATO, which consists of equipment from China, the U.S., and the U.K., was completed last month as part of a global scientific effort known as the International Polar Year.
The observatory will begin sending data by satellite in a few weeks, when darkness returns to Antarctica after the 24-hour daylight of summer.
The automated facility is powered by solar panels and, during Antarctica's lightless winter, by small diesel engines.
PLATO's seven telescopes are expected to afford views that can only be matched from space—at a fraction of the cost and with far easier access for repairs.
But the site's extreme weather poses challenges, project scientists say.
"The weather's not bad in that there are [few] high winds or storms, but that doesn't mean it's easy to work with," said Jon Lawrence, who led PLATO's development and assembly at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
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