Special News ReportAstronomy

Stargazing From the End of the Earth

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Science  30 Jan 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5351, pp. 655-657
DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5351.655

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SOUTH POLE-- Although the thin, still, bone-dry air and constant winter darkness here offer observing conditions better than practically anywhere else short of outer space, it wasn't known until recently if it would even be possible to operate a telescope over the winter. Many astronomers now contend that, since it was founded in 1991, the Center for Astrophysics in Antarctica (CARA), a $28 million test-bed for astronomers to build and operate instruments in the unforgiving antarctic environment, has succeeded in demonstrating that this is a viable place to do cutting-edge astronomy. At an American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego in June, CARA staff members will make a pitch to the broader community to support an International Antarctic Observatory (IAO). But unless IAO boosters overcome several hurdles, the biggest one being funding, the grand plans for an observatory could come to naught. Realizing that the National Science Foundation alone won't foot a bill totaling at least $100 million for all the telescopes they want, proponents will try to put together international coalitions under IAO's umbrella to pay for individual instruments. The project would have to compete for logistical support with the new station. And CARA's own image as a clubby organization that doesn't welcome outside ideas, together with the problems it has experienced with some of its telescopes, could also hamper the bid for a new observatory.