MSSSO Annual Report 1997


Stromlo Exploratory

The Stromlo Exploratory was opened to the public on 25 July 1997 by the Chief Minister of the ACT, Mrs. Kate Carnell. The Stromlo Exploratory is an interactive science centre, purpose-built to cater for the community's fascination with astronomy, but, in addition, to be a display case for the ANU's powerhouse of scientific research generally. Exhibits from JCSMR and RSES are also in place.

Many of the packed audience of friends of the Stromlo Exploratory and the University had been present in November 1996, when science minister, Peter McGauran, opened the Bok Building. On this occasion the audience was assembled under the open dome of the Duffield Heliostat; there was a brief ribbon cutting and release of balloons, and the Chief Minister pressed the heliostat control button to acquire the Sun.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor thanked the Chief Minister and noted that the University had received many gifts to enable Mount Stromlo to build the facility. Prominent donations and sponsorships, which were publicly acknowledged included: Miss Joan Duffield, the Gwynvill Group, the Thyne Reid Educational Trust, the Australian Skeptics Education Foundation, Electro Optic Systems Pty Ltd, the Mazda Foundation, ACTEW, the Australian Space Office and the ACT Government.

The Director of MSSSO added his thanks to the following volunteers: Mr. Alex Brinkmeyer (Chair) and the Fundraising Committee, Sir Gustav Nossal, Patron of the Fundraising Committee, Dr. Don Faulkner, Chair of the Exhibits Committee, Mr. Vince O'Connor, Mr. John Hart and his team, and Mr. Rob Apathy and team (optical & radio facilities). The engineering story of the Duffield Heliostat is told elsewhere in this report.

Finally, the Exploratories Manager, Dr Tony Oldfield, added a few words about the Exploratory as a tourist and educational facility, which now takes its place among the tourist attractions of the nation's capital. In the first six months over 12,000 visitors took in the Stromlo Exploratory astronomy exhibition; the Red Belly Black Café established a steady clientele, and a number of educational programs commenced, including a popular summer schools program.

Other Highlights

Opening of the AASTO

Fig. 3: Senator Robert Hill opening the AASTO

The combination of cold, dry, clear and tenuous air makes us believe that on the Antarctic Plateau we may find the premier astronomical observing site on the Earth. The Plateau is both the coldest and driest place on the Earth. Winter temperatures average below -60C, wind speeds are generally light, and skies are clear for over 70% of the time. The air is exceedingly dry. As a result, the column of water vapour which normally blocks the transmission of electromagnetic waves from the near infrared through to the sub-millimetre waveband is very low at the surface, and is virtually absent at high altitude. A telescope placed at the best site could open up new IR and sub-mm windows on the universe normally closed to all but space based missions. It would have unprecedented sensitivity to study the formation epoch of galaxies, provide data on the physics of black holes at the centres of galaxies, permit the detection of protoplanetary systems, to understand physical processes in all classes of variable stars, and would provide key data for a host of other studies covering all branches of modern astrophysics.

MSSSO Annual Report 1997

The astronomical and logistical considerations restrict the possible sites for such an enterprise to three, South Pole Station; where the Americans have already established an observatory, but which is probably not the premier site, Vostok, and Dome C; where the French and Italians are building a new overwinter station.

The collaboration between MSSSO and UNSW, established by the Institute of Advanced Studies Strategic Development Fund, and known as JACARA, the Joint Australian Centre for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica, have purchased an Automated Astrophysical Site Testing Observatory (AASTO) based on the similar units used for geophysical research. JACARA has already started, in close collaboration with the US Center for Astrophysical Research in the Antarctic (CARA), and with the co-operation of the French and Italians, a program of site evaluation and proof of technology based at South Pole Station and later, at Dome C. JACARA intends to determine the atmospheric transmission and sky brightness over a wide base of wavelengths, to understand the quality of the images that will be formed (the "seeing"), and to gather basic meteorological data at potential observing sites.

The AASTO was officially opened by Senator Robert Hill on January 9, 1997 (Figure 3). In December 1998 two experiments will be added. The following year the AASTO will be moved 2,000 kilometres to Dome C (a high point on the Antarctic plateau), and the year after it may be possible to explore Dome A, the highest point on the plateau.