Astronomers of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) with the 24th Antarctic expedition team have erected an array of four 14.5-centimetre telescopes called CSTAR (Chinese Small Telescope Array) on Dome A in the Antarctica. The equipment was sent to the South Pole by the Antarctic research vessel "Xuelong," or "Snow Dragon", which set sail for the region on Nov. 12, 2007 from Shanghai.
A brainchild by the CAS Nanjing Institute of Astronomical Optics and Technology, CSTAR is the first set of optical astronomical facilities in the region, which will be used by a robotic observatory named PLATO to hunt for alien planets. PLATO, which incorporates instruments from China, the US, and the UK, was built at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. It is powered by a gas generator, and has a 4000-litre tank of jet fuel to keep it running through the lingering winter there.
CSTAR is slated to monitor a 20-square-degree patch of sky -- about 100 times the area of the Full Moon -- for four months straight. It will search for planets around other stars by looking for a star's dimming light caused by a planet passing in front of it as seen from Earth.
Dome A claims the best astronomical sky conditions in the world, as it is devoid of clouds and boasting steady air that makes for clear viewing. The observatory will also measure the observing conditions at the site to see if it is worth trying to build bigger observatories there.
In the meantime, preparations for larger projects for Antarctic observation are underway. The short-, mid-, and long-term plans of the Antarctic Astronomical Center of China involve building a 35cm testing telescope and a prototype of wide filed survey telescope XIAN in about two to three years; a 400 telescope array with 50cm aperture XIAN and a 2-m LAMOST type survey telescope in about five to eight years; and an 8-16m LAMOST type telescope in about 10 to 15 years.
(gov.cn February 21, 2008)