Tour: Chinese astronomers visit UNSW collaborators

PLATO at Dome A. Image: Zhenxi Xhu and Zhou Xu
Wednesday, 20 February, 2013
Deborah Smith

A high level delegation from China, led by the Vice-President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Professor Wenlong Zhan, has toured the School of Physics.

This week’s visitors included two astronomers from the Purple Mountain Observatory outside Nanjing, which is known as the “cradle of modern astronomy in China” due to its historical significance -  the observatory’s Director-General, Professor Ji Yang, and Professor Lifan Wang.

UNSW’s collaboration with Chinese astronomers began in 2004 when Professor Wang asked a team led by Professors Michael Ashley and John Storey to attend a workshop in Beijing on building telescopes to observe the heavens from Antarctica.

Later that year, an optical camera to measure cloud coverage, built at UNSW, was taken by a Chinese team to Dome A, which is one of the coldest and most remote places on Earth.

Dome A is about 1200 kilometres inland and more than 4000 metres high and is ideal for stargazing because it has clear skies, no rain, few clouds and the air is still.

“This was the first time any human being had ever been to Dome A,” says Professor Ashley.

In a second two-week long traverse across the snow in 2007 the Chinese took more than 550 tonnes of equipment to Dome A, including a robotic observatory built by UNSW, called PLATO.

There was a concern the 10-tonne shipping containers holding PLATO might fall through the thin ice next to the icebreaker when unloaded in Antarctica. But the observatory made it safely to Dome A, where the Chinese worked in the bitter cold for a month to set up their experiments.

Professor Ashley says the efforts of the Chinese team were extraordinary: “It’s a very physically challenging environment. It’s hard to think and breathe there.”

PLATO was developed with funding from the Australian Research Council and a $250,000 grant from UNSW.

A second PLATO observatory, PLATO-A, was sent to Dome A in late 2011 and is still running a China telescope called AST3.

                                 Professor Les Field and Professor Wenlong Zhan.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Les Field welcomed the Chinese delegation, which included a scientist involved with the internationally funded $2 billion Square Kilometre Array radio telescope that is to be built in Australia and southern Africa.

Professor Zhan says he is looking forward to further collaboration with UNSW Science.

Future Chinese plans include the commissioning of two additional AST3 telescopes and the construction of two new telescopes, to observe in the optical/infra-red and terahertz frequency ranges.

“This will push China to the forefront of astronomy from Antarctica,” says Professor Ashley. “Our collaboration has been very fruitful scientifically and has also established strong respect and friendship between the participants.”