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WHAT IS THE CENTER FOR ASTROPHYSICAL RESEARCH IN ANTARCTICA?


11/22/94
J. S. Sweitzer

Although the potential from doing exciting astronomy in Antarctica is high, it is the most inhospitable continent on the Earth. It is also enormous and far from the countries where astronomers live. Since there are only a few months when it is warm enough to build telescopes in the sunlight, time is precious there too. This makes doing anything at the South Pole extremely difficult and relatively expensive. To take advantage of the continent as a place to observe the Universe required a different approach to the way scientists are organized.

In 1991 the National Science Foundation sponsored the formation of a new Science and Technology Center to tackle the scientific and environmental challenges of Antarctica. Named the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA), this collaboration has its administrative headquarters at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory. The director is D. A. Harper. The scientific institutions that make up CARA include: the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Colorado, Rockwell International Science Center, Boston University, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois and The Adler Planetarium. Participation beyond these home institutions of CARA's scientists has been broadened to include researchers from around the world.

The site of CARA's activities is at its observatory at the South Pole. This observatory is 1 km from the main South Pole base in an area called the Dark Sector. This is to keep the telescopes from the heat and light pollution of the inhabited base. CARA's current facilities include two laboratory buildings built on trusses to keep the blowing snow from burying them, and a telescope for studying the microwave radiation from the Big Bang. One building will soon have a sub millimeter telescope mounted on it. Next to the other, larger lab building there will soon be a tower that will support an infrared telescope called SPIREX (South Pole Infrared Explorer).

CARA scientists work on four different research projects. The first is called AST/RO for Antarctic Sub millimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory. Antony Stark is the principle scientist on this project and plans to begin surveying star forming clouds in our galaxy beginning in 1995. COBRA (Cosmic Background Anisotropy) is an experiment to look for the earliest signs of structure in the Universe. Mark Dragovan and Jeffrey Peterson head up this effort to observe faint irregularities in the microwave radiation from the Big Bang. The third experiment is called SPIREX (South Pole Infrared Explorer) and is under the direction of Mark Hereld. It will survey the Universe at near infrared wavelengths to look for young stars and galaxies. The fourth and final scientific project that CARA scientists are working on is called ATP for the Advanced Telescopes Project. John Bally leads this effort to help CARA scientists understand the properties of the Antarctic atmosphere that can be exploited by the current set of telescopes. ATP research will also guide the plans for the next generation of Antarctic astronomical observatories.

CARA also supports educational and technological outreach programs. Its three principal educational partners are the Adler Planetarium, the University of Chicago's Office of Special Programs, and George Williams College. The Center works with the National Science Foundation to send educators and students to the South Pole routinely. These programs are only a part of the wide range of activities that CARA operates to make sure that the scientific investment made in its basic research reaches and benefits the widest possible audience.

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