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Canada Space Science

Is the Canadian Arctic the Future of Astronomy? 106

Posted by samzenpus
from the planets-and-poutine dept.
sciencehabit writes "Frigid temperatures, dry air, and endless nights should, in theory, make the polar regions top spots for ground-based optical astronomy. So far, Antarctica has been getting all the action, with a handful of optical telescopes peering into the sky from the icy continent. But a new study indicates that the Canadian high Arctic is also a good spot for ground-based optical astronomy. In fact, the great white north offers some practical advantages over the Antarctic."
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Is the Canadian Arctic the Future of Astronomy?

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  • Firstly... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smi.james.th (1706780) on Friday January 06, 2012 @05:43AM (#38608044)

    To begin with, it'd probably be easier to get there.

    Disclaimer: I've never so much as been to Canada so I don't know what it's like in the polar region there, but I'd imagine that the lack of a huge southwards plane / boat voyage would be an immediate bonus over Antarctica.

    Probably be easier to get internet and other communication up there as well.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kahless62003 (1372913)
      Secondly... the annoying light pollution you get from the aurora borealis.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        The south pole has aurora too.

        • Re:Firstly... (Score:5, Informative)

          by MichaelSmith (789609) on Friday January 06, 2012 @06:07AM (#38608126) Homepage Journal

          Its possible to put a telescope at the south spin pole because of the base there, and that is a long way from the south magnetic pole, which attracts the aurora. The northern spin pole is in ice over water and the northern magnetic pole is IIRC in Canada, so maybe this means a telescope in Canada would see more of the aurora.

          • Aurora location (Score:5, Informative)

            by dtmos (447842) * on Friday January 06, 2012 @07:51AM (#38608508)

            Aurora occur in rings centered on the magnetic poles [noaa.gov], not at the magnetic poles themselves. As activity intensifies, the radius of these rings increases, in parallel with lines of geomagnetic latitude [nwra.com], but even in periods of very low solar activity their radius never goes to near zero -- meaning, there are few aurora near the magnetic poles themselves.

            • by dargaud (518470)

              Aurora occur in rings centered on the magnetic poles

              Sorry, but that is not correct. Auroras [gdargaud.net] occur in rings centered on the geomagnetic poles, which are more or less between the geographic pole and the magnetic pole. Look at the small map [gdargaud.net] I did here to explain the choice of Dome C for astronomy: it's smack near the geomagnetic pole, meaning we hardly ever see auroras down there... C:-(

              From this page [gdargaud.net]:

              The geomagnetic pole, located somewhat between the magnetic and geographic pole, is harder to define. The Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field that extends far away in space and protects us from the solar radiations. This layer converges on the Earth at the geomagnetic poles. You can also consider it as the true axis of the 'magnet Earth' (the dipole equivalent). It is approximately 1200 kilometers from the south pole, close to Vostok Station (roughly halfway between geographic and magnetic pole). The maximum amount of auroras tend to happen on a 1000km radius circle centered on this pole.

          • by formfeed (703859)

            Its possible to put a telescope at the south spin pole because of the base there.

            The base where earth rests or the bearing for the axle?

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Nunuvut is actually fairly close to the current location of the north magnetic pole. This can be annoying (as in Aurora Borealis light pollution) or useful (cosmic ray telescopes). I just noticed that google maps only covers up to 85 degrees latitude. How many school kids are getting a distorted view that the earth stops there? What are the spy satellites not showing us in that 300 mile wide band between 85 north and the north pole, Santa?

          • I just noticed that google maps only covers up to 85 degrees latitude. How many school kids are getting a distorted view that the earth stops there? What are the spy satellites not showing us in that 300 mile wide band between 85 north and the north pole, Santa?

            Spherical mercator projection can't represent the poles in any sensible way. As you get closer to the poles, the map gets more and more stretched. This is usually ok since there isn't a lot of interest at the poles...

    • by Hadlock (143607)

      I think both locations experience -40 for long stretches of time (currently -14F at Amundsenâ"Scott station, South Pole... but it's the middle of summer there), and even though there's land under the airplane flying you to the station, I'm not sure that makes it easier to supply the station. In fact, it's cheaper to supply bases by boat (though the south pole station is inland by about 1300-2500miles, depending on who's counting). Internet access is going to be by Satellite/radio link as well, probably

      • I think its in Nunavut. the article mentions PEARL being on the 80th parallel - which is way up in Ellesmere island's neck of the woods. agreed, communication probably by satellite/radio - theres only a couple cell towers in Nunavut at the moment - owned by Lynx Mobility

      • Re:Firstly... (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @07:22AM (#38608384)

        I dont' have the exact location, but the approximate site [google.ca] is on western Ellesmere Island, near 80degN, 86deg 25'W, just west of Eureka. I've been to Eureka, which is mainly a weather station on the north side of Slidre Fiord, right on the coastline (if you move east along the shore in Google Maps you'll see it). It has a nice airstrip up the hill that Hercules and other large military aircraft can land at. In the fall (usually September) the base gets resupplied by an icebreaker, so theoretically it is possible to steam all the way up there with a big instrument and offload it, and then move it by road. The PEARL station [candac.ca] is a 15km drive to the west from there. It's quite pleasant at Eureka in the summertime (up to 15C). In the winter, well, I wouldn't want to be there, but 24 hours of darkness and bitter cold is probably good for astronomy, and it is much more accessible than the Antarctic pole. Although it wouldn't get continual coverage all the way to the horizon, at 80 degrees north you could still track a target 24 hours a day over most of the northern sky in winter.

        People are right that building on permafrost is a challenge, but one that is probably a lot easier than building on ice. Likewise, yes, communication would have to be by satellite, but that's true in Antarctica too. On the whole this is indeed a much more accessible location.

    • Re:Firstly... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki.gmail@com> on Friday January 06, 2012 @06:37AM (#38608228) Homepage

      To be perfectly honest? The difference between the antarctic and arctic is...land travel. So it is easier. In the summer, you can get around by short carrier craft jumps and ship hopping. In the winter, you can drive trucks from point to point. It gets cold there, I've had friends stationed in Resolute, AKA the asshole of Canada. As for communication? Hah no. Emergencies are handled by sat phones. Major outpost cities are done by uplinks via satellite too. There's too much of an issue with the frost/freeze cycle in the spring to drop down landlines.

      And well, if it becomes big enough, and important enough. The government may, eventually, possibly decide to drop in a rail link. But don't hold your breath, otherwise they'll simply sub in plane drops like we do for other remote cities. But that's it. If you live in the middle of nowhere Canada, you're on your own. I've been there.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        The other difference is shear distance. Like it or not (and apologies to our friends in Australia/South Africa/Brazil/etc.) most of the world's richest and most heavily populated countries are in the northern hemisphere. An awful lot of them are near the Atlantic, and a substantial amount of the world's wealthiest are in North America.

        For most people, a flight to an airport in Canada will be a small fraction of the multi-stepped journey to the Antarctic continent. The last leg (from the airport to the base)

    • You insensitive clod! I live in the Southern Hemisphere, way way South. It's much easier to get to the ANTarctic.

      • Lol. I also live in the Southern Hemisphere, South Africa to be precise.

        There's not nearly as much by way of infrastructure here as there is in the USA, which is, last time I checked, right next door to Canada.

        • by PhotoJim (813785)

          Indeed, and Canada has tons of its own infrastructure. You can drive to the Arctic, and scheduled airline flights get to many points up there as well.

          Now, the parts of the Arctic that are being considered here may not have roads to them, but it is still a relatively easy jaunt to them from ports in eastern Canada and the northeastern USA. It might be easy to get from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica by boat, but you still have a lot of overland schlepping that you wouldn't have to the same degree in Arctic

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      If it were really worth it, we could dig some huge-ass underground tunnels and bypass all of that nasty weather.

      I know there's been more than a few situations where something bad happens and we can't get our people out of Antarctica because it is during that unfortunate time when no planes can land.

      • by PhotoJim (813785)

        That's not the case in Arctic Canada, except for specific short periods of intense weather. Due to the presence of the Arctic Ocean, the temperatures are much more moderate so air travel occurs pretty much all year long.

        • by fishbowl (7759)

          You are disclosing a secret that should not be revealed. Please endeavor to maintain the premise that the entirety of Canada is a frozen, desolate tundra inhospitable to human life. There will be no further warnings.

  • there should be more than a few points that are up high there as well.
  • fiber (Score:4, Insightful)

    by spectrokid (660550) on Friday January 06, 2012 @05:47AM (#38608060) Homepage
    Telescopes generate huges amount of data. Fiber to the south pole must not be cheap.
    • Why? You don't even have to dig!

    • Maybe initial analysis could be done on site and data dumped to storage media to be couriered elsewhere every few days?

      Anything with higher priority could be transmitted by satellite uplink, presuming the cost of such bandwidth is not prohibitive.
      • by dkf (304284)

        Maybe initial analysis could be done on site and data dumped to storage media to be couriered elsewhere every few days?

        Anything with higher priority could be transmitted by satellite uplink, presuming the cost of such bandwidth is not prohibitive.

        All travel in Antarctica is difficult, as it is at the whim of the local ferocious weather. What's more, with telescopes you typically store all the data collected because it's very hard to work out what's important, i.e., it takes significant image processing and you don't necessarily know yet what you're looking for (modern astronomy is less hypothesis-driven than particle physics during the data collection stage).

    • Re:fiber (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Friday January 06, 2012 @08:39AM (#38608768) Homepage

      Never underestimate a ship packed with hard-drives... or something. Oftentimes FedEx-ing data is cheaper AND faster.

  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Friday January 06, 2012 @05:54AM (#38608084) Homepage Journal

    Or use a site at the equator. Its useless arguing between north and south poles. Each can only see half the sky.

    • by GauteL (29207) on Friday January 06, 2012 @06:08AM (#38608136)

      "Or use a site at the equator. Its useless arguing between north and south poles. Each can only see half the sky."

      This depends on what you're after. Having only half of a near limitless supply of information may not be a problem to you, as long as you can make the reasonable assumption that the two halves are statistically representative of the other.

      A bigger problem may be that just as they both have one very long winter night, they also one very long summer day (clearly neither are endless).

      • Why not doit on top of mount everest then?

        http://g.co/maps/ugkwm [g.co] as you can see in this link it is almost at the equator level and would be able to have a 360 look of the universe, and i bet it is a nice place to have a telescope. and im gessing that it would not be that hard to run some fiber optics or even a wireless link could be made, it could be operated remotly from some confy office.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          And I am sure the astronomers would love having to wear oxygen masks the whole time they are in the observatory. +1 for continuous airplane air from positive pressure living quarters. You forget that the air is unlivably thin up there.

          • by gblackwo (1087063)
            I see no reason why you couldn't have airlocks with a somewhat fancier HVAC system. Yes, similar to an airplane you would be compressing external air adiabatically, but you probably wouldn't need to cool it off, in fact it may need some additional heating after compression to be livable.

            The pressure differential would not be outrageous, so the structure would not need too much special engineering. If the RCA dome [wikipedia.org] in Indianapolis could pull it off, I don't see why a small observatory couldn't. The atmosph
        • by Anonymous Coward

          Why not doit on top of mount everest then?

          Although Mt Everest has less air than the poles, it has more moisture (which is bad), and much more atmospheric turbulence (which is really bad).

          One downside of Canada is that you don't get to see the Galactic Centre (in the southern sky), which contains a whole lot of nifty stuff for astronomers to look at.

      • by dcw3 (649211)

        This depends on what you're after. Having only half of a near limitless supply of information may not be a problem to you, as long as you can make the reasonable assumption that the two halves are statistically representative of the other.

        So, maybe we should only study the Atlantic ocean? Or, just study the left part of our brains? No, you don't do that, it's poor science.

        • by GauteL (29207)

          "So, maybe we should only study the Atlantic ocean? Or, just study the left part of our brains? No, you don't do that, it's poor science."

          I don't think you understand science and you completely failed to understand my "as long as you can make the reasonable assumption that the two halves are statistically representative of the other".

          Very little science has the luxury of exhaustively testing every possible combination of possible inputs and almost always relies on data samples. The requirement is that the s

          • by dcw3 (649211)

            My point is that you can not make the "reasonable assumption" that the two halves are representative, any less than you could in my examples. Why would you be any less likely to find differences in space than you would in those? I'm not an astronomer, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that there are similar unique qualities that could only be explored from one. The article linked below shows differences seen with simple latitude changes.

            http://www.wwnorton.com/college/astronomy/astro21/sandt/latitude.html [wwnorton.com]

            Yes,

            • by GauteL (29207)

              The example amateur astronomer website you list point either to specific constellations or features of our earth's atmosphere or tilt, not features of the universe visible from the northern hemisphere versus features of the universe visible from the southern. This demonstrates that you still don't understand this argument.

              So you actually jumped into an argument without fully understanding it, and then berate me for jumping to conclusions about your understanding of science.

              My whole argument is this:
              If you'r

    • by necro81 (917438) on Friday January 06, 2012 @08:49AM (#38608840) Journal
      Yes, but you can only see the night sky for about half of each day. When you take away twilight, you are down to perhaps 6-8 hours of observation time per night. With that kind of cycling, you get a lot of diurnal temperature variation, both in your equipment and in the air you are looking through. And while an equatorial site can see more of the sky over the course of a year, it can't see all of it equally well. To see the celestial poles, you would need to point your scope more or less at the horizon, which means looking through a whole lot of atmosphere. There aren't all that many high and dry places near the equator, and while interior Antarctica is a relatively stable air mass, the tropics are raging atmospheric torrents by comparison.

      In contrast, telescopes at the south pole can have days or weeks of continuous observation with very stable temperatures. And while it is true that the south pole has whole months where no observation is possible, the long stretch of continuous observation makes up for it. If it wasn't worthwhile, astronomers and the NSF wouldn't have gone through all the headaches and difficulty to do it.

      It doesn't need to be an either/or situation. There are lots of good places to put scopes, and lots of good reasons for each site. There's a large untapped potential of semi-equitorial sites in the Southern Sahara, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Arabian Peninsula. But in some ways Antarctica is logistically and politically easier.
    • by argStyopa (232550)

      You're right - that's a great idea.... ...well, except for the lack of frigid temperatures, lack of dry air, and lack of endless nights.

      Aside from that, though: brilliant!

    • It's hard to take a clear picture of a far away galaxy that requires as little cloud and atmospheric interference as possible, and for motors to slowly track the far away object with the slow motion of earth through space.

      Putting a telescope on the equator with it's faster motion and hectic atmospheric conditions is the equivalent of trying to take a portrait shot of a race car driver while speeding around a track in fog. Sure, it can be done, but it will never be of the same quality for money spent. This

  • I would think building a large telescope on the permafrost you get up north would be quite challenging. I could see the foundation being a real headache to keep level and stable.

    Secondly, I don't see why "endless nights" are so much of an advantage, since that just means your telescope is fairly useless during the "endless days" of the summer months.

    • by jpapon (1877296)
      Well, after RTFA, it seems that being able to observe continuously for long stretches has certain advantages for things like finding extrasolar planets.
      • Why not doit on top of mount everest then?

        http://g.co/maps/ugkwm [g.co] as you can see in this link it is almost at the ecuators level at would be able to have a 360 look of the universe, and i bet it is a nice place to have a telescope. and im gessing that it would not be that hard to run some fiber optics or even a wireless link could be made, it could be operated remotly from some confy office.

    • by EricTheRed (5613)

      I think permafrost wouldn't be quite an issue if you think that for large parts of the antarctic it's nearly 2000m thick - just make sure it's still got bedrock beneath it & not water ;-)

      As for the endless nights, well same goes for the antarctic, just offset by 6 months but then they'll use the downtime for maintenance

    • by laejoh (648921)
      Thank $diety a new breed [xkcd.com] of scientists has emerged!
  • by Mister Liberty (769145) on Friday January 06, 2012 @06:08AM (#38608134)

    southern sky?

    --
    bjd

    • The high altitude telescopes at Chile takes care of a lot of southern sky.
      In the north there is HANLE IAO in the Himalayan deset at 4300m altitude.
      So I guess, antarctic telescope would take care of further south, while the arctic will take care of northwards.

    • And that would be a greater problem than the lack of northern sky that one might observe in Antarctica for what reason?
  • ....there may be a serious problem caused by permafrost thaw, the coming years, due to climate change. In other words: what are you going to build upon ?
    • by PhotoJim (813785)

      There's plenty of bare rock in northern Canada.

      There are also building techniques that solve the problem of permafrost. They require extra expense, mind.

  • by Framboise (521772) on Friday January 06, 2012 @06:37AM (#38608230)

    For optical astronomy (that is in visible, near-infrared light) the long winter nights are good for observing objects continuously 24/24 as long as non-cloudy sky permits.
    Of course the converse occurs in summer when darkness doesn't exist for months.
    Polar auroras are also a nuisance.

  • No way! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Troyusrex (2446430) on Friday January 06, 2012 @07:28AM (#38608414)
    This is a silly suggestion. The future of astronomy is not in Canada but in space...
    • by Pope (17780)

      Think small fusion plant in a diamond mine!

    • by tirerim (1108567)
      Space is a lot harder to get to than Canada. That's why earth-based astronomy is still doing lots of useful research, and will continue to do so for a long time to come: a handful of space-based instruments can only do so much, and there are thousands of earth-based ones. Some of them are much, much bigger than the space-based ones, which helps make up for having to look through an atmosphere, but there's useful research being done even with very small telescopes on the ground.
  • The arctic has a lot of air traffic. Would that cause any light pollution issues?

    • by tirerim (1108567)
      Not really. Light pollution is primarily due to continuous lighting sources; any airliners flying over are only going to be in range for a few minutes each, and aren't going to contribute to skyglow in any noticeable way. They can probably even get the airlines to route around the observatories; a fairly small radius would be sufficient to keep them from interfering entirely.
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Friday January 06, 2012 @07:56AM (#38608530) Homepage Journal
    In addition to the scientific benefits, scientists can also finally put to rest the stereotype that nerds are weaklings. Since they will have nothing else to do during downtime, they can prove how manly they are through engaging in polar bear combat and then blogging about how to prepare and eat polar bear steaks. Nothing manlier.
    • by Pyrus.mg (1152215)

      This is what we all thought back when Canada actually did research in the Arctic. It didn't work out too well. Some of the polar bear blogs about how to toy with and devour human scientists were quite interesting though.

  • "and endless nights" ...for maybe 1/4 of the year.
    For half the year its about 50% and then 1/4 of the year it's endless daytime.

  • If the Arctic ocean is going to ice free by 2050, how can the air be "dry" in that region of the world? Isn't the air humidified by the ocean?

    I mean, I guess that temperatures are lower on Antarctica (because the land keeps the warming currents far from the interior?). The ice never melts (hasn't for millions of years!) and the air stays drier (i guess though even ice sublimates some water vapor). Still it should be a lot drier right?

    • by pz (113803)

      Cold air doesn't hold that much moisture, and thus is considered dry. Warm air can carry much more water vapor.

  • ... some moose doesn't fog up the optics with its breath.

  • by DarthVain (724186) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:09PM (#38611140)

    Um wouldn't one of the obvious problems be the build up of ice and snow and the necessity of its removal constantly?

    also

    Day 215: "Trapped in Telescope again. Polar bears are circling like sharks. Loyd and Weber are gone.I don't know how much longer I can hold out."
    Day 216: "Discovered another exoplanet. Tentatively named it Ursa Polaris Pallas Meas Lambe 12."
    Day 217: "Another supply air drop came today. Bears ate it. Played with the rest. They are just taunting me now."

  • by fishbowl (7759)

    I've always been surprised that North Korea doesn't exploit its situation of having the darkest skies in Asia for the purpose of optical astronomy.

  • In Soviet Russia astronomers were sent to Arctic to labor camps, you insensitive clod

Somebody ought to cross ball point pens with coat hangers so that the pens will multiply instead of disappear.

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