Ridge A in foreground with Dome A besides the clouds in the distance. Source: http://www.islandcrisis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/antarctica.jpg.
For all of the extremes one can find on this planet, there are few places more extreme and inhospitable than the continent of Antarctica. Where, then, is the most extreme locality on the most extreme continent? Last year, American and Australian scientists believe it they found it about 1 000 km from the South Pole in Australian-claimed territory on the Antarctic Plateau using satellites, ground stations and climate models. The site is simply called Ridge A, and the numbers behind it are staggering.
Source: University of New South Wales, http://images.brisbanetimes.com.au/2009/09/02/710088/420antarctica-420×0.jpg.
The ridge itself lies at an altitude of 4 053 m above sea level, 144 km (89 mi) from the nearest sign of human impact, an automated Chinese space observatory (the loneliest one in Antarctica). The average winter temperature is around −70°C (−94°F), and there is so little water vapour in the air that one column of air has less water vapour content than the thickness of a human hair. It is also the centre of the polar wind vortex; perennially in the eye of the storm as winds circle around it but never over it, meaning that the ridge is almost perpetually dead calm and never sees cloud- a veritable window into space. Ambient noise is non-existent. In fact, there’s so little disturbance that stars do not even twinkle in the sky. Such is the reason the scientists were trying to find it in the first place. Ridge A’s high elevation, lack of wind, and almost non-existent moisture content make it the optimal place for an advanced space telescope, one scientists hope could be even as precise as the Hubble Space Telescope for a fraction of the cost of sending another telescope into space. For Australia, which has no space program, such a telescope would be a great boon for extraterrestrial science in the country. Australian telescopes for other Antarctic sites are already in the design stage; a telescope at Ridge A would suddenly make the Australian Astronomical Observatory one of the world leaders in extraterrestrial imagery. Getting the equipment there, of course, would be the main issue: no human has ever stepped foot on Ridge A.
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