Antarctica could help unlock mysteries of universe, Nasa scientist says
The world’s largest flying observatory will carry out winter night flights to prepare it for conditions on other planets
By Kurt Bayer
Scientific forays into the frosted wilds of Antarctica could unlock further mysteries of the universe and help put a man on Mars, with post-quake Christchurch uniquely situated as an ice and space base, a visiting Nasa scientist said today.
While space may be the final frontier, as Star Trek’s narrator opined, the White Continent of Antarctica, where few men have gone before, is providing a fertile research ground for advancing space exploration and extra-terrestrial worlds.
Studies into the hostile, barren, cold and dry landscape, along with cutting-edge testing transport methods and technologies to support human life and growth, and astronaut training camps, are some of the benefits of having a presence on the ice, according to Nasa’s Zaheer Ali.
“With its topography, geography, and weather, it has so many advantageous features,” says Ali, science and mission operations laboratory supervisor for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia), a highly-modified Boeing jetliner that is the world’s largest flying observatory.
“When we go to other worlds, they are going to be dry and cold. We can compare snow and ice dunes in Antarctica to similar geological features on Mars.
“Those types of analogies are very important because we can do that research here on Earth. Maybe we don’t solve it, but we can build a set of knowledge that can help us inform research on extra-terrestrial works.”
Ali is in Christchurch preparing the Sofia’s winter night-flying expeditions, which from next month will again study the skies of the Southern Hemisphere.
Flying at an altitude of between 12km and 14km, putting it above 99 per cent of the Earth’s infrared-blocking water-vapour layer, the Sofia studies a range of astronomical objects and phenomena, including the life cycle of stars, formation of new star systems, black holes, nebulae and interstellar dust, complex molecules and the planets, comets and asteroids in our solar system.
Ali says Christchurch is well-positioned to provide access to the Galactic Centre – the rotational centre of the Milky Way - at a time of year when viewing conditions in the Northern Hemisphere are poor.
“Having access to Antarctica and the Galactic Centre also provides us with unique science cases to explore solutions for space research,” Ali says.
Ali will be speaking at Extreme Environments – from the Antarctic to Space, a Techweek’18 event in Christchurch on Thursday, bringing together local, national and international experts to help explain how exploration in the Antarctic is a dry run for space studies.
ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris says the rebuilding city - one of only five global Antarctica gateways - could already support a future space industry, with world-class hi-tech component manufacturers and tech companies, schools with space programmes, higher level training of rocket guidance systems, and regulatory bodies that monitor New Zealand and international airspace.
Ali, whose “hero” is Nobel Prize winner Charles H. Townes, who invented the laser after observing a microwave laser in space, said the research projects operating through Christchurch will lead to things that could “change the world”.
“You don’t go up with the goal every night but I think for all of us who are scientists or engineers, there is that sense in the back of your mind that there could be something right around the corner that changes everything.”