La Trobe sky scanner to US South Pole

The United States is installing cutting-edge La Trobe University technology at its South Pole scientific research station in January next year.

The equipment will be used to study a hard-to-reach part of the earth's atmosphere – between 100 and 400kms above the pole – an area too high for aircraft and weather balloons and too low for satellites.

Physicist Theo Davies says it will measure shifts in the wavelength of light emitted from this region.

'This will provide us with information about the effects of space weather and high-altitude winds which can impact on communications, surveillance and navigation systems, such as GPS, and the operation of low-altitude satellites,' he says.

The region is also important for understanding how energy from the sun is redistributed through the atmosphere, and effects related to human-made greenhouse gases that can raise temperatures in the lower atmosphere.

Part of La Trobe Antarctic program

The $500,000 rooftop dome spectrometer was designed and built by physicists and engineers at La Trobe's Melbourne campus at Bundoora in collaboration with scientists from South Africa, the UK and Alaska.

It's part of the University's Antarctic research and scientific equipment program led by Professor of Physics Peter Dyson, which has seen dozens of staff and students work in Antarctica over many decades.  

Mr Davies, who helped design the equipment, will accompany it to the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, leaving for Antarctica on 12 December.

With two colleagues from Alaska and South Africa, he will spend two months in Antarctica, installing and commissioning the system and preparing it to collect scientific data during the Antarctic winter.

It will work in tandem with two other instruments, one at Australia's Davis Station and another at the US McMurdo Station in Antarctica. La Trobe has also played a key role in their design and construction.

Observes whole sky simultaneously

Mr Davies has been visiting Antarctica for two to five months every year since 2003, working on experiments that run through the Antarctic winters.

The equipment has already been successfully operated at Australia's Mawson Station in Antarctica and was returned to Australia to be upgraded before shipping it to the South Pole via New Zealand.

It measures both airglow and auroras. Auroras are visible and often spectacular and occur within a background of airglow which is far less spectacular and usually invisible to human eye.

Using a fish-eye lens, the instrument observes the entire sky simultaneously, mapping wind and temperature variations across a region about 1,500 km in diameter. 

Coupled with the latest in computerised image processing, it scans from 15 degrees above the horizon to a full 90 degrees.

Media contact: Ernest Raetz  041 226 1919 or (03) 9479 2315

Image: Theo Davies at work near Australia's Mawson Station

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