Date: January 15, 2010

Title: Go Higher or Go to Antarctica


Podcaster: Alex (Sandy) Antunes

Organization: Scientific Blogging — the Daytime Astronomer:

Description: Ever wonder why astronomers loft telescopes higher and higher, to mountains and via balloons and satellites? Astrophysicist Sandy Antunes explains, and in the process gets an accidental lesson from a Linda Banish, a rock-climbing colleague, on why Antarctica is the best place in the world for science.

Bio: Sandy is a scientist and science writer. He worked for 5 NASA missions as an astronomer, solar physicist, and computing expert, and has over 150 publications and talks on science, game design, and social media. He’s also launching a personal satellite to mix music and science, at, as proof that we’re in a new era of space exploration. He writes twice a week at

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Association of Variable Star Observers, the world’s leader in variable star data and information, bringing professional and amateur astronomers together to observe and analyze variable stars, and promoting research and education using variable star data. Visit the AAVSO on the web at


[Sandy] I’m an astrophysicist, my name is Alex Antunes, I’m about halfway up a rock-climbing wall and I’m about to fall. But, after that, hopefully, I’ll be able to talk about why we astronomers like to go higher, why we put telescopes up on mountains, balloons, and rockets into space. You are listening to the Daytime Astronomer in the air on 365 days of astronomy.

[Sandy] That was the fall.

[Sandy] I’m back on the ground. Why astronomers loft telescopes higher is the theme for today. I’m here with Dr Linda, my climbing partner for today. She’s an animal expert, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what an astronomer is. Hello Dr Linda.

[Linda] Hey Sandy. Well, actually, an animal expert — or a veterinarian, which is actually what I am– is not exactly the exact opposite of an astronomer, because, you know, they’re both scientists. I would call the exact opposite of an astronomer maybe an axe murderer.

[Sandy] Yes, but I think there are a lot more axe murderers in astronomy than there are veterinarians, it’s probably just a guess, I don’t have statistics on that.

[Linda] Or at least their minds are in the sky. Well, anyway, why are we talking about astronomy in a climbing gym?

[Sandy] Well, it’s a long story. The focus is on why astronomers try to get telescopes higher. I didn’t bring a telescope with me on this particular time, but the concept is there. Astronomers try to get our telescopes higher. Now, the main goal of a telescope is it uses mirrors or lenses to essentially make a bigger eye. It’s not that telescopes magnify but they gather more light, they make faint stuff visible.

[Linda] And what about radio telescopes?

[Sandy] Radio telescopes extend our eye because they look at wavelengths that we can’t even see at all, that our eyes can’t pick up at all. So a small mirror has less light gathering than a bigger one, but up high is less messed up by our atmosphere. From ground, we’re looking through a mile high column of air, it’s like looking through a swimming pool and the shifting air ruins our “seeing”.

[Linda] That’s the technical term?

[Sandy] Actually, yes, it is. We astronomers have a knack for naming things. Like the big array of radio telescopes we made is called the VLA, and that stands for…

[Linda] Very Large Array.

[Sandy] Right, and the big explosion that started the universe we all know as the…

[Linda] Big Bang, got it.

[Sandy] Yeah, we tend to be very straightforward and you see why I often say anyone can be astronomer if they want. But yes, we put stuff up to get past the wet blanket we call our atmosphere. A smaller scope higher up will outperform a larger ground scope.

[Linda] So telescopes are on mountains to get about the atmosphere?

[Sandy] Partially yes, and also to get above the weather, because our atmosphere has a lot of weather, and we want to also isolate them from city light. All the lighting of modern civilization creates what what we astronomers call…

[Linda] Light pollution, which is that orange glow that we see above Washington DC every night instead of stars.

[Sandy] It makes for a really pretty sunset but it makes for really lousy observing, exactly. Now if you put the scope higher up you escape that.

[Linda] Given Antarctica is the coldest, driest place on earth with very stable, unchallenging weather, it would be ideal for telescopes.

[Sandy] And you get a six months observing night. But who would want to go to Antarctica?

[Linda] Me! I’ve been to Antarctica and I would go back in a heartbeat! It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, you can’t imagine what a, an incredible experience living in Antarctica can be.

[Sandy] I can, I’m insanely jealous. I would like to go there.

[Linda} You can’t imagine. If someone said would you get on a plane tomorrow and go work in Antarctica again, I would have my bags packed in the next half hour.

[Sandy] I do look wistfully through the job listings when they say, 6 month position or 2 year position in Antarctica, and I’m like, I would just leave friends and family behind and go, no one would notice, right?

[Linda] You know, incredibly, the vast majority of people that work in Antarctica do have family and even small children, I just can’t imagine how wonderful their spouses must be to let them go away for 3 to 6 months, or even a year at a time, to have that kind of life experience. But I tell you, it changes who you are, to not only experience the place, to be able to do your science in a place where the support for scientific activity is so incredibly high. But it also changes your life to meet those kinds of people and to communicate and interact with scientists of the kind of caliber that practice in Antarctica.

[Sandy] I could see that being a good change, though, the change that someone would want you to come back improved.

[Linda] Yes, absolutely. I think their spouses just be very wise people to let their partners go to have that kind of a life experience. Because they know what will come back to them will be a happy person.

[Sandy] The going away sounds a little like military detail, where you get shipped off for half a year or a year or two years, but certainly without the negative side of military duty, people shooting at you aspect. If people can do this for military detail, say “go honey go”, then sure, Antarctic detail.

[Linda] The most fabulous way to see the Antarctic is as a scientist. Because of what I just mentioned, the kind of interaction you have. As a matter of fact, when I was in the Antarctica it was at the moment of time when they were just defining the hole in the ozone, which was a very fascinating thing to be able to observe scientists working on. Even though I was there working on seals, you know, all the scientists live and communicate and eat dinner in the same area. Unless they’re actually living on the ice, which I did, I lived on a hut on the ice, but you have to go back into stations to replenish your supplies.

[Sandy] Sounds like grad school.

[Linda] Yeah, kinda. You know, if you really wanted to go, Sandy, I know an astrophysicist who goes there regularly.

[Sandy] Actually, I do know someone at a telescope facility, but I’ll admit cowardice at this. I’m not ready to make that change that, you know, brings change.

[Linda] That kind of thing always requires a personality that is ready to take a plunge.

[Sandy] I did that at one point in my life and I will do that again, but right now about as adventurous as I get is doing a podcast.

[Linda] There’s something to be said about staying home and taking care of your children.

[Sandy] That is an adventure, or an ordeal. It’s a little like military service also.

[Linda] That’s right

[Sandy] Alright, so, um, high altitude balloons are a way to go higher than a mountain and you can get up cheaply and quickly. Some students in Spain actually lifted an ordinary digital camera 20 miles up and they did on a $100 budget. NASA’s SuperPressure Balloon that they’re making can do 1000 pounds for a 100 days. It’s the same concept, get things higher.

[Linda] So we have better seeing, less weather, longer nights, light you can’t see from the ground. I assume satellites provide the best of these?

[Sandy] Thanks for getting me back on track. Yes, satellites do, but at a high cost. They get us higher and for a longer time, but they are a bit more expensive. And they do let us see X-rays and ultraviolet light, and give us vantage points from other than the Earth.

[Linda] What different kinds of things can we see in UV or Xray, compared with the visible light?

[Sandy] That would be a topic for an upcoming podcast. For now we’re sort of out of time.

[Linda] Ready to get back to climbing? That’s what we came here for.

[Sandy] Climb on! Until next month, this is Dr. Sandy Antunes, the Daytime Astronomer, signing off. You can read my work twice a week at and see me monthly at 365 Days of Astronomy. Goodbye!

End of podcast:

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