A small telescope at the bottom of the Earth is where UA researchers hope to find answers about how star-forming nebulae themselves form in space.
Craig Kulesa is one of the University of Arizona astronomers working with data from the telescope.
"We see all these clouds of dust and gas, but no one's ever seen one form. They're just there. Where did they come from? And what happens to them?" Kulesa asked. "Every star in the sky, including our sun, was formed in these clouds."
The HEAT telescope observes star-forming molecular clouds such as the Orion nebula, which to some appears as the shape of a winged dragon in flight. Scientists know little about the lifecycle of these molecular clouds. (Image: NASA)
"This life cycle of matter in our galaxy is really our own story," Kulesa said. Stars make all the elements we are made out of, he said: "This cycle sculpts every star, every galaxy in the universe, and we owe our human existence to it. So it's worth trying to figure out how it works."
The telescope is situated on top of an Antarctic ice field and is nicknamed HEAT.
While the telescope operates at -40 below zero, its HEAT name comes from an abbreviation of High-Elevation-Antarctic-Terahertz telescope and not its ability to keep warm enough to work under the harsh weather conditions.
The telescope keeps a silent year-long vigil atop Ridge A, a high plateau in the center of Antarctica. It's one of the driest, coldest and calmest places on Earth, ideal for astronomical observations. (Image courtesy of Craig Kulesa)
The telescope itself is small.
UA News describes it as sitting "on a platform, shielded from the elements by a large blue cover that looks rather like a mailbox."
UA astronomer Craig Kulesa installs the HEAT telescope at Ridge A. The three-mirror telescope focuses light onto a small cryostat that contains detectors cooled to -370 degrees Fahrenheit. (Photo: Luke Bycroft)
HEAT is designed to work with minimal human intervention.
"The telescope looks like the farthest outreach of the U.S. postal service," Kulesa joked, gazing fondly upon a photo of the observatory setup. "We visit it once a year. We're out in the deep field for a week getting it ready to go for another year, and when we wave goodbye, no human will see it again until the next year. It has to run all by itself."
During the Southern Hemisphere summer (winter here in Arizona) the telescope runs off solar power.
In the winter diesel generators keep it working.
HEAT gathers data with sensitive radio receivers and sends the information back to researchers at the University of Arizona via satellite modems.
Simply put the radio receivers can see what the eye cannot, allowing researchers to pick out clouds of atoms that could someday transform into nebulae.
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