Worldwide site comparison for submillimetre astronomy
Journal article, 2012
Aims. The most important limitation for ground-based submillimetre (submm) astronomy is the broad-band absorption of the total water vapour in the atmosphere above an observation site, often expressed as the precipitable water vapour (PWV). A long-term statistic on the PWV is thus mandatory to characterize the quality of an existing or potential site for observational submm-astronomy. In this study we present a three-year statistic (2008–2010) of the PWV for ground-based telescope sites all around the world and for stratospheric altitudes relevant for SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Far-Infrared Astronomy). The submm-transmission is calculated for typical PWVs using an atmospheric model.
Methods. We used data from IASI (Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer) on the Metop-A satellite to retrieve water vapour profiles for each site (11 in total, comprising Antarctica, Chile, Mauna Kea, Greenland, Tibet). The use of a single instrument to make the comparison provides unbiased data with a common calibration method. The profiles are integrated above the mountain/stratospheric altitude to get an estimation of the PWV. We then applied the atmospheric model MOLIERE (Microwave Observation and LIne Estimation and REtrieval) to compute the corresponding atmospheric absorption for wavelengths between 150 μm and 3 mm.
Results. We present the absolute PWV values for each site sorted by year and time percentage. The PWV corresponding to the first decile (10%) and the quartiles (25%, 50%, 75%) are calculated and transmission curves between 150 μm and 3 mm for these values are shown. The Antarctic and South-American sites present very good conditions for submillimetre astronomy. The 350 μm and 450 μm atmospheric windows are open all year long, whereas the 200 μm atmospheric window opens reasonably for 25% of the time in Antarctica and the extremely high-altitude sites in Chile. Potential interesting new facilities are Macon in Argentina and Summit in Greenland, which show similar conditions to for example, Mauna Kea (Hawaii). For SOFIA, we present transmission curves for different altitudes (11 to 14 km), PWV values, and higher frequencies (up to 5 THz) in more detail. Though the atmosphere at these altitude is generally very transparent, the absorption at very high frequencies becomes more important, partly caused by minor species. The method presented in this paper could identify sites on Earth, with great potential for submillimetre astronomy, and guide future site testing campaigns in situ.