Being as far north as we are, and given the vast swaths of the Highlands completely untouched by urban light pollution, you might think Iceland would be a great place to set up a giant telescope array. Yet there aren’t any. We asked physicist Dr Guðlaugur Jóhannesson to explain why that is.
“The type of telescope used depends on the type of wavelength it would be observing. In case of optical or near infrared telescopes, Iceland is not a good location. For infrared telescopes, you would want high mountains to get above as much of the atmosphere as possible. You would also want clear skies and dark nights, with a stable atmosphere. Even though the nights are dark and long in Iceland, the sky is often overcast and the atmosphere is not stable. Our mountains are also not very tall and many are active volcanoes.
“A better wavelength for Iceland would be radio or millimeter. The atmosphere is mostly transparent in these wavelengths and observations are not impeded by sunlight or cloud cover. However, in that case, Iceland is not any more special from other countries. The geological activity of Iceland is also not helpful for telescope arrays that need a consistent location to be efficient. There is some benefit in the sparse population because human activities hinder observations in the radio band. These arrays also produce a lot of data that has to be processed using large computer farms. Iceland may have a beneficial location in relation to cooling costs due to the cooler climates in comparison to warmer places.
“Ultimately, building an array of telescopes is expensive and so is their maintenance. It would be possible to seek external funding for a well-defined project that benefited from being located in Iceland, but at the moment there are no such projects.”