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Hunting for quasars

Changes to and movements on the Earth are measured by the Norwegian Mapping Authority with an accuracy down to one millimetre from its geodetic observatory in Svalbard. Remote celestial objects known as quasars provide the reference point.

The Ny-Ålesund facility in Svalbard forms part of a global network which plays a crucial role for society’s satellite-based infrastructure. It also provides the basis for accurate climate monitoring in the far north.

Signals from quasars located up to 13 billion light years away are picked up by the observatory’s very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) antennas. These data can then be used to determine movements of the Earth’s crust, how fast the planet is rotating and its exact position in space. This mapping is needed for calculating the orbit of Earth observation satellites to the level of precision needed for accurate climate monitoring.

Supporting climate research and far north policy

The observatory provide measurements which form part of a global observation and research network. This commitment supports climate research, is entrenched in the government’s far north policy and also contributes to maintaining the scientific community and settlement in Ny-Ålesund with year-round operation. In addition, it is in line with the pledge in the Svalbard White Paper that activity in this Arctic archipelago will be based on research as well as tourism and coal-mining.

Crucial for GPS and satellite technology

The global VLBI network which the Ny-Ålesund observatory belongs to, is necessary for the functioning of the global positioning system (GPS) and other high-precision satellite technology. Without the reference system provided by these antennas, it would be impossible to know the exact position of satellites in relation to the Earth’s surface. That would in turn reduce the accuracy of satellite-based measurements.

Ny-Ålesund alone in the Arctic

The VLBI antenna in Ny-Ålesund is the only member of the global network of such installations which lies so close to the North Pole. An upgraded station will make a particular contribution to increased accuracy in the far north, where the effects of climate change can be registered at the earliest stage and most clearly.

According to NASA, the northern position of the new geodetic observatory in Svalbard will allow it to provide significantly better global calculations and to make a big contribution to the worldwide collaboration on Earth observation.

The Norwegian commitment in Ny-Ålesund has also been on the agenda at the UN. Its general assembly adopted a resolution on 26 February 2015 which will contribute to strengthening global collaboration on Earth observation.