Peking University in China has unveiled its plan to build Asia’s largest optical telescope and close the gap in astronomy skills with the rest of the world. The move comes amid China’s expanding space program, after being locked out of global space collaborations and left isolated for years at the behest of NASA.
The project aims to create the telescope’s first stage by 2024, which will have an aperture of 6 meters. Later, in another 6 years, another module will be attached to it, which will have an opening of 8 meters. The project is called the Expanding Aperture Segmented Telescope, or EAST in English.
According to a statement released by Peking University, the telescope will “greatly improve China’s observational capabilities in optical astronomy.”
The acronym EAST is appropriate as the facility would become the first world-class optical telescope in the Eastern Hemisphere. The world’s current largest facilities are in the Western Hemisphere at sites around Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Atacama in Chile and the Canary Islands off the coast of Northwest Africa and are controlled by a US-led coalition of nations.
The first phase of the EAST telescope envisages building a mirror that consists of 18 hexagonal mirror segments and is similar to this Mirror for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror would have a diameter of about 6 meters, again similar to that of JWST.
However, unlike the JWST, which orbits about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, the EAST telescope would be on Mount Saishiteng near the city of Lenghu in Qinghai Province, on the Tibetan Plateau, at an altitude of about 4200 meters 4500 meters built. The second phase would add a ring of 18 more hexagonal segments around the mirror, expanding it to more than 8 meters in diameter.
Peking University estimates that the project will cost between 500 and 600 million yuan, or $69-84 million. The university also notes that astronomy plays an important role in technological and social development, and that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to scientists who discovered the black hole at the center of the Milky Way using powerful optical telescopes, including the twin Keck Telescopes atop Mauna Kea and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
EAST would also be a fairly important addition to China’s broader expanding astronomy capabilities. The country has built the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope called FAST and plans to launch a major space observatory called Xuntian as early as late 2023. China has also launched its own Space station called Tiangong Space Station last month after the completion of construction and docking of the last module in late 2022.
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