China reveals ambitious plans for Asia's largest optical telescope

The nation wants to compete with NASA'S James Webb Space Telescope.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of the telescope.jpeg
An illustration of the telescope.

Peking University 

Peking University has ambitious plans to build the largest optical telescope in Asia, according to an article by Space.com published on Wednesday.

The Expanding Aperture Segmented Telescope

The new telescope will have an aperture of 19.7 feet (6 meters) by 2024 while its mirror will be expanded to 26.2 feet (8 m) by 2030. The project in English is called the Expanding Aperture Segmented Telescope (EAST) and according to a statement "will greatly improve China's observation capabilities in optical astronomy." 

If all goes to plan, the novel facility would become the first world-class optical telescope in the eastern hemisphere capable of competing with facilities in the Western Hemisphere at sites such as Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Atacama in Chile, and the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa. 

EAST would be built on Saishiteng Mountain near Lenghu Town in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan plateau, at an altitude of around 13,800 feet (4,200 m) and would consist of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, similar to the mirror for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror would have a diameter of around 19.7 feet. 

A second phase of the telescope project would see a ring of 18 more hexagonal segments added around the mirror, expanding it to a diameter greater than 26.2 feet by 2030. 

It is estimated that the project will cost between 500-600 million yuan ($69-84 million).

Other equally ambitious Chinese telescope projects

China has already built the world's largest single aperture radio telescope called FAST and has ambitious plans to launch a large space observatory known as Xuntian (which stands for "survey to heavens") as early as late 2023. 

Xuntian will take large space surveys of the sky and expects to start scientific operations by around 2024. Unlike NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, the Xuntian will be close enough to Earth for maintenance.

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The Xuntian will have an aperture of two meters alongside advanced detectors. It will also be bus-sized and will weigh more than 10 tons.

Yesterday it was further revealed that the world's first "lobster eye" space telescope, which will enable researchers to record X-ray images of the universe accurately, had undergone successful testing in China.

Called the Lobster Eye Imager for Astronomy (LEIA), the 53 kg (117 lb) telescope already captured high-quality photographs of X-ray sources of the cosmos.

"We are very excited about LEIA's results. They've shown that our technology works and the observation precision exceeded our expectation," said astrophysicist Yuan Weimin, the mission's chief scientist from the National Astronomical Observatory in Beijing.

When it comes to observing our skies, it’s hard to compete with China’s initiatives. If the nation continues its current efforts it could soon lead the way in space observation, something it seems to take great pride in doing.