China unveils plans for the largest optical telescope in Asia

China unveils plans for the largest optical telescope in Asia

Peking University wants to build the largest optical telescope in Asia and close the gap in astronomy capabilities with the rest of the world.

The project aims to create an initial telescope with an aperture of 19.7 feet (6 meters) by 2024; the mirror will expand to 26.2 feet (8 m) by 2030. The project, called the Expanding Aperture Segmented Telescope (EAST) in English, is being led by Peking University.

According to a statement from Peking University, the telescope “will greatly enhance China’s observational capabilities in optical astronomy.”

Related: The 10 Largest Telescopes on Earth

The acronym EAST is appropriate as the facility would become the first world-class optical telescope in the Eastern Hemisphere. The main sites today are in the Western Hemisphere in the areas around Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the Atacama in Chile and the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa.

The first phase of the EAST project envisages the construction of a mirror consisting of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, similar to the mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror would have a diameter of about 19.7 feet, again similar to that of JWST.

But unlike the newest space telescope, which orbits 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth at the second Sun-Earth Lagrangian point, EAST would be built on Mount Saishiteng near the city of Lenghu in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau (opens on new tab), at an elevation of about 13,800 feet (4,200 m).

A schematic shows the two mirror stages of China’s proposed Extended Aperture Segmented Telescope (EAST). (Image credit: Peking University)

The second phase would add a ring of 18 more hexagonal segments around the mirror, expanding it to a diameter of more than 26.2 feet by 2030.

Peking University estimates the project will cost between 500-600 million yuan ($69-84 million). Qinghai News reported last month that work on the project is progressing steadily.

Peking University notes that astronomy plays an important role in technology 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 Keck Twin Telescopes on top of Mauna. Kea and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

EAST would also be an excellent addition to China’s growing broader astronomy capabilities. The country has built the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope, FAST, and plans to launch a large space observatory known as Xuntian in late 2023.

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