The Peking University in China has unveiled its plan to build the largest optical telescope in Asia and close the gap in astronomy capabilities with the rest of the world. This move comes amidst China’s expanding space program after being shut out of global space collaborations at the behest of NASA and being left in isolation for years.
The project aims to create the first stage of the telescope, which will have an aperture of 6 meters wide, by 2024. Later, a different module will be attached to it in another six years, with a gap 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 observation capabilities in optical astronomy.”
The EAST abbreviation fits since the facility would become the first world-class optical telescope in the eastern hemisphere. Today’s most extensive 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. They are controlled by a coalition of nations led by the US.
The EAST telescope’s first phase envisions building a mirror made up of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, resembling the mirror for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror would have a diameter of around 6 meters feet, again similar to that of JWST.
However, unlike the JWST, which orbits about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth, the EAST telescope would be built on Saishiteng Mountain near Lenghu Town in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of around 4200-4500 meters. The second phase would add a ring of 18 more hexagonal segments around the mirror, expanding it to a diameter greater than 8 meters.
Peking University estimates the project will cost between 500-600 million yuan or $69-84 million. The university also notes that astronomy plays an integral part 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 twin Keck telescopes atop Mauna Kea and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
EAST would also be necessary to China’s broader growing astronomy capabilities. The country has built the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope called FAST and plans to launch a large space observatory known as Xuntian as soon as late 2023. China also launched its Tiangong space station last month after completing the building and docking of its final module in late 2022.