Better access to top telescopes

Updated: 2012-08-29 11:26


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BEIJING - Chinese astronomers will have more time and opportunities to use world-class large telescopes built in Chile, a prime location for astronomical observation.

China is advanced in the fields of theoretical astronomy and astrophysics, but the field of observational astronomy remains underdeveloped as China has been a latecomer in constructing astronomical infrastructure such as large telescopes.

In order to test theories or engage in frontier studies on the international stage, Chinese astronomers have to submit highly competitive proposals or buy observation time to access telescopes in other countries, with some Chinese astronomers' research funds being allocated for such purchases.

China is currently seeking cooperation to obtain more observation time."Chile has an ideal environment for astronomical observation, with about 330 clear nights each year," Ding Zhongli, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the country's top research institute and a government think tank, said at last week's seminar on astronomical cooperation between China and Chile.

Many key telescopes have been built in Chile by the United States, European countries, Australia and other "astronomically developed countries".

Although Australia, South Africa and Antarctica in the southern hemisphere as well as Hawaii in the northern hemisphere have also been considered prime observation sites, Chile has the world's largest telescopes, such as the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the planned European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the world's largest optical telescope upon its completion.

Chilean astronomers are automatically granted 10 percent of the observation time available for every telescope built in the country, but others have to buy or submit proposals to compete for the remaining time.

"There are only about 70 astronomers in Chile. The number is quite small compared with the international astronomical field, so the 10-percent time is too much for them," said Dr Huang Jiasheng of the National Astronomical Observatories (NAO) of the CAS and the US Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also leads China-Chile astronomical cooperation for the NAO of the CAS.

According to agreements reached Friday between the CAS and Chile's National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), the CONICYT will support cooperation between astronomers of the two countries in jointly applying for the observation time available for large telescopes in Chile. The two also signed a cooperation agreement.

There are currently 409 Chinese astronomers, and they are all members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), according to IAU statistics. Whereas, there are 2,594 in the US, 700 in France and more than 500 in Germany, Japan and Italy, respectively.

The higher numbers of astronomers in these developed countries is largely due to their access to advanced facilities. American and European astronomers have better access to large telescopes built by their own countries, whereas Chinese astronomers have far fewer large telescopes at their disposal.

The Chinese government only began investing in large infrastructure construction for science and technology in the 1990s, whereas developed countries' advanced telescopes currently in use were planned or built as early as the 1970s, Brian Schmidt, the Nobel Prize Laureate whose work opened up the field of dark energy, said on the sidelines of the IAU's 28th General Assembly, which opened last Monday and will run for two weeks.

It may take over 40 years for large facilities such as advanced telescopes to produce remarkable discoveries, Schmidt said.

In order to catch up with the world's current astronomical powers, Chinese astronomers will cooperate with their Chilean counterparts to obtain more "Chilean time" for observation, according to Dr. Huang Jiasheng, adding that Chinese astronomers can provide theoretical support for their joint studies.

Efforts should be made to cultivate young Chinese astronomers' abilities to use and manage world-class telescopes and to foster astronomers who can analyze collected data to engage in frontier studies, said Huang, who also spends part of his year doing observation work in Chile.

He cited the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) as an example, saying, "Even if it used for just one day, the data it collects could be strong enough to do a lot of research. Superior telescopes can provide powerful data for Chinese astronomers."

The ALMA, an array of telescopes on the Chilean plateau meant to study the evolution of galaxies and planets as well as search for new stars and life, is an international effort between North America, Europe and East Asia, with a spatial resolution 10 times more powerful than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

At the seminar last week, the CAS and the CONICYT also agreed to send Chinese astronomers and PhD candidates to Chile as visiting scientists or post-doctoral students. "We have a clear sky, excellent facilities and observation time that can be shared with Chinese scientists," Jose Miguel Aguilera, the CONICYT president, told Xinhua.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is supporting large-scale astronomical projects in hopes of achieving leapfrog scientific development, such as the Large Sky Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST), which was completed in 2008 in Xinglong, Hebei province, and the 500m Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), which is expected to be completed in 2016 in Pingtang county, Guizhou province.

Chinese scientists are considering building the LAMOST SOUTH in the southern hemisphere to compliment the northern hemisphere's LAMOST in Xinglong, allowing for all-sky global observation.

The Chilean side has extended an invitation for the construction of the LAMOST SOUTH, hoping it would be built in a government-protected area in Chile that has been specially designated to attract more world-class telescopes.