With recent studies arguing for immaculate observing conditions tucked in the uplands, Chinese astronomers seek to create a massive observatory program on the world’s roof, the Tibetan Plateau.
The research focuses on a study site near Lenghu Town in Qinghai Province, which is located 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) west of Beijing at an altitude of more than 2.5 miles (4.2 kilometers).
The scientists say in their report that three years of monitoring has revealed conditions comparable to those found at some of the world’s most recognized scientific outposts.
Furthermore, utilizing the site would fill a vacuum in scientists’ existing global network of high-altitude, high-caliber observatory complexes, enabling more dependable monitoring of fast-changing phenomena such as supernovas.
Top-tier observatories are currently concentrated in the Western Hemisphere, with Maunakea in Hawaii, Cerro Paranal in Chile, and La Palma in the Canary Islands among them.
In an email to Space.com, co-author Fei He, an optics specialist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geology and Geophysics in Beijing, said, “Finding a good site in China, specifically on the Tibetan Plateau, is vital to the future of astronomy and planetary science in China.”
According to Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese military and space activities at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., the project coincides with China’s major concentration on constructing new scientific and technology centers around the world.
Cheng stated, “Astronomy is a significant priority.” “As we’ve seen with their expeditions to Mars and the moon, they’re working hard both inside and outside China to improve their space surveillance, space observation, and scientific capabilities.”
The latest study’s locale is on the Tibetan Plateau, not in Tibet proper, which China occupied in 1959 and where tensions remain high.
According to China’s government press agency Xinhua, Qinghai Province is next door, yet Tibetans make up nearly a quarter of its population.
Xinhua reports that, even though the research was only filed in February, observatories are already being built at the site.
In April 2020, the news bureau reported that a Chinese university and the regional administration had reached an agreement on terms for the building of the Wide Field Survey Telescope (WFST), a 2.5-meter optical telescope that was set to start in 2022.
During the early stages of the research, between 2016 and 2018, the scientists behind the new research set up equipment at three more locations before settling on the site near Lenghu Town.
But He noted that Lenghu Town had a particularly enticing location and that it was connected to the country’s urbanized shoreline on the other side.
Furthermore, representatives from the local administration invited the team to undertake the analysis.
“Lenghu has been renowned to the community for having extraordinarily clear skies, and at the same time, the Lenghu area has a stunning terrain akin to Mars,” he wrote.
“As a result, the local government aspired to build a tourist sector specialized in astronomy and planetary science.”
So he and his colleagues set out on foot to the site, which is located on Saishiteng Mountain at an elevation of roughly 13,800 feet (4,200 meters), about 200 feet (60 meters) higher than Hawaii’s Keck Observatory.
The elevation of the telescope’s location is important because the Earth’s atmosphere causes astronomical observations to blur, and the higher a telescope’s position is, the fewer atmosphere instruments must see-through.
Other aspects of the new analysis appeal to the team as well.
The sky is quite black, and officials in Lenghu have already established rules to limit background light.
According to the team’s analysis of 30 years of meteorological records, the place receives only 0.71 inches (18 millimeters) of precipitation per year and 3,500 hours of sunshine each year.
According to the experts, the team’s investigation of aspects such as air stability, turbulence, and water vapor is also promising.
The elevation and distance that promote such black skies are, of course, logistical challenges.
He added, “Before the road reached the summit of Saishiteng Mountain, a helicopter delivered the essential building supplies and tools to the location, and the scientific devices were manually carried up the mountain.”
Wolves were seen by one of the crew members, and deep snow was a common occurrence.
Plans to erect observatories are unlikely to be thwarted by this.
China is currently concentrating its efforts on building on the Tibetan Plateau, notably in Tibet, which, in addition to its unrest, is a critical strategic territory given China’s concerns with nuclear-armed India, according to Cheng.
“At the summit of the Himalayas, they’re on top of the world,” he remarked.
“The Chinese are constructing vast infrastructure, including roads, trains, air bases, military bases, and camps, as well as bringing in a large amount of military equipment.”
Team members spoke with local inhabitants of Lenghu Town in between trips up the mountain.
Local officials were pleased about the notion of introducing astronomy to the location, according to the authors, but it’s unclear whether people agree.
He claimed that the village, which is roughly 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from the examined site, has a population of around 3,000 people.
He noted of his interactions with inhabitants, “What we generally spoke about is how the advancement of astronomy and planetary science at Lenghu may make their lives better.”
“Scientific advancement will bring in more tourists and promote the growth of local tourism, allowing them to earn more money,” he wrote.
“We also teach the stars and planets to them when going down the street at night, as well as the types of tourism that can be established.
At the same time, we discussed the need of protecting the black sky for the observatory’s future, and they were willing to make sacrifices for it.”
Some of these sacrifices have already taken place.
“Control of light pollution could be lost if the local population grows with economic development,” the authors said in the report.
However, Lenghu officials were aware of the hazard and enacted rigorous dark-sky restrictions in 2017 to avoid it – part of what has attracted academics to the site, they noted.
And the end product is breathtaking.
“You can see the stunning Mars-like landscape of the Qaidam Basin during the day and the magnificent and lovely starry sky during the night from the summit of the mountain,” he wrote.
“It was a memorable experience.”
The findings are detailed in a report published in the journal Nature on Wednesday (Aug. 18).