Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pakistan and India should join in Chinese Observatory plans

by Salman Hameed

A  high and dry place. Now this is what astronomers like to see. Image credit: Yao Yongqiang

It seems that China is planing a world class astronomical facility, Shiquanhe Observatory, at Ngari plateau near Kashmir. At close to 16,700 feet, the site will compete with Mauna Kea in Hawaii and various sites in Chile. The facilities will be a result of international collaboration between China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - and may include some of the world's largest telescopes. If things go as planned, this will certainly become the focal point of Asian astronomy. From this week's Science:

Next spring, researchers will gather in China to discuss which kinds of medium-sized telescopes, with mirrors up to 2 meters in diameter, would work best in Tibet. Taiwan intends to ship a 50-centimeter optical telescope to Ngari within 2 years, while Japan plans to install a 60-centimeter optical and infrared telescope there next year that could be used to observe gamma ray bursts and supernovae. Down the road, Kaifu says, Japan may wish to put a 3-meter segmented mirror telescope at Ngari. 
Thinking even bigger, China aspires to erect two massive telescopes at Ngari. One is a 20- to 30-meter optical and near-infrared telescope similar to ELT, which Europe plans to build in the next decade in Chile. China has designated an ELT as a priority in the next 5-year plan that starts in 2016, Cui says. The best place to build an ELT in China, she says, is Ngari: “The roof of the roof of the world.” 
The other aim is scaling up LAMOST, an innovative instrument now known as Guo Shoujing Telescope that uses thousands of optical fibers to feed starlight into spectrographs for analysis (Science, 4 April 2008, p. 34). At the IAU meeting, China announced that LAMOST's commissioning data are now publicly available and that a formal sky survey will commence next month. More quietly, China has begun discussions with international partners on duplicating Beijing's LAMOST in Chile, says Zhao Yongheng, a vice director at LAMOST. He says that the plan for Ngari is far grander: doubling or tripling the size of LAMOST's 6-meter primary mirror. 
I think this will also be a perfect opportunity for Indian and Pakistani astronomers to join-in. India has a thriving astronomical community and hosts one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, The Giant Metrewave Telescope (GMRT). Pakistan, on the other hand, has only a handful of astronomers, but does enjoy a close relationship with China (also see earlier posts - here and here - about the booming amateur astronomy scene in Pakistan). The fact that Shiquanhe Observatory is located so close to both Pakistan and India, provides an opportunity for the three countries for an unusual partnership at the roof of the world.

Here is a google map of the approximate location of the observatory:

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