Chinese astronomers want to build an observatory on the Tibetan plateau

At more than 2.5 miles above sea level, Lengu is “known to have an unusually clear sky,” said Likai Deng, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and co-author of the new study. “At the same time, the Lengu region has a spectacular landscape similar to Mars.” Dan says the local government, which is eagerly attracting tourists interested in astronomy and geography, has hired his team to explore the area and see if it would be a good place to build an observatory.

Four main factors affect how suitable each place will be for astronomical research. The first is whether there is a tendency to have a clear sky – this means that there are no dense cloud formations and very little light pollution. The second is the stability of the local air and weather conditions – and what effect the atmosphere will have on optical and infrared observations at night (even the smallest particles in the air can interfere). The third is whether the site is connected to infrastructure (such as power supply) and can be accessed without too many problems. Finally, you want an area where the night sky will be protected from human activity.

High places like Lenghu are of great interest to astronomers because there is simply less atmosphere to peek through while looking at objects in space. The researchers observed the Lenhu area for three years, measuring the darkness of the sky, weather, weather conditions and more. They found that the region had achieved at least as good results on all four factors as other potential sites studied on the Tibetan Plateau. According to many researchers, this could be better than existing sites in Hawaii and Chile. There is less variability in air temperatures and more stable weather conditions, and the sky is a little clearer. The amount of water vapor in the air is also low, which is especially useful for infrared observations important for cosmology. For about three decades, meteorological records have revealed an average of 0.71 inches of rain per year. “In this context, Lenghu has the potential to host large facilities,” Deng said.

In the long run, Lenghu may be more protected from the effects of human activity than Hawaii or Chile. The city adopted rules in 2017 to protect the dark sky, so light pollution should remain minimal.

“The results presented for the Lenghu site are almost as good as those for Mauna Kea, which is widely considered one of the best sites in the world,” he said. Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who previously conducted field tests in Dome A in Antarctica. “One thing that’s particularly appealing about this place is the attention that is paid to light pollution control.”

In a sense, this new study confirms China’s current astronomical plans for the area around Lenghu. These plans include a 2.5-meter imaging telescope, which began construction this year, a 1-meter solar infrared telescope that will be part of an international array of eight telescopes, and two others at 1.8 meters and 0.8 meters, for planetary science.

As Deng points out, Tsinghua University and the University of Arizona are working together to build 6.5-meter telescope to operate on top of Saishiteng Mountain. There are also nascent plans for a 12-meter telescope to be located there as well. “It will be very crowded at the top of the mountain,” Deng said.

These instruments will go far to put China on the map in terms of infrared and optical astronomy – they are on par with some of the “big” telescopes operated in places like Chile. But they are still fading compared to “extremely large” observatories built around the world, such as the 24.5-meter giant Magellanic telescope in Chile, the 30-meter telescope in Hawaii and the 39.3-meter extremely large telescope in Chile. The type of science that these instruments can draw is expected to usher in a new era of astronomy. If China is serious about creating a more ambitious astronomy program, it will have to catch up pretty quickly.

It is good that there is the Tibetan plateau. “High, dry, isolated mountains are usually the best places for astronomy,” says Hickson. “There may be other potential sites, perhaps even better, on the Tibetan Plateau that have not yet been explored.”


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