Chinese Astronomers Set Sights on Overseas Scopes

BEIJING—Chinese astronomers are about to gain a superior view of the heavens--at premier perches far from their homeland. The National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is negotiating with four world-class optical and infrared facilities in Chile and the United States to give Chinese astronomers around 50 nights of observing time per year at the telescopes, ScienceInsider has learned.

While modest by U.S. standards, the Telescope Access Program (TAP) "should be a big leap" for China, says Eric Peng, an astronomer with the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) here at Peking University. To access top telescopes, Chinese astronomers in the past have had to apply through a collaborator or compete for scarce open access time. Under agreements that are "on track" to be signed this year, Peng says, TAP, funded by CAS to the tune of $1 million a year for 3 years, would tap into four primo facilities:

  • The 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii (15 to 20 nights per year).
  • The 5-meter Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain in California (23 nights per year).
  • The 6.5-meter MMT on Mt. Hopkins in Arizona (10 to 12 nights per year).
  • Two 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas, Chile (3 to 4 nights per year).

The program aims to increase the number of well-trained and experienced Chinese astronomers and enable the community to make the most of the new Guoshoujing Telescope, also known as LAMOST, north of Beijing and other major optical and infrared facilities coming online or now being planned, including China's ambitious Antarctic telescope platform and the Thirty Meter Telescope, which China intends to join. A TAP workshop "to help kick start everything," says Peng, will be held at KIAA from 16 to 17 February. Observations by Chinese astronomers at the four overseas facilities are expected to begin in the second half of 2011 or in early 2012.