China wants to build the largest Asian optical telescope with a resolution capable of rivaling the American James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The project by the University of Beijing aims to create a ground-based telescope that extends to 6 meters by 2024 and will expand to 8 meters by 2030. The project is called the Expanding Aperture Segmented Telescope (EAST).
EAST Challenges James Webb
EAST aims to build a 6-meter primary mirror composed of 18 hexagonal segments for its first phase. The James Webb has a hexagonal mirror measuring 6.5 meters. According to the University of Beijing, the telescope “will significantly enhance the observation capabilities of Chinese optical astronomy” (ref.). Most existing optical telescopes, managed by the United States, Europe, or Japan, are located in the Western hemisphere. They are situated in Chile, Hawaii, or off the northwest coast of Africa.
Unlike the James Webb, which orbits 1.5 million km away from Earth at the second Lagrange point, the Asian telescope will be built on Mount Saishiteng near the city of Lenghu in Qinghai province on the Tibetan plateau at an altitude of around 4,300 meters.
For the second phase of the project, another ring of 18 hexagonal segments would be added, increasing the diameter to 8 meters by 2030. That size would make it larger than the James Webb. University of Beijing estimates the project’s cost to be between $69 and $84 million.
DRST Studies the Sun
EAST project is the latest example of China’s push to challenge American and Western dominance in space activities. The eastern giant has no intention of stopping at the largest Asian telescope project. Last November, it completed the construction of the world’s largest array of radio telescopes, which will be pointed directly at the Sun to study how its behavior influences Earth.
Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT), located on a plateau in Sichuan province in southwest China, consists of 313 antennas. Each antenna has a diameter of 5 meters, and together they form a circle with a circumference of 3 km. The massive construction of this array of radio telescopes cost $14 million and is intended to study solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), both of which can have a negative impact on electronics, power grids, and satellites.
CMEs are massive clouds of electrically charged particles that are heated to very high temperatures and expelled with force. “We can predict if a solar storm will erupt towards Earth” said Wu Lin, Deputy Chief Designer of the Ring Array Solar Radio Imaging Telescope Project. “If it erupts towards Earth and reaches us, we will be able to issue an early warning for such a solar storm. This way, we can provide forecasts of the space environment for the normal operation of satellites in space and ground power grids” he added.
Competition Continues on the Moon
China has also revealed potential lunar landing sites near the South Pole of the Moon in September. These plans overlap with American landing sites for the Artemis 3 mission by the end of 2025. An article in a Chinese magazine, written by Zhang He, commander of the Chang’e-4 lunar mission, mentions 10 landing points.
Artemis 3 and Chang’e-7 both identify sites near the Shackleton, Haworth, and Nobile craters as potential landing zones. NASA has invited China to remain “open and transparent” with its lunar missions following the latest revelations. “Just as the lunar South Pole is of scientific interest to NASA, it is also of scientific interest to other nations, so an overlap in potential landing regions is foreseeable” stated a NASA spokesperson in a press release.