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Mighty telescope eyes the heavens

CHINA yesterday unveiled one of the most advanced optical telescopes in the world, which will turn its powerful eye in the next five to six years to learning how the universe was formed.

The Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope (LAMOST) cost 235 million yuan (US$34 million) and is the biggest telescope of its kind in the world.

The research team in charge of the telescope is led by Cui Xiangqun, a world-renowned optics expert who heads the Nanjing Institute of Astronomical Optics and Technology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Cui and her team designed the telescope so that each 1.1-meter mirror is capable of bending to create more precise targeting and error correction in observations. Light from celestial bodies are reflected to a huge spherical mirror, made up of 37 hexagonal mirrors.

Using a 3.6m reflector and a 4.9m spherical mirror, together with a focal plane mounted with 4,000 optical fibers, scientists will use the telescope to gather information about 2.5 million stars, 2.5 million galaxies, 1.5 million cluster galaxies and 1 million quasi-stellar objects, mostly in the north celestial sphere.

The study of these heavenly bodies is expected to be completed within five or six years, Cui said, adding that the data would be made available to scientists around the world.

The telescope will be able to gather data on the chemical composition, density, atmosphere and magnetism of the stars and galaxies it observes. So far, the science community has found the existence of billions of celestial bodies, but has only managed to collect this kind of data on one in every 10,000 of them.

The ambitious goal of collecting so much data encouraged Cui and her team to overcome the obstacles involved with making such a large telescope that has both a big aperture and a wide field of view.

Inspired by her mentor Su Dingqiang, a leading Chinese astronomer who is also a prestigious CAS member, 58-year-old Cui built the 15-story-high telescope in an observatory tower on top of a 960m hill 170 kilometers northeast of Beijing.

Chinese scientists are hoping to capitalize on their new costly big toy to unravel mysteries about dark matter, dark energy and celestial formation.


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