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East Asia project to probe galaxy's hidden secrets

ASTRONOMERS in East Asia are building the world's largest radio telescope array to see deep into the galaxy and its black holes and more accurately determine the orbits of lunar probes such as China's Chang'e-1.

The array, called the East Asia Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) consortium, consists of 19 radio telescopes from China, Japan and South Korea that cover an area with a diameter of 6,000 kilometers from Japan's Hokkaido to western China's Kunming and Urumqi.

The VLBI technology is widely used in radio astronomy. It combines observations simultaneously made by several telescopes to expand the diameter and increase magnification.

Shen Zhiqiang, secretary general of the East Asia VLBI consortium committee, said yesterday that the consortium had carried out experimental observations and frequent academic exchanges since the idea came into being in 2003.

One main task of the consortium is to improve the three-dimensional map of the Milky Way obtained by Japan's VERA (VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry).

Hideyuki Kobayashi, director of Japan's Mizusawa VERA Observatory, said the consortium would help astronomers obtain high quality data on galactic structures.

Full-scale observations are due to start in 2010 and will connect at least 12 Japanese and four Chinese stations, in addition to three South Korean ones under construction.

Shen said: "The actual number of telescopes included could change as the countries involved are building new ones ¨? like the 65-meter-diameter radio telescope being built in Shanghai."

"In addition," said Shen, who is also a researcher at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory. "Chinese astronomers have made huge success in applying VLBI technology to determine the orbit of Chang'e-1, China's first lunar probe."

Shen's research team also used VLBI to find the most convincing proof so far that there is a super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Currently, China's four telescopes in the consortium are focusing on tracking the Chang'e-1 satellite, Shen said.


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