China to participate in giant Hawaii telescope

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2009 10:43 AM

Chinese astronomers have signed on to participate in the development of the world's largest telescope that will be built atop a Hawaii volcano, a group said Tuesday.

The Thirty Meter Telescope, the group spearheading the project, said the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has joined as an observer. It is the first step of a process expected to lead to the NAOC becoming a full partner and financial contributor.

"We believe that the Thirty Meter Telescope will provide an otherwise unattainable opportunity for the Chinese astronomical community to make significant discoveries, perform cutting-edge science, and advance technological development," Jun Yan, the NAOC's director, said in a statement.

A consortium of Canadian and California universities is heading the development of the telescope, to be build atop Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island. The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan is also participating in the project.

The telescope's mirror will stretch almost 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, or nearly the length of a Boeing 737's wingspan, when it's finished in 2018. It will be so powerful that astronomers will be able to use it to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming _ some 400 million years after the Big Bang.

Native Hawaiian groups oppose the telescope, saying Mauna Kea's summit is sacred. Environmentalists say they're concerned the project will hurt endangered species.

The telescope is the first of several powerful next-generation observatories that researchers are planning to build in different spots around the world.

A partnership of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, with an 138-foot (42-meter) mirror. The group is considering sites in Argentina, Chile, Morocco and Spain and plans to decide on a location next year and begin making observations in 2018.

Another group of universities plans to finish the Giant Magellan Telescope, also around 2018, with an 80-foot (24-meter) mirror in Las Campanas, Chile.

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The new telescope in Hawaii was designed by the TMT Observatory Corp., which has spent $77 million on the project. Of that amount, $22 million came from Canada and $50 million was donated by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Gordon Moore is the co-founder of Intel Corp.

The Moore foundation also has pledged an additional $200 million for the telescope's construction. The California Institute of Technology and the University of California have agreed to raise matching funds of $50 million.

The Canadian partners plan to supplying the telescope's enclosure, the telescope structure and the first light adaptive optics.

Headquartered in Beijing, the NAOC was founded in 2001 by the merger of four observatories, three observing stations and one research center in China.