Home Science & Technology China has announced its new mission of the flagship space telescope

China has announced its new mission of the flagship space telescope

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The concept of the Chinese Space Station Telescope Artist (CSST). Credit: Jaimito130805, CC BY-SA 4.0

Distant galaxies, dark matter, dark energy, and the origin and evolution of the universe itself are some of the many scientific goals of the recently announced Chinese space telescope. If all goes according to plan, the Chinese Space Station (CSST) telescope will explode on top of a Long March 5B rocket sometime in late 2023. Once in safe orbit, CSST should begin observations in 2024. Judging by these research topics, it seems that the Chinese Academy of Sciences throws on itself and its astronomers an impressive scientific glove.

What it means to have a space telescope

Possession and operation of the space telescope really opens the door to the treasury of information about the universe. Of course, this is what motivated the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The dream of space exploration prompted Hermann Obert in the 1920s to write science fiction treatises on orbiting telescopes on asteroids. According to him, astronomers will live and work in space using a telescope for long periods of time. The earth and its atmosphere will not be covered by their review. This vision inspired a number of later scientists to begin planning a space telescope for real. Their work ended in HST, the first of the so-called “Great Observatories” put into orbit. The others are the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Large NASA observatories (CGRO, Chandra, HST and Spitzer) and an electromagnetic thermometer scale.  X-rays are associated with high temperatures of about 10 million - 100 million K (Credit: NASA / CXC / M.Weiss)
Large NASA observatories (CGRO, Chandra, HST and Spitzer) with an electromagnetic thermometer scale. X-rays are associated with high temperatures of about 10 million – 100 million K (Credit law: NASA / CXC / M.Weiss)

From a scientific point of view, orbital space telescopes give huge gains in a wide range of electromagnetic spectrum. For example, before HST no one really had a good idea of ​​the scale of galaxies in the universe. Known Hubble views from deep fields allow astronomers to observe stars and galaxies that were shortly after the Big Bang, both in visible and infrared light. HST has detected glimpses of large-scale structure in space and small objects such as exoplanets, comets and asteroids. All the Great Observatories are creating the ground for new generations of orbital instruments such as James Webb Space Telescope, GAIA European Space Agency, NASA WISE Telescopeand now, CSST.

China enters the space telescope battle

Given the potential scientific award, it is not surprising that China is joining the “big space telescope club”. It is also a source of national pride, especially if they can “outside of Hubble Hubble”. For example, when CSST works, Chinese scientists hope to survey the sky and observe more than a billion galaxies. Their instruments should allow them to obtain very accurate measurements of the shapes, positions and brightness of galaxies. They will use the telescope to search for exoplanets, star regions and other distant objects, collecting an incredible amount of high-resolution data.

Chinese astronomers hope that their telescope will give, as HST and JWST did, a better idea of ​​the volume and distribution of dark matter. It may even give them the best clues about the dark energy that affects the expansion of the universe. And like HST and other telescopes, CSST will be a point of inspiration. Its designers hope it will show new generations of Chinese scientists how to explore space.

Explore CSST: next-generation space telescope

So what do we know about CSST? Imagine a giant observatory in orbit. We are talking about the length of the three-story building and the width of the school bus. It has a 2-meter aperture and a three-frame grid installed in an off-axis configuration. This observatory has a modern observation camera, a multi-channel visor, an integrated field spectrograph, a coronagraph for a cool planet and a terahertz receiver. The telescope can scan the sky with 30 81-megapixel detectors, and it is sensitive to near-infrared, visible and near-ultraviolet light.

According to Academy scientists, this is just a small taste of what CSST promises to do and be. Not surprisingly, they often compare him to Hubble and his 32-year-old fascinating observations. If the telescope rises as planned, it will definitely surpass HST in many ways.

Lee Ran, a researcher at CSST’s scientific data reduction system, noted that HST’s field of vision is small compared to CSST, which is 300 times larger. Where Hubble sees a small part of the sky at once, CSST will see a much larger picture. Lee used an analogy with photographing a flock of sheep to explain its possibilities in comparison. “Hubble can see the sheep, but CSST sees thousands, all with the same resolution,” he said in a statement.

An observatory with its own service

Rendering of the Tiangun Space Station from October 2021 to March 2022 with the main Tianhe module in the center, the Tianzhou-2 cargo ship on the left, the Tianzhou-3 cargo ship on the right and the Shenzhou-13 crew ship at the bottom.
Rendering of the Tiangun Space Station from October 2021 to March 2022 with the main Tianhe module in the center, the Tianzhou-2 cargo ship on the left, the Tianzhou-3 cargo ship on the right and the Shenzhou-13 crew ship at the bottom. Credit: Shujiang, CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the most unique aspects of CSST is where it will go into space. Originally, the telescope was going to attach to the Tiangun Space Station, but that has changed. On the one hand, there is too much likelihood of cross-contamination from spaceships coming and going. On the other hand, CSST is so sensitive that it cannot be attached to a station. Vibration, scattered light and possible obstacles to view will interfere with the operation of the telescope. Current plans are to bring it into the same orbit as the station (at an altitude of about 265 miles), but at a safe distance.

If the observatory needs any maintenance, it can maneuver in Tiangong for refueling and other maintenance activities. This plan reflects a lesson learned from 70s HST design. NASA has paid for five astronaut visits to orbit to reconstruct the observatory. Thus, the commissioning of CSST by the astronauts of the station is saving the Chinese money.

CSST (also known as Xuntian and Chinese Space Telescope) is currently under final construction. Planned and developed since 2010.

For more information:

The flagship Chinese space telescope for unraveling space mysteries

Technical Presentation of the Chinese Space Telescope (2021) (PDF)