China plans to launch a large space telescope next year to fly alongside the Tiangong space station, according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology.
The academy said a Long March 5B heavy-lift carrier rocket will deploy the Xuntian space telescope in a low-Earth orbit similar to the track of the Tiangong station as they both circle Earth. The telescope will carry out deep-space observation and research in the frontier fields of science, he said.
The academy is the designer and builder of the Long March 5B, the most powerful Chinese rocket when it comes to carrying capacity for low-Earth orbit. The rocket is central to China’s space station program because it is now the only Chinese launch vehicle capable of carrying large space station parts into orbit.
The China Space Station Telescope, or Xuntian, is now being developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
After being placed in orbit, the telescope is scheduled to start formal scientific operations around 2024. It has a designed life span of 10 years and will be able to extend its service through in-orbit maintenance, said Zhan Hu, the scientist in charge of the program at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Astronomical Observatories.
Zhan said Xuntian is about the size of a large bus and will weigh more than 10 metric tons.
The observatory will consist of two major parts – an optical telescope and an orbiting platform. It will have an optical aperture of two meters and state-of-the-art detectors, boasting a large field of view and high-definition imaging capability, he added.
Upon its deployment next year, the telescope will carry five mission payloads－a wide-field camera, a terahertz module, a multichannel imager, an integral field spectrograph and an extrasolar planetary imaging coronagraph.
As its tasks evolve, scientists will send new equipment to be mounted on it, he said.
Zhang Wei, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization, said the space observatory is expected to help scientists around the world unravel a series of cosmic mysteries such as the composition of the universe, history of planetary systems, black holes and dark energy.