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China says new Xuntian space telescope will outperform the Hubble

In another display of national scientific and technological prowess, China is set to launch a super space telescope. The Xuntian (meaning “survey to heavens” in English) will be China’s first large space telescope ever and is expected to start scientific operations in 2024. 

As highlighted by Xu Shuyan, the chief designer of the Xuntian Optical Facility and Researcher from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the spacecraft is still in the prototype stage, but all subsystems, units, and components are ready for assembly after which proper testing will follow. 

“After this (testing), we will start the development of the telescope sample and start the research of the flying parts. Then we will conduct the joint test with the Xuntian platform and the test at the launch base before it is launched,” Xu added.

Xuntian Space Telescope technology

Also called the Chinese Space Station Telescope or the Chinese Survey Space Telescope (CSST), Xuntian is a bus-sized spacecraft comprising a two-meter (6.6 foot) diameter primary mirror. This UV-optical space telescope has a nominal mission lifetime of a decade and is expected to share the orbit with the existing Chinese Tiangong space station

Xuntian is equipped with a 2.5-billion-pixel camera, capable of recording deep-field survey observations and various celestial bodies at high resolutions. This super telescope also houses five observation instruments: the Xuntian module, the integral field spectrograph, the multichannel imager, the extrasolar planetary imaging coronagraph, and the terahertz module.  

Can Xuntian truly outperform Hubble?

The Hubble Space Telescope by NASA is currently the gold standard of optical telescopes worldwide, but Xuntian is equally impressively built. 

According to Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of the space program, there is so much to expect from the Xuntian regarding its capabilities and contributions. It is tipped to transform China’s national astronomical research agenda and make her space station complex more valuable than ever. 

“The Xuntian telescope has been the most important scientific project since the launch of our country’s space station program. It is a scientific facility that the Chinese astronomical community has eagerly anticipated, and a scientific facility representing the state-level high tech in astronomy,” Zhou said. 

Despite having the same spatial resolution as the Hubble, Xuntian’s field of view is 300x larger. According to Li Ran, a project scientist on the CSST Scientific Data Reduction System team, the CSST can see thousands of sheep in the same resolution the Hubble sees just one sheep. 

Doubts about the Xuntian 

In response to these bold claims from the Chinese quarters, researchers outside China have expressed their doubts about the Xuntian’s success. One of these is the need for more detailed information about the specific capabilities and specifications of the China Space Station Telescope. Experts believe the absence of this information prevents the fair assessment of the CSST’s claim to do similar investigations as the Hubble. 

Exciting days ahead

Amid the claims and doubts, it remains to be seen whether the Xuntian in-orbit observatory can live up to its expectations of being the largest space telescope for astronomy in the near-ultraviolet and visible scope before 2035, driving major breakthroughs in evolution, cosmology, dark energy and matter, and exoplanets. 

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