Design questions might delay construction of China’s first big optical telescope

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A disagreement over the design of what China hopes would be, for a short while, the world’s largest optical telescope might delay that telescope’s construction.

On one side is an established engineering team, led by a veteran optics expert responsible for the nation’s largest existing telescope, that is eager to push ahead with an ambitious design. On the other are astronomers reveling in a grassroots priority-setting exercise—unprecedented for China—who have doubts about the ambitious design and favor something simpler.

Now, a panel of international experts has reviewed the designs and come out squarely in favor of the simpler proposal, according to a copy of the review obtained by Science. But the conclusion has not ended what one Chinese astronomer calls “an epic battle” between the high-ranking engineers accustomed to top-down control over projects and the nascent grassroots movement.

The telescope would have a mirror diameter of 12-meters, topping the 10.4 meter Gran Telescopio Canarias in the Canary Islands. To get it built in time to be the largest, they need to approve the construction plan by 2018.

The story is interesting in that is highlights the technical problems that exist for these large telescopes, most of which have had serious engineering issues that have limited their scientific output. The disagreement here is caused by an effort by some Chinese scientists to avoid these problems by using a simpler design.


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