Chinese astronomers have told state media that they are working on a prototype version of the Xuntian space telescope to rival the Hubble telescope.
The 2.5 gigapixel ultra-violet optical observatory will reportedly have a field of view 300-350 times wider than the NASA-engineered Hubble telescope and will reportedly be operational as soon as 2024.
Xuntian, loosely translated to “survey of the heavens” or “surveying the sky”, will help scientists uncover the mysteries of the cosmos in areas including dark matter, the origins of the universe and the mechanisms behind the Big Bang, the Milky Way, nearby galaxies and the formation and evolution of stars and planetary systems.
The 15.5-ton observatory, officially referred to as the Chinese Space Satellite Telescope (CSST), will co-orbit alongside China’s Tiangong Space Station and can even dock at the station for maintenance and repairs by spacewalking astronauts when the pair of Chinese vessels are in orbital proximity.
Xuntian possesses significantly higher optical capabilities compared to the now more than 30-year-old Hubble space telescope, as per Chinese scientists, and has an expected service window of at least ten years.
Much like Hubble, which has been operational since 1990, Xuntian was designed to observe incredibly detailed panoramic views of the universe with its massive, 2.2-metre primary lens.
Its developers say that while the spatial resolution of the two are comparable, Xuntian has a field of view up to 300 times larger than NASA’s famous telescope.
In a 2022 interview, Li Ran, a scientist affiliated with the Xuntian project, was discussing the imaging power of the two, saying that if Hubble could see a single sheep through its optical apparatus, Xuntian could see an entire flock of sheep all in identical resolution.
However, some scientists have expressed scepticism about these claims. Tom Brown, astronomer and head of the Baltimore-based Hubble Mission Office, said that while Xuntian boasts an impressive field of view, its smaller mirror and collecting area will limit its spatial resolution. Xuntian’s spectral resolution also appears lower than Hubble’s and does not extend below 200 nanometers.
The development of the telescope’s components is completed and once the assembly is concluded, preliminary testing will be conducted on the prototype.
Xuntian is scheduled to be launched into a low orbit via a Chinese-developed Long March 5B rocket in 2024 where it will join the Tiangong Space Station until at least 2034, according to the science and technology website, Interesting Engineering.