Antarctic telescopes a Sino-US icebreaker

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2012, 12:00am

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A Chinese expedition to the coldest place on earth is taking along evidence of a possible thaw in Sino-US trade relationships.

This month, scientists from the National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAOC) will head for a site known simply as Dome A. At an elevation of over 4,000 metres, it is the highest point in Antarctica. There, the scientists will assemble a telescope system that depends on a piece of equipment designed for the US Navy for its accuracy and sensitivity.

Dr Liu Qiang is a researcher with NOAC's Antarctic Astronomy Group, and was involved in the design of the antarctic survey telescopes. He said in a telephone interview that their US supplier had gone to some trouble to obtain export licences for the equipment.

'The US government's attitude was quite uncertain. We rejoiced when the boxes arrived,' Liu said.

The boxes to which Liu referred included a charge-coupled device (CCD), which converts light into electronic signals to make a digital image.

Digital cameras in civilian use typically range up to 12 megapixels, but the CCD shipped to China by California-based Semiconductor Technology Associates (STA) has a capacity of 100 megapixels, suitable for producing extra-high-definition photos of the sky. However, when not gazing at distant galaxies, a sensitive telescope equipped with STA's imager could be used to track, identify and lock onto enemy countries' satellites orbiting the earth.

The device is so sensitive that the NOAC scientists thought the administration of US President Barack Obama might declare the imager to be dual-use technology, meaning it could have both civilian and military applications, and would therefore be refused an export licence to China.

Dr Richard Bredthauer, STA's president in San Juan Capistrano, California, confirmed in an e-mail that a version of the STA 1600 imager would be used in three telescopes set up by the Chinese government in the South Pole later this month.

According to the company's website, the imager was designed and fabricated to produce extra-high-definition photos for the US Naval Observatory. But Bredthauer said: 'We received clearance from both our Commerce Department and State Department for export.'

One reason the US administration may have approved the STA 1600's export to China is that the device captures only visible light and is blind to infrared radiation, he said.

An infrared sensitive CCD can be used on spy satellites that see in the dark and can distinguish civilian installations from military ones. Bredthauer declined to comment on whether a CCD that was sensitive only to visible light could also be used for military purposes.

Observatories mostly ran civilian scientific projects such as those tracing the origin of Big Bang, but sometimes they could also be used for military purposes, Liu said.

'The US Navy has built and maintained the biggest network of telescopes around the globe. They certainly didn't do it for pure science.'

Another factor that may have inclined the US government to approve the export is competition from Europe. A company called E2V Technologies, based in England, was poised to strike a deal with China to produce a similarly sensitive device if the STA 1600's export was banned, according to Bredthauer.

He said the equipment from the US included a dewar, a double layer of insulation that kept the camera from freezing solid in a place where temperatures below minus 80 degrees Celsius had been recorded.

Liu said that the biggest CCD a manufacturer in China could produce was as large as a human fingernail, while this mission required one as large as the palm of a hand.

Dr Zhu Xiangping - a researcher with the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics in Shaanxi, which develops cameras for China's military and commercial satellites - confirmed that China could not produce a CCD of the size of the STA 1600.

'Fabrication is a challenge. We don't have a factory that can put so many pixels on one surface,' he said. 'But the biggest challenge is probably the computer chip that controls the input and output. We don't have software or hardware to handle such an enormous data flow.'

Zhu said that the granting of an export permit for the STA 1600 was a rare occurrence, but that he expected to see similar transactions in the future as the intimate business relationships between China and the US made it increasingly difficult to ban the export of dual-use products.

Over the years Beijing has urged Washington in trade negotiations to lift restrictions on hi-tech exports, saying this could help reduce the huge US trade deficit with China, which was US$273 billion in 2010.

A spokesman for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which designs satellites, advised against hoping for any easing of trade restrictions, saying that the decision to allow the export of the STA 1600 was unlikely to happen often. 'The US is not worried about the military use of the product. Their biggest fear is our reverse-engineering capability, that can close some decade-long technological gaps overnight,' he said.

China's ambitious Antarctic projects are motivated by political and economic interests. By setting up the only habitable station and a big observatory at Dome A, Beijing wants to demonstrate China's growing muscle in science and technology, while securing an advantageous position in any future fight for oil and mineral resources on the last untapped continent.

A clearer picture

The camera component sold to China will be used in three Antarctic Schmidt Telescopes (AST3) near the South Pole. Installation of the telescopes at the site begins this month.

AST3

Cost: 50-60m yuan

Location: Dome A, Antarctica

Uses: studying supernovas, searching for earth-like planets and stars

Camera: STA1600-FT system capable of capturing 100-megapixel images in temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius

Height: 50cm (approx)

Sources: NIAOT, CCAA, Semiconductor Technology Associates