Reaching for the stars: Chinese amateur astronomers celebrate after building own observatory

Group of amateurs funded and built their own facility in a remote part of Sichuan province known as the ‘forest of the stars’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 4:33pm

A group of devoted amateur astronomers in southwest China are about to realise a dream nearly a decade in the making as they prepare to open a self-funded observatory.

The observatory is located on Fangshan Mountain in Sichuan province, which sees more than 200 days of clear skies, and has been nicknamed the “forest of the stars”.

The conditions in winter made it a particularly good time to stargaze, the news website reported on Thursday.

“We don’t need to worry about the weather situation on Fangshan Mountain,” said Chang Jie, a member of the province’s astronomical education association.

He said the association had been making plans for the observatory since early in 2009.

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They considered several locations, but found that the weather on Fangshan Mountain were stable, transport was easy and its location was far enough from big cities to avoid light pollution.

Construction started at the beginning of the year. The project is now at the final stage of testing and is expected to officially begin operations later this year.

The association also plans to set up another observatory next year in the northern part of Sichuan.

“From the start of the project, from planning and fundraising to design, construction, equipment installation and tests; maintenance and publicity – we did it all ourselves,” said Zeng Yang, who is in charge of the operation of the observatory.

The cost of the project was more than 1 million yuan (US$150,000), relatively low for an observatory.

All the work, including construction, was overseen by the local astronomy group.

The observatory has 11 telescopes, five of which are automated and can be used for remote observation.

He said the team also developed a mobile app to allow remote control of the observatory, which covers tasks such as monitoring the weather, adjusting the telescopes, observation setting and data processing.

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“A lot of people think that you have to carry heavy equipment, travel over mountains and rivers and stay overnight to observe the stars. In fact, you can see the stars comfortably at home with a cup of coffee in you hand,” he said.

“We call the place the forest of stars. Nothing can be seen at night, but the Milky Way can light up the whole mountain.”

The observatory is working with the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.