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China and India back new telescope

China and India are catapulting to the forefront of astronomy research with their decision to join as partners in a Hawaii telescope that will be the world's largest when it is built later this decade.

China and India will pay a share of the construction cost - expected to top one billion US dollars - for the Thirty Metre Telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea volcano. They will also have a share of the observation time.

It is the first advanced telescope in which either nation has been a partner.

"This will represent a quantum leap for the Chinese community," Shude Mao, professor of astrophysics at National Astronomical Observatories of China, said in a telephone interview from Waikoloa on the Big Island, where he was attending a meeting of the telescope's scientific advisory committee.

The Thirty Metre Telescope's segmented primary mirror, which will be nearly 100 feet - or 30 meters - long, will give it nine times the light-collecting area of the largest optical telescopes in use today. Its images will also be three times sharper.

GC Anupama, professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, said the largest telescope in India has a two-metre mirror, though India is currently building one that will be four metres.

"So it's a huge jump for us from the four-metre to the 30-metre," Ms Anupama said in a telephone interview from the sidelines of the advisory committee's meeting. "It definitely will take Indian astronomy to greater heights."

The telescope, known as TMT, will be able to observe planets that orbit stars other than the sun and enable astronomers to watch new planets and stars being formed. It should also help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe.

The University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy founded the telescope, which is expected to be finished in 2018.

China joined as an observer in 2009, followed by India the next year. Both are now partners, with representatives on the TMT board. Japan, which has its own large telescope at Mauna Kea, the 8.3-metre Subaru, is also a partner.

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