Is China fully integrated in the international astronomical community, or does military secrecy and language problems and sanctions (ITAR) or something else stand in the way? Does China have valuable assets for astronomical observations, and a vibrant national astronomical academical community?

China has an ambitious and successful HSF and Lunar program with orbiters and a lander. They have also announced a very ambitious program for inter-planetary probes to practically the entire Solar system, to date they've flewn by the NEO Toutatis. The are also building a 500 meter radio telescope super-version of Arecibo.

Will for example US astronomers be able to use that telescope? Will they be offered samples of the upcoming Chinese lunar sample return, maybe from the lunar far side? Have lunar ground penetrating radar data from Chang'e 3 been presented publicly and led to papers in international journals? Is there any prominent Chinese astronomical journal?


2 Answers 2


Writing this eight years to the day the question was posted, the landscape has changed, and China’s contributions to radio astronomy in particular are now quite significant. The question of accessibility, though, is a bit more complicated.

After the commissioning phase that began in 2016, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) started full operations in 2020. With the loss of the Arecibo Observatory later that year, FAST quickly became even more important than expected. For a number of astronomical objects, it is the only telescope capable of detecting them. Its capabilities are impressive; an example I like to cite to illustrate this is the Galactic Plane Pulsar Snapshot (GPPS) survey, which has discovered over 500 pulsars in about four years. To put this in perspective, that’s about 10% of all pulsars ever discovered – and GPPS is only one survey.

Nor is this the end – or even the apex – of radio astronomy "mega-facilities" in China. At least two fully-steerable radio telescopes are at some stage of design or construction: the Qitai radio telescope (~110 meters in diameter) and the Jingdong radio telescope (~120 meters), either of which would be the largest single-dish fully-steerable radio telescope in the world. My understanding is that you can picture them as slightly bigger versions of the 100-meter dishes at Green Bank and Effelsberg. Qitai was originally supposed to begin operations this year, but construction apparently only began in the fall of 2022. 2022 also saw the completion of the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope, and there are plans to build up to five more telescopes like FAST.

In short, China is rapidly building some of the most important radio astronomy facilities in the world.

The question of accessibility and openness to the international community is less straightforward. An example of this is simply who has been allowed to submit proposals for time on FAST. The first call for proposals, in 2020, was limited to only Chinese astronomers. The second call, in 2021, allocated about 10% of observing time to international astronomers. I don’t know what the proportion will be going forward – proposals for this year are still under review – but the plan is to make time increasingly available to international astronomers. This would be in accordance with astronomy’s generally accepted "open skies" policy, which allows folks from anywhere to propose for time on an observatory. (10% would certainly be comparatively low, but hopefully we do see a significant rise.) With information about Jingdong and Qitai hard to come by, it’s not clear what the future holds.

Most data become available to all after a 12-month proprietary period, to protect the teams that originally took it. This is a common practice worldwide and a fairly reasonable time span. The exceptions to the policy are data from the commissioning and testing phase, as well as data from Director's Discretionary Time proposals and other "reserved data", none of which will be made public.

The short answer, then, to whether e.g. American astronomers can use FAST is a definitive yes; if you want examples, it’s quite easy to find papers with American authors using FAST data on the Astrophysics Data System. I certainly hope the same will be true for the steerable telescopes; it would take pressure off of facilities that I'd assume have received even more proposals after the loss of Arecibo, like the GBT and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope.

Some of the difficulties with openness can be attributed to tensions between China and other countries, both scientific and political. Collaboration absolutely happens, but it’s not easy. Even things like getting the actual data from FAST once you've taken it can be difficult; the ideal method of data transfer is to copy it to hard drives and ship them, a pain under any circumstances but obviously even more so in the present climate.

I’m less familiar with the Chang’e missions, but Peter Erwin noted that Chang’e 3 results have been published, and some international scientists are indeed supposed to have access to samples from Chang’e 5.

  • $\begingroup$ Is there a policy for open raw data in China, similar to what NASA does on lots of data gathered by its instruments? Or only the finished papers are published? $\endgroup$
    – ksousa
    Jul 10, 2023 at 15:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ksousa Yes, most data (excluding engineering observations) become public after a 12-month proprietary period. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 10, 2023 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ Are you familiar with a push that I've seen some years ago, to move chinese publications into mandarin-speaking journals? Do you know what happened with that? $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2023 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @AtmosphericPrisonEscape I don't think I've heard of it, no. . . $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 15, 2023 at 20:06

China is pretty well integrated into modern astronomy -- there are regular international conferences held in China (the most recent General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union was held in Beijing in 2012), lots of Chinese astronomers at other international conferences, Chinese participation in international observatory projects (the Joint Institute for VLBI, the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Square Kilometer Array, etc.), and so forth. I'm not sure I'd say they have any really significant facilities yet (with the possible exception of LAMOST), but they have very ambitious plans, as you've noted.

(ITAR has very little to do with astronomy except when it comes to a few things like nuclear physics codes produced by places like Los Alamos.)

I don't know how much international participation is anticipated for the FAST project, though I gather the instrument development has some involvement from British and Australian institutes, so they'd likely get some time.

Yes, results from the Chang’E-3 mission have been published in scientific papers, e.g. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/347/6227/1226.abstract

There are several Chinese astronomy journals (e.g., Acta Astronomica Sinica; Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics), but like most "national" journals they aren't that important internationally.


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