A decade of stargazing on 'roof of world'
China Daily

LHASA - When stargazing from the Ngari Observatory on a dark night, it is only natural to recall the wise words of German philosopher Immanuel Kant: "Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe ... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me."

The observatory, standing at 5,100 meters above sea level in Southwest China's Tibet autonomous region, has marked its 10th year on the "roof of the world", carrying on with the exploration of the sky.

Twenty years ago, the National Astronomical Observatories launched a major scientific research program to select a site in western China. Ten years ago, they cast their eyes on Ngari prefecture in western Tibet. Thanks to its cleaner atmosphere, with much less smoke, dust and water vapor, and low precipitation, Ngari is the ideal place for astronomers to gaze at stars and the distant universe.

"Despite its high altitude and harsh natural environment, Ngari has the richest conditions for space and astronomical observation because it is so close to the stars," says Yao Yongqiang, a researcher with the NAO.

In 2012, experts from China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and France agreed that, based on initial observatory results, the Ngari Observatory promised to become one of the best infrared and submillimeter observation sites in the world. Upon completion, it is now the observatory with the highest altitude and best astronomical observation point in the Northern Hemisphere.

A series of international cooperation and state projects, including quantum teleportation experiments, a primordial gravitational wave detection program, space debris and time-domain astronomical observations, have been launched at the site, yielding remarkable scientific results, says Chen Ding, chief scientist at the observatory.

A team of Chinese scientists is building the world's highest primordial gravitational wave observatory, aiming to make the first precise measurements of primordial gravitational waves in the Northern Hemisphere and capture the "first cry" of the universe at its birth.

The Ngari Observatory is also a vital node of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, currently the most important global observation network for astronomical research.

In November 2018, an astronomical science popularization base was unveiled at the Ngari Observatory. The base is designed to be a unique center for astronomical science popularization and education, taking advantage of the observatory's fine conditions for observation and its research capacity.

With the country's first dark night park, Ngari has become a hot destination for tourists interested in star gazing and photography.

"The moon photos I took using my smartphone are as good as NASA's," says Yang Feng, a local official and photography enthusiast. "From here, you can't only look at the stars but also see the satellites that pass over. Even the reflectors and antennas of the satellites can be seen clearly."

The park has six refracting and reflecting telescopes, and provides a special gantry for shutterbugs.

An online platform for astronomical science popularization has also been built that allows astronomy enthusiasts to observe the night skies in Tibet in real-time through a remote control telescope.

On June 21, 2020, some 200 million people watched a livestreamed annular solar eclipse hosted and facilitated by the Ngari Observatory. "Eclipses on the plateau really look spectacular," reads an online comment.

With an increasing number of visitors, the night park has become a highlight of Ngari's plateau tourism and has been described as a mysterious dark world, in which the stars seem to be the only inhabitants.