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All about universe on "roof of the world"

At the foot of snow-capped Tanggula Mountain, 789 matrix detectors and 5,000 square meters of carpet detectors are probing into the depths of the universe by analyzing cosmic rays streaming into the mountain's basin, positioned at an altitude of 4,300 meters above sea level.

The Yangbajing Cosmic Ray Observatory, located in the Yangbajing basin of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which is 90 kilometers from Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region's capital, is part of China's quest to explore the universe.


"Tibetan people believe that the sky is sprinkled with souls and Buddhas. It is hard for them to imagine cosmic rays," says Tenzin Norbu, deputy director of the School of Science of Tibet University in Lhasa.

The 45-year-old Tenzin Norbu, who is a graduate of the Physics department of Tibet University, says his research on cosmic rays is focused on the origin of the universe.

"The initial conclusion is that most of the high-energy microparticles in the universe originated in fixed stars and have lived in the solar system for one million years or longer," says Tenzin Norbu, who started his research in 1991 and has spent one or two months in the observatory every year since then.

"The job of communicating with the universe may sound kind of cool, but for me, it is actually staying in the observatory, processing statistics," he says.

"To dig into the origins of the universe is extremely hard work and might take a long time. However, I believe the answer will be revealed someday," he says.

China launched a large cosmic ray research project in the 1980s. A batch of 49 matrix detectors at Yangbajing, the highest-altitude observatory in the world, was built by Chinese and Japanese researchers at that time.

The observatory became the world's largest high-altitude cosmic ray research base in the 1990s after its number of matrix detectors was gradually increased to 189.

"The air is clean at 4,300 meters. We have anywhere between 290 and 310 sunny days annually, which makes the observatory the best place to 'listen' to the universe," says Chen Wenyi, head of the observatory.


"My job sounds very romantic, but it is actually very lonely," says Chen, standing near the observatory's matrix detectors. He has worked here for 20 years since graduating from the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The matrix detectors are about one meter tall, and their white covers have turned yellow from exposure to the elements. Surrounded by rough wire fences, the detectors stand silently among snowcapped mountains.

Across the road, there are carpet detectors housed under colorful steel structures, giving them the appearance of a pile of building blocks under the firmament.

"I was the only one here for most of the past 20 years," Chen says. He lives alone in a tiny white bungalow .

"My family is in Sichuan Province, and I can only go home to visit them once a year," he says, staring at photos of his wife and daughter on a bedside wall. He calls himself a "lonely listener to the universe."

His living room is connected to the observatory's equipment monitoring room by a narrow corridor. Computers buzz in the equipment room, refreshing data from the detectors.

"This is where our data is processed first. After we process it, it is provided to researchers all over the world for free, to allow others to listen to the universe with our ears," Chen says.

Chen's work is quite repetitive, and has rarely changed since he first came to the observatory.

"Twenty years ago, I was extremely romantic. I even believed that I could receive signals from aliens. But 20 years passed, and I saw no evidence," he says.

However, at the same time, he is not as lonely as he used to be.

As the observatory's research continues, Chinese, Italian and Japanese experts now come to the observatory more frequently. The resident population of the observatory sometimes increases to 5 or 6 people.

One frequent guest is Zhang Yong, a researcher from the Institute of High Energy Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"The carpet detectors are very important in researching the origin of the universe, detecting dark matter and discovering new galaxies," Zhang says.

"When we 'listen' to the depths of the universe, we can get a glimpse of how it came to be," Zhang said.

"Although there is a long way to go in revealing the origin of the universe, it might be known by mankind one day," he says.


The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has long been a popular location for astronomers, both amateur and professional.

The 13th king of ancient Tibet's Yuyuhun Kingdom, who reigned from 481 to 490 A.D., built an observatory among the mountains and deserts of Qinghai Province's Haixi Mongolian and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

The observatory remained standing well after the king's reign was over. The 2,000-year-old practice of Tibetan astronomy is still very much alive as well, as practitioners in Tibet, Qinghai and other provinces and regions are keeping the tradition going.

"We are writing our 2012 almanac right now. It has taken us months, but it will be finished soon," says Tsetop, deputy director of the Tibetan Astronomy Institute under the Hospital of Traditional Tibetan Medicine in Lhasa.

"Tibetan astronomy is a complex subject. Only well-educated people are capable of learning it," says 52-year-old Tsetop.

"We can foretell planting times, weather conditions and eclipses by calculating the movement of the planets using a sand table, which is a tradition that still stands true today," he says.

Sales of the almanac exceed 100,000 copies annually. The almanac is sold in Tibetan-inhabited regions in China, as well as in India and Nepal, Tsetop says.

"We are trying to add a new course in our university that will compare Tibetan astronomy and Western astronomy. Right now, we don't see many connections between the two," says Tenzin Norbu.

"This August, we will also increase the size of the observatory's 'eye,'" he says.

A submillimeter telescope will be built by the National Astronomy Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Tibet University and the University of Cologne in Germany, which will make the Yangbajing Observatory the largest submillimeter observatory in the northern hemisphere, he says.

"It will mark the first time for China to own a medium-caliber submillimeter telescope. China will be one of just a few countries in the world that have one," he says.

"It might be quiet here, but the universe is not silent. It is always changing and trying to tell us its secrets," he says. Enditem

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