Observatory in mountains of central China's Hunan ushers in brighter future for remote village

(People's Daily Online) 10:51, September 14, 2023

Star River Observatory, the first and only quasi-professional observatory located in a rural area in central China's Hunan Province, has brought local villagers closer to the starry skies, while ushering in brighter prospects of a better life for them.

Nestled deep in the mountains of Xinhe village, Xiaohe township, Liuyang city, Hunan Province, the observatory spans 368 square meters, with its main building occupying 78.5 square meters. Its rotational dome opens to a 5-meter diameter round ceiling window for a large aperture professional astronomical telescope. On clear nights, visitors can observe planets, stars and nebulae through the telescope.

Photo shows the launch of the first international starry skies festival of Xiaohe township in Liuyang city, central China's Hunan Province. (Photo/Yi Pengcheng)

The idea of building an observatory in Xiaohe township, the remotest township of Liuyang city, came from an elementary school student named Xie Tianlei, who dreams of becoming an astronomer.

In 2021, Hunan satellite TV station went to Xiaohe township to shoot a program related to rural revitalization and development. The program’s crew and local officials were impressed by Xie's rich astronomical knowledge and fascination with astronomy, and were deeply touched by his question, "Can we build an observatory in Xiaohe township?"

Hunan satellite TV station shared this idea with Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, which then donated 1 million yuan ($137,544) to Xiaohe township in November 2021 for the construction of the observatory.

With additional funds from the township government, and free design services from Wang Qiu'an, an architect of rural buildings, the construction of Star River Observatory kicked off. Two months later, the observatory was inaugurated and officially began operating in Xiaohe township.

The remote township had long been isolated from the outside world. With a permanent resident population of less than 9,000, made up mostly of children and the elderly, the township remained cut off with only dirt roads until 2014, when its first asphalt road providing access to the rest of the country was built.

Thanks to the inauguration of the Star River Observatory, the township has caught the attention of more and more people, and has seen tremendous changes.

According to Bu Mao'an, headmaster of the elementary school of Xinhe village, the school has arranged visits to the observatory once in a while for students of different grades since the inauguration of the observatory.

In addition, new books and sports equipment donated by Pinduoduo, reading parties held by volunteers for local students, as well as new media facilities in school, have also helped enrich local children's knowledge and broaden their horizons. The subjects of their paintings have gradually changed from the natural scenery of Xiaohe township to UFOs and rockets in outer space.

As children from urban areas also come to experience Xiaohe's famously clear night skies, local B&B hotels have thrived.

Photo shows Star River Observatory under the starry sky. (Photo/Xie Jie)

Lin Jing, a 35-year-old local villager, returned to her hometown and opened a three-story B&B hotel near her home in July this year. All 13 rooms of the hotel are full every weekend, according to Lin, who has hired her fellow villagers to help manage the hotel.

"It's satisfying to enjoy a country life like this," she said, explaining that she can now operate her B&B hotel while taking care of her parents and daughter.

The observatory has injected strong impetus into the tourism industry of Xiaohe township. Campgrounds have been built around the observatory, allowing both visitors and locals to enjoy pleasant recreational experiences and leisure activities.

In August this year, the township held its first international starry skies festival, attracting a huge number of visitors to the locality.

During the event, Han Wei, head of Hunan Astronomical Society, shared photos of starlit skies taken in Xiaohe township, and Yang Gengshen, vice president of Pinduoduo, stressed the importance of the Star River Observatory, noting that sci-tech facilities like the observatory help popularize scientific knowledge, inherit cultural heritage, and incubate innovations—making the observatory an integral part of rural revitalization in the new era.

Believing that the starry skies festival is helpful and rewarding for the sustainable development of Xiaohe township, Luo Ming, head of the township, has decided to make the festival an annual event.

"The observatory was built for education and the popularization of science. Ultimately, we pin great hopes on the promising next generation for the revitalization of Xiaohe township," Luo said.

(Web editor: Hongyu, Liang Jun)


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