News Feature | September 27, 2016

China Unveils World's Largest Single-Dish Radio Telescope

By Jof Enriquez
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is 500 meters across and 140 meters deep. Image courtesy of National Astronomical Observatories (China)

China has formally launched the world’s largest radio telescope, amid much fanfare across the country, as it pushes to become a scientific power.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), at 500 meters across, is 195 meters wider, about twice as sensitive, and has ten times the surveying speed than the second-largest telescope of its kind, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Tucked away in the karst mountains of Guizhou province, FAST is shielded from ground-based radio interference as it gazes at the stars more quickly and thoroughly than previous telescopes of its kind.

Nicknamed Tianyan, or the "Eye of Heaven," the telescope, with 4,450 panels making up its dish, took five years to build at an official cost of $184 million.

"This is very exciting," Prof. Peng Bo, deputy project manager of FAST, told the BBC. "For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations – and now we have the largest telescope. People can't wait to use it."

FAST will be used for "observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals," reports state-run Xinhua News Agency. A researcher with China's National Astronomical Observatories, Qian Lei, told Xinhua that FAST already has detected radio waves from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away. By observing pulsars, astrophysicists could also find elusive gravitational waves.

China's powerful new telescope could also be used to measure the distribution of neutral hydrogen atoms, and thus, monitor the rate of expansion of the universe. Or it could be used to detect intelligent alien life, just as Arecibo is attempting to do.

"The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe," Qian told CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, according to Christian Science Monitor. "In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us."

Future scientific projects using FAST will likely involve an international group of researchers, but for now, as China tests and calibrates equipment over the next three years, it can revel at the prestige this radio telescope has brought the country.

"This telescope offers the first time that China will have an unsurpassed opportunity to be at the international forefront of deep space exploration," said Zhang Chengmin, an astrophysicist at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an interview with the New York Times. "China isn't just an economic power; it is also becoming a scientific power.”

Chinese officials are touting the potential for FAST to unravel secrets of the cosmos through scientific discoveries worthy of Nobel Prizes. Such lofty goals are part of China's ambitious efforts to build its standing in the scientific community.

As noted by NYT, China's space program aims to send an astronaut to the moon by 2025, and to land an unmanned vehicle on Mars in 2020. Plans are afoot for more radio telescopes, including in Tibet, and to build the world's biggest particle accelerator.