China officially fires up world’s largest radio telescope

The largest radio telescope in the world, a $180 million dollar project that was started back in 2011, was completed and began operations this weekend at a location in southwestern Guizhou Province, China, the Xinhua News Agency and other media outlets have reported.

A ceremony to officially launch the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) was Sunday held in a karst valley region of Pingtang County, Xinhua said. FAST is 195 meters wider than the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (now the second largest telescope of its kind in the world) and cost a reported $180 million to complete, according to NPR.

While work on the observatory began just five years ago, Chinese astronomers first came up with the concept  17 years ago. FAST features a 4,450-panel reflector said to be as big as 30 soccer fields and required more than 8,000 people around the construction zone to leave their homes to ensure that there would be radio silence in a three-mile radius surrounding the array.

Princeton University astronomer Joseph Taylor, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1993 for discovering indirect evidence of gravitational waves using the Arecibo Observatory, told Xinhua that he believed FAST would “generate enthusiasm, bring people into science, and make China important in the world of science.”

Scientists believe the array will result in ‘major breakthroughs’

One of the primary responsibilities of the new telescope will be to observe pulsars– imploded cores of stars slightly larger than our Sun. The radiation emitted by pulsars can be detected from Earth, provided sensitive enough equipment is used, and researchers believe that FAST might be capable of doubling the number of known pulsars detected to date.

In fact, Chinese researcher Qian Lei from the National Astronomical Observation (NAO) claims that, in a recent test observation, the array picked up high-quality electromagnetic waves emitted by a pulsar more than 1,350 light-years away. FAST will also be used to help researchers analyze interstellar molecules related to how galaxies evolve, according to Xinhua and NPR.

Scientists associated with the project have made some bold claims about the telescope. Deputy chief technologist Sun Caihong told Xinhua that it would very likely lead to major breakthroughs in the study of gravitational waves and general relativity theory, while chief technologist Wang Qiming predicted that it would remain Earth’s top radio telescope for the next 10 to 20 years.

“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian  told state broadcaster CCTV, according to the Associated Press. Qian’s team believes that their new telescope has twice the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and as much as 10 times the surveying speed of the Puerto Rico telescope, the wire service noted.


Image credit: STR/AFP