The largest radio telescope in the world is now in China. Installation of the Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) was completed on July 3, 2016, with the last of 4,450 panels fitted into the big dish. Chinese scientists are now at work debugging the telescope’s software and instruments and doing some trial observations. That’s according to Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation (NAO) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope.
The team says it will have the telescope fully operation by September, 2016.
Project officials said the new telescope will be used for many astronomical pursuits, including an exploration of the very early universe, but a primary focus will be a hunt for signals from possible, distant extraterrestrial civilizations. In other words, FAST will be used in part to listen for radio waves from aliens on other worlds. Peng Bo, NAO’s director, said:
FAST’s potential to discover an alien civilization will be 5 to 10 times that of current equipment, as it can see farther and darker planets.
As its name suggests, FAST has a dish diameter of 500 meters (1,600 feet). That’s about the size of 30 football fields, and it’s in contrast to the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, which is 305 meters (1,000 feet) across.
Like Arecibo, the new ‘scope lies within a natural hollow, or karst, in the landscape. Its 4,450 triangular panels are designed to reflect and focus radio waves. Unlike Arecibo, which has a fixed spherical curvature, FAST will use active optics. Its surface will adjust in different directions with more flexibility than the surface of Arecibo. That means it’ll cover the sky within 40° from the zenith, or overhead point, in contrast to Arecibo’s 20° range.
Zheng Xiaonian said that FAST will be the global leader in radio astronomy for the next 10 to 20 years. He said:
In the first two or three years after its completion, the telescope will undergo further adjustment, and during that period Chinese scientists will use it for early-stage research. After that, it will be open to scientists worldwide.
He added that scientists will be able to carry out remote control and observation in other cities such as Beijing, more than 2,000 kilometers [1,200 miles] from the telescope site.
The new telescope – whose total cost as was 1.2-billion-yuan ($180 million U.S.) was first proposed two decades ago. Construction began in 2011.
Bottom line: A 1,600-foot (500-meter) dish called FAST – in southwest China – is now the world’s largest radio telescope. It’s expected to be fully operational in September.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.