18 January 2019
Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million), the  radio telescope has a reflector as large as 30 football pitches. Photo: Xinhua
Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million), the radio telescope has a reflector as large as 30 football pitches. Photo: Xinhua

World’s biggest radio telescope starts operations in Guizhou

China launched the world’s largest radio telescope in the southwestern province of Guizhou on Sunday to search for signals from stars and galaxies, and perhaps even extraterrestial life.

Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million), the  Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) started working about noon on Sunday as hundreds of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts gathered in a karst valley in Pingtang County to witness the occasion, the official Xinhua news agency reports.

The telescope dwarfs the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, which has a diameter of 350 meters, to become the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, with twice the sensitivity and a reflector as large as 30 football pitches. 

Though a gargantuan project, it only started in 2011, 17 years after it was proposed by Chinese astronomers.

The installation of the telescope’s main structure, a 4,450-panel dish, was finished in early July.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to those involved in building the telescope, which he said will expedite the country’s innovation-driven growth.

“[The telescope] will certainly generate enthusiasm, bring people into science, and make China important in the world of science,” Joseph Taylor, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer at Princeton University, told Xinhua.

FAST’s tasks include observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals.

The telescope is expected to discover twice the number of pulsars as are currently known and its is highly likely to make breakthroughs in the study of gravitational waves and general relativity theory, Xinhua said, citing Sun Caihong, FAST deputy chief technologist.

In a recent trial observation, it received a set of high-quality electromagnetic waves sent from a pulsar about 1,351 light-years away, NAO associate researcher Qian Lei said. of the National Astronomical Observation (NAO) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the project.

The telescope will be open to scientists worldwide after undergoing further adjustment in two to three years.

According to engineers, FAST is the world’s most sensitive radio telescope; it could capture the signal of a cellphone being used on the moon.

To ensure the telescope’s performance, more than 8,000 locals are being resettled from their homes to make way for the project, which requires radio silence within a 5-kilometer radius.

Visitors to the zone will be asked to turn off their mobile phones.

The government has alloted 1.8 billion yuan for the relocation of affected villagers.

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